Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Knoxville Church Shooting

I went to college about 40 minutes northwest of Knoxville, TN. Since Knoxville was the nearest city, I spent a lot of time there and regularly passed the Tennessee Valley Unitarian-Universalist Church. I don't have any other connection to it besides knowing where it's located on Kingston Pike. Nonetheless, I do feel a real sense of sadness about the violence that occurred there on Sunday.
The man who fatally shot two people and wounded a number of others targeted the church because of its liberal stances--specifically the inclusion of gays and lesbians--and apparently because his ex-wife once attended there. A note left in his car described how he was frustrated over being unable to find a job, his food stamps being cut back and liberal politicians. Thankfully, when he stopped shooting to reload his three-round shotgun he was wrestled to the ground by church members. I'm thankful he didn't have an assault rifle, because surely more people would have died.

Obviously, the shooter was a deranged man looking to strike out at someone. I don't look at this man's actions as indicative of some greater movement against liberal churches. I think that deranged people can strike out at anything or anyone. Another similar example is the shooting that took place at New Life Church in Colorado after it received so much attention after its then pastor Ted Haggard, an opponent of gay rights, was exposed as having had sexual relations with a male prostitute. That church was at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Sexuality, religion, politics combined together can attract all kinds of mentally disturbed people.

The lessons we should learn from this instance should be about poor funding for programs that help the mentally ill, reasonable gun restrictions that keep weapons out of the hands of people intent upon violence--on the one hand, I haven't seen anything about the shooter having a prior criminal record to prevent him from owning a gun--on the other hand, I'm grateful he only had a three-round shotgun rather than an assault rifle, even though I doubt Tennessee has anything like strict gun laws--and lessons about political discourse that demonizes others, whether the targets of such derision come from the left or the right. There's a nice column regarding religious discourse in America today and this church shooting at the Washington Post. If you want to see how bad such discussions can be, take a look at the postings by readers of the Knoxville News-Sentinel's articles about this shooting. Many of them have been removed by the newspaper staff.

I don't mean to be melodramatic or egocentric, but I also have to admit a bit of concern has crossed my mind as I've thought about this story. The pastor of this congregation had been public in his support of gay and lesbian couples, even writing a column to that effect in the Knoxville paper. The public stance of the minister and his church is part of what drew the attention of the disturbed shooter. As a minister who has been public about my own support for sexual minorities, I do wonder about drawing the attention of similarly disturbed people who are looking for a target for their violent intentions. A safer route would be to keep my head down and for our church to avoid such issues altogether. Doing so, however, runs greater risks to a person's soul. Standing up against injustice involves risk--although, thankfully the risk of violence, I think, is rather small. I just hope and pray that my church will never have to deal with a similar day of horrible violence.

Grace and Peace,


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