The Common Good

Tennessee Church Shootings: The Culture War's Latest Casualties

Tragically, the culture war crossed over fighting words to shooting bullets. Once again, a community of faith was caught in the crossfire. While 25 children sang songs from "Annie," a gunman fired three shotgun blasts inside the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. The seven people shot and two people murdered on Sunday morning are the latest victims of the culture war.

Sadly, this wasn't the first shooting to occur at a house of worship in the U.S. and not likely to be the last. Do we remember the four teenagers and three adults who were murdered at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1999? Two more died at New Life Church in Colorado Springs last December. In each case, the shooter turned his frustration with particular religious expressions into an occasion to kill. (And as a nation we continue to support the right to shoot others over sane gun control policies -- but that deserves its own separate conversation).

While many evangelicals celebrated Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott as martyrs who died for their Christian convictions at Columbine High School, I wonder if we will extend the same heroism to the victims in Tennessee? Evidently, usher Greg McKendry shielded the children performing selections from "Annie" and took the brunt of the shotgun blast. A retired schoolteacher, Linda Kraeger, also died from gunshot wounds. She was merely visiting the church. In both Columbine and Knoxville, the cowardly shooters took out their grudges upon innocent victims. Those with a conservative faith died at Columbine. Those with liberal beliefs perished in Tennessee. We mourn for them all.

The shooter in Tennessee, Jim Adkisson, has been identified as an unemployed divorcee. A four-page note found in his car described his contempt for liberals. When the system failed to work (evidently, his food stamps had just run out), Adkisson took up arms, aiming at those he had been trained to hate -- gays and liberals.

Why did he single out Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalists? Evidently, the church recently posted a sign welcoming gays to their congregation. It set off a firestorm on conservative and Christian talk radio in East Tennessee. I found this online:

The specific chain of events that brought Jim Adkisson to the TVUC sanctuary was a recent decision to erect a sign specifically welcoming LGBT people into the congregation. That choice evidently set off a firestorm in the local right-wing community with the specific church and its location named repeatedly on right-wing and evangelical radio. The gunman, already looking for someone to take out his rage on, evidently took the path of local least resistance. At any rate, while I'm not sure it's even worth assigning blame, it's not likely that Jim Adkisson would have driven the ten miles from his exurban hovel to my family's church if he hadn't learned what he needed about where to go on the radio.

While ultimate responsibility resides with the shooters, we can also connect these deaths to too much toxic talk radio. Both the left and the right play the blame-game all day long. On talk radio, my problems are always somebody else's fault.

This is the kind of tragedy that occurs when we adopt war rhetoric, turning our fellow Americans into enemies. Both sides have effectively demonized the opposition, laying blame for our problems at others' feet. Would it "kill" talk radio announcers to tone down their tenor for the sake of the common good? Could they sacrifice a few ratings points by refusing to serve the red meat their most radicalized listeners relish? Can we discipline ourselves to change the channel when the scapegoating begins?

I still recall my shock and horror when Paul Hill murdered Dr. John Britton in the name of "life." How could a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church of America take up arms, killing in the name of God? I recently saw the chilling documentary Lake of Fire, which illustrates all the tragedies surrounding the fight over abortion. Director Tony Kaye captured early footage of Paul Hill, boldly proclaiming death sentences upon abortion providers. Lake of Fire also presents the horrors of an abortion procedure, including the emotional trauma that also follows. This even-handed movie leaves you with an enormous amount of sadness. There are no winners in Tony Kaye's bold documentary (or in our current culture war).

In response to all the overheated rhetoric, I created a documentary, Purple State of Mind, with my college roommate, John Marks. As I was entering the Christian faith 20 years ago, John was exiting. We revisited that crossing as an example of a constructive dialogue across the religious and political divide. Purple State of Mind is rooted in the profound hope that we can co-exist despite our differences. But plenty of patient listening must precede that fragile peace. We will not get there by burying our differences, but by bearing one another's burdens enroute.

I write this with a fair amount of trepidation. To promote peace to a war-mongering people can get you in trouble. I don't want to be placed on anybody's hit list. I do not want to put my children in the line of fire because I extend an olive branch toward atheists, homosexuals, or anyone else deemed "other" by the conservative Christian community. Churchgoers in Fort Worth, Texas, Colorado Springs, and Knoxville want to worship in freedom rather than fear. When something your pastor says or your congregation does can get you killed, we live in decidedly dangerous times. Heaven help us all to cease fire.

Craig Detweiler directs the Reel Spirituality Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary. He blogs at www.purplestateofmind.com. His new book, Into the Dark, searches for the sacred amidst the top-ranked films on the Internet Movie Database.

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