Two people are dead and seven injured after a man entered the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church Sunday and fired a sawed-off 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun during a children’s performance of the musical Annie.
The shooter, Jim David Adkisson, left a letter in his car stating he hated liberals and gay people and was motivated by frustration over his unemployment. He told investigators “all liberals should be killed.”
Investigators are treating the case as a hate crime. They should.
At the same time, I think we need to be careful not to view this tragedy purely as a matter of liberal vs. conservative. As the Rev. William Sinkford, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, said in a statement, “This crime was the action of one man who clearly must have lost the battle with his personal demons.” The Christian Science Monitor explains, “a deep sense of victimization and scapegoating” can cause someone to seek vengeance through indiscriminate violence.
Adkisson himself may have been inspired by ultra-conservative pundits, but violence doesn’t always follow political lines. Last December, a gunman shot and killed two teens at Colorado’s New Life Church, after killing two other people at a nearby missionary center. It seems he had been thrown out of the missionary program a few weeks earlier, and had been sending it hate mail.
New Life Church’s brand of Evangelical Protestantism is far too conservative for me. Former pastor Ted Haggard’s views on “homosexuality” (not to mention his hypocrisy when he was caught with a male prostitute)—well, you can imagine what I think of that. Still: teens shot in church; children almost shot. The denomination doesn’t matter. Easy access to guns and a system that doesn’t identify and help those most likely to use them for murder. Something has to change here, folks.
Liberals and conservatives may have different thoughts about how to address the various issues—hate, poverty, gun control, mental-health care—raised by the shooting. The Christian Science Monitor notes, for example, that “at a church targeted for its liberal views on sexuality and gender, officials said that cracking down on security would diminish the denomination’s mission, especially in times of economic upheaval.” Unarmed churchgoers stopped the gunman in Tennessee, and one was killed in the process. New Life Church, on the other hand, had armed security guards, one of whom stopped the gunman there from doing further harm.
In our mutual concern for our children’s safety, however, might we have a point of contact, a fragile thread across which we might start to build a bridge of cooperation? Consider that one of the reasons for the success of the Safe Schools movement in Massachusetts, which was designed to protect LGBT youth, was the decision to focus on safety and frame it as a public health problem rather than one of diversity. As John Auerbach, Commissioner of the Mass. Department of Public Health, said at a recent panel, “I think you can be homophobic and still believe that schools should be safe for young people.”
Yes, Adkisson was lashing out at liberals and gay people. This was a hate crime. I hope we can view the tragedy in a larger sense, however, not as a reason to fuel our hate in return, but rather as an opportunity to make progress towards a safer society for all our children. No, conservatives aren’t going to support marriage equality all of a sudden. Some may even remain set against hate crimes laws, and some will continue to foment violence themselves. Surely, though, there are others who will meet us halfway across the chasm that divides us and help us make sure the word “gun” never needs to be uttered in the same sentence as “church” or “school” ever again. The one thing we have in common is that we love our children. Is that enough to build on?