Tuesday, August 05, 2008


When something like the Knoxville UU shooting happens, I wonder whether living way off here in tiny Valier is a protection or an exposure. On the one hand, I’m “isolated” away from the identified UU community, and on the other hand, partly because of the Internet connections which many tech-friendly UU’s embrace, I’m anything BUT isolated! (Go to http://www.uua.org/news/newssubmissions/117645.shtml if you want to sit in a virtual pew.)

The media interpreters, always in some world of their own invention, have accepted the shooter’s note blaming everything on “liberals.” Those inside the UU world, knowing it in all its various glory, see a much more complex picture. For instance, here’s another dimension:

“Something that I have not seen mentioned on this list nor in any of the media is that (Jim) David Adkisson and his ex-wife Liza Alexander were participants at SUUSI (Southeast UU Summer Institute). David was there in 1995, 1996, and 1997. Liza attended from 1994 to 2001. A compilation CD of SUUSI music was created in 1995 and features a song they sang together ('I Don't Love You Much, Do I'). A couple in the SUUSI community used that song in their wedding after being introduced to it on this CD. (They’re working through many emotions about this.)

“Much of the media is painting this as a somewhat random attack on a UU congregation, with only a brief mention that his ex-wife was a member of the congregation in the past. One person on the SUUSI list wrote :

“David was not a stranger to UU-ism; some of the comments I've seen suggest that he is seen as your average angry ditto-head who decided to take his anger out on the highly-visible liberal religion, choosing that church for its banners.

“It's all too easy to imagine that could happen again, except that it doesn't seem to have happened the first time. Postings on other UU discussion lists I'm on suggest that they are preparing to hunker down for future random attacks from disturbed conservatives. Knowing that he had a personal connection to both UUism and that church might relieve a few worries.

“Maybe we DON'T live in a world where someone would target a church simply because of it's social action work and its core beliefs. (The fact that our churches are only as likely to get shot up as other churches is not exactly good news, but it's better than getting paranoid.)”

Many people come to UU congregations because others, often dedicated Christians in other congregations, turn to face them and say, “Hey! What you are is a Unitarian!” In other words, “Look, you oddball, you iconoclast, you belong with others like you!” UU’s tend to be “other,” and what that “other” is like depends upon the larger culture in that place. Sometimes the congregation is resisting relentless and evangelical Jesus-talk (OT versions of the NT), and sometimes the congregation is resisting bland commercial secularism, and sometimes it’s the simple hypocrisy in the larger culture. If the context is a big city, the congregations will often sort themselves out into mystical/Buddhist, progressive/social action, and Jeffersonian Christianity-without-miracles. When I was serving four small fellowships in Montana, each was quite different because of the larger community and they weren’t always comfortable with being grouped as a state.

One of the UU phenomena that tends to stand against this sense of division is the district “camp” or temporary congregation based on a loosening of bonds, an openness to experiment, and a celebration of the people as themselves. SUUSI is one of the big ones. They all tend to have returning members who long for that experience, maybe because they are a little too tightly wound and confined in their ordinary life. As it happens, I got an email this morning from a granny friend who took her little granddaughter for a walk alongside a stream. The girl, who has always been bull-headed, was determined to wade and explore, but grandma, of course, was concerned about safety and resisted. The compromise meant wet pants, but no one really minded. There was always the potential of tragedy. This is a very small pattern of something that went berzerk in Knoxville.

Most thoughtful people know that the opposite of love is indifference, not hate. We know that without risk there is no growth. And most ministers are aware that the extreme of iconoclasm is the killing of a much-loved person or something closely associated with that person. A woman as icon, a church (whatever kind) as icon -- can lead to an attempt at destruction, the idea being “if I can’t have you, no one else can either.

After 9/11 the UU denomination formed a trauma-response team and protocol. Immediately traveling to Knoxville, these experienced ministers guided trauma recovery to a ceremony re-sanctifying the church which ended with the cast of “Annie” (onstage at the time of the shooting) singing “Tomorrow.” At the end of the ceremony they sang "May Nothing Evil Cross This Door." One might say that this redemptive response began when the usher threw himself in front of the shotgun to save others. An icon only stands as a marker for something much deeper and braver.

Jim (Dave) Adkisson is alive, which he hadn’t planned. His fourth ex-wife, Lisa Alexander, says he was making death/suicide threats at the time of their divorce in 2001, so this impulse has been there in potential for almost a decade at least. He’s a kind of guy we all know: truck-driver, associate degree in engineering, former military helicopter mechanic, motorcycle driver, aging, up against the financial wall though he’d always managed his bills earlier, newly denied food stamps. Good-looking, intelligent, ambitious, but a heavy drinker -- and all those marriages. His expectations were far beyond his achievements. We’ll find out a lot more before this is over.

Much of it will be about ourselves: the UU’s, the fellow-travelers (the summertime UU’s), the un-UU’s and the anti-UU’s. “May Nothing Evil Cross this Door” is the first hymn in the UU hymnal, but it’s really a poem by Louis Untermeyer written in 1923 when the world was still recovering from “the war to end wars.” Of course, war does NOT end wars, and one cannot close the door on evil so as to live in walled safety. Yet I see that impulse everywhere at every level: it is deeply human -- maybe it’s so deep it’s mammalian. It is to Knoxville’s credit that they resist this impulse, but we should not make an icon of them, because icons are closed. It was Adkisson who saw them as an icon instead of living human beings he might have reached out to for help.

1 comment:

Bitterroot said...

Just got caught up on your blog after several weeks away, Mary. What a pleasure.