Yesterday’s Murders of Tennessee Unitarian Universalists

It appears that the gunman who killed at least two Unitarian Universalists yesterday in Memphis was angry at liberals, homosexuals, age-discrimination, and the fact that he was being cut off from his food stamps. This is particularly crazy: how can someone not know that liberals are the ones who fight for support services like food stamps, and who also fight for an end to age discrimination? Obviously, the man was crazy in many ways — he was an isolated loner who decided to solve his personal problems by entering a sanctuary and killing innocent people — but what most strikes me about this news is that he chose to target this UU church because of recent publicity about its liberal programs.

I’m on the publicity committee of my own UU church. We are a liberal space in a conservative neighborhood. Should we reconsider what we publicize?

I think not, of course. I actually think that yesterday’s shootings were a triumph for liberalism. One 61-year-old professor stood directly in front of the gunman, in order to keep the bullets from hitting others. Other UUers quickly tackled the man, pinning his arms down so he could not access any weapons — while the rest took shelter and called the police. One mother lay her body in front of the nursery door (it was a glassed-in area, right next to the gunman) to keep the gunman from entering. Their quick, brave, wise, and incredibly noble actions make me proud to be UU. The man had entered the church with 37 bullets, but he managed to injure only 7 people, because of the self-sacrificing courage of the UUs who blocked him.

What this crime makes me think of is the coffee-shop stabbings in 1994 in New Haven Connecticut. That crime was remotely personal to me, too (I had just rented an apartment around the corner from the coffee shop, but I wasn’t home at the time, wasn’t even in the state). The journalist Bruce Shapiro was one of the seven victims in 1994, and he wrote this brilliant analysis of it in Harper’s Magazine. People said to him, “Now that you are a victim of violent crime, don’t you support harsher sentencing laws? Don’t you question your liberal views?” And what he insisted was that only liberalism could have prevented the crime. Only liberalism could have identified this lonely, mentally-ill man before he turned to mass violence. Only liberalism provided the dense community of people summoning help, the quick response of the police, the well-prepared hospital nearby to treat the wounded: all the services that kept the attack from being even more deadly than it was. Bruce Shapiro’s analysis of the stabbings in 1994 in New Haven CT apply just as well to the Unitarian Universalists yesterday in Memphis.

Liberalism kept this crime against liberals from being any worse than it was. An even deeper liberalism might have prevented the crime altogether, by getting this madman help earlier. That’s my declaration of the day.

(And here’s a technical aside: I’m a bit surprised that, in all the news reports, the Memphis UUs are called a “church” at all. Out here in Southern California, we buddhist-jewish-atheist-etcetera UUs call ourselves a “fellowship,” not a church. A few blogs are declaring that UUs aren’t Christian — but actually, some UUs are Christian. And all UUs are inspired by Christian and Jewish teachings; it’s our heritage, it’s one of six main sources of what UUs call the living tradition. Just so you know. We’re not exactly Christian, but we’re not non-Christian either. We’re UU. We’re complex.)

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