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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