When Hate Walks Into the Sanctuary

Within many different faiths, people name our halls of worship as “sanctuaries”. The word carries ancient connotations of safety, peace and contemplation – the qualities we hope to nurture when we turn our attention to prayer and devotion.

Last Sunday there was no sanctuary for those of my own faith gathered for worship in the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee. Instead, as 200 members and guests watched their children begin a musical performance, a stranger walked in and opened fire with a shotgun. Two people were killed, and five more were seriously injured.

The gunman, Jim D. Adkisson, told police that he targeted the church “because of its liberal leanings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country”. Adkisson was particularly disturbed by the inclusive nature of the congregation and of Unitarian Universalism itself, which welcomes people from all religious backgrounds and explicitly affirms equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

My own congregation is hundreds of miles from Knoxville, yet the ripples of shock and grief touch us deeply. Like the Knoxville church, our congregation is proudly public about our liberal religion and the social justice commitments to which it leads us. We have openly affirmed our commitment to equal rights regardless of sexual orientation, and our members are involved in many progressive peace and justice issues.

So along with our compassion for the victims and families in our sister congregation, we are vulnerable to the anxious question that arises from any hate crime: could something like this happen to us?

The simplest answer is ‘yes, it could’. Whenever people stand up for justice and equality there are others who react with anger, and sometimes the reaction becomes violent. But there is a better question to ask, one that tips us away from our anxiety and fear and back toward strength: what does our faith offer us, when hatred walks into our sanctuary?

Both the Unitarian and Universalist strands of our modern religion are rooted in a Christianity that has been at odds with the mainstream for centuries. Our ancestors studied scripture carefully and critically, and the conclusions they drew were sometimes radical. In Jesus, they found a spiritual teacher whose life was more important than his death: who consistently walked with the poor, the outcast and the reviled, and who insisted that we do likewise. They found a God who was not merely liberal but profligate in the love He promised: a love so universal that there could be no room for hell. They found a creation that was inherently good, laden with diversity and mystery that was there to be embraced and understood, not feared or rejected.

This is the large-hearted faith in which we are grounded, and it can sustain us even in the face of murderous violence. Our faith reminds us of the deep well of human goodness, evident in the outpouring of compassion and support for the Knoxville congregation from people of all religions. It insists on the challenge to cultivate compassion rather than anger toward the killer, recognizing in him a heart filled not only with hatred, but with profound pain and despair. And our faith calls us to courage rather than fear, reminding us that through the centuries of our history, many thousands of men and women before us have been steadfast in their religious and political convictions despite the threat of even mortal violence. They believed to their core in the healing power of love and justice. So must we.

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Living Unplugged

I’m not a very good blogger, because as one day slips into another the notion of writing another post tends to drop to the bottom of the priority pile, behind the more pressing needs of work, kids, laundry, gardening and errands. It also ranks lower than a morning bike ride, spiritual practice (already slipping more than I’d like) and a bit of quiet time to sit on our deck at the close of the day and admire the changing light and the birdsong.

Consequently, most of what translates into a posting when I do get around to it is not what I envisioned when I first began to blog. I don’t have enough will toward speed and timeliness to read the news and other blogs first thing in the morning and then add my commentary or particular spin to whatever seems to be the breaking story. I’m not disinterested in most of it and I’m quite opinionated on a lot of it —  just not in enough of a hurry. So by the time I have the time, the pressing issues of the day seem to suddenly be the pressing issues of the day before yesterday or even of last week, and any commentary seems a bit silly. What I end up with instead are these ruminations on life, writ small: my life, my perspective, the bits of drama that unfold in my family or work or even in my garden.

And now I’m heading out on vacation for two weeks. Part of the time I’ll be in Spokane, where my mother’s slowly unfolding Alzheimer’s disease tinges all our gatherings with the low-horizon clouds of dread for what is to come. For now, she is very much herself: lively, competent, mostly keeping track of things, and prone to statements like: “I’m going to be senile one of these days but I’m not senile yet, so quit patronizing me!” Which tends to be deeply reassuring.

The rest of the time we will be gathered in the marvelous chaos of an extended family (and friends-of-the-family) that has happened for the last eight summers at Priest Lake, Idaho. Upper Priest Lake is wilderness, and we’ve seen moose and bear, elk, deer, porcupine and eagles. Where we spend our week is a sprawling, casual network of very basic cabins, where we’d be too much on top of each other except that we’re mostly outside hiking, kayaking, swimming or reading. For some reason known only to the gods of procreation, absolutely everyone my generation who has kids managed to reproduce female only, so there’s a posse of more than a dozen girls ranging in age from two to nineteen. It’s all pretty perfect.

I won’t be taking my computer. Sometimes that’s the only way to really be on vacation: to vacate the electronic premises entirely and remember what it’s like to be unplugged for two whole weeks. There are other networks to tune into, after all: lake water, wind, sun, birdsong, sunsets, leisurely conversations. And a hike to the top of Mout Roothann, where I’ve long demanded that my ashes be scattered once I’ve slipped this mortal coil. My kids prefer the beach, so I figure that’s the best way to make sure they get to the top one day and see that 360 degrees of Rocky Mountain horizon. It is one of the most exhilarating and deeply satisfying vistas I’ve ever known.

No postings for at least two weeks. Happy vacating.