Unitarians keeping the faith

unitarianThe news of senseless shootings last Sunday at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church has unfortunately quickly drifted to the back pages of many newspapers across the country. The Knoxville News Sentinel continues to be the best place to go for hourly updates on the case. Overall their coverage has been solid, as would be expected from the local newspaper.

Here is a well-reported story on the congregation’s church service only a week after the shooting:

Last Sunday morning, a gunman shattered the safety and sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. This morning, the congregation reclaims that physical space and spiritual center.

“We are not going to let a Sunday go by without a service there,” said Ted Jones, president of the Kingston Pike congregation and a longtime church member. . . .

“It’s saying we are not going to let our space be violated or damaged, that it is still a good space and we are not going to let anything make it not a good space,” Jones reflected in an interview last week. “This space is safe and sacred and ours. And we are going to define how we think about it. …

“This space — it’s a disfigurement, it’s been wounded. It’s not dead, but it’s tarnished. And we need to untarnish it the best we can.”

To get another perspective on how members of the congregation reacted, see this paragraph from a back-page Washington Post update on the story:

At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton, about 60 people from five UU congregations in Northern Virginia came together for a service Monday evening. Bill Welch, the congregation’s minister for programs, talked about how isolating it can be to be a liberal in today’s world of right-wing talk radio and conservative Christians “that talk about liberals as if we are bad people.”

The idea that liberalism as currently defined in the United States is under threat received a bit more coverage in the News Sentinel, but in terms of hard news reporting, this article adds little:

National, and even international, coverage of the shootings at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church turned late this week into a discussion into whether it’s safe in America to be a liberal.

“One of the biggest contemporary ironies is that being liberal in the United States of America, home of history’s greatest democracy, has become dangerous. That danger is particularly acute for religious liberals, as the recent tragedy in Knoxville demonstrated,” Bill Maxwell wrote in the St. Petersburg Times.

The article goes onto quote snippets of columns from around the nation (without links!) that voice similar opinions, followed by a lengthy list of YouTube video links. Is that all news readers are going to get in terms of coverage of this rather important issue of motive?

The motive behind the December church shooting in Colorado Springs was fairly confusing and strange. The same could be said for the August 2007 church shooting in Missouri. The big difference in this case is that there is evidence of the shooter’s motive from a four-page letter that has yet to be released in its entirety.

From a criminal procedure perspective there are two interesting developments to watch for in this case: will the defendant seek the insanity plea (which seems possible, if not likely), and will the prosecutor request the death penalty? Some of the victims in the case are already giving their thoughts to the local news media with the obvious religious and political background present. This story is solid except the lead of the article is confusing to me and could be the result of a simple typographical error.

Will other members of the church comment on these two important issues that have serious religious overtones?

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  • Jerry

    I would note from this story and others from the other side that both liberals and conservatives feel under siege today. To me, there’s an obvious story the could be written “Why do liberal and conservative sides of the religion today both feel under siege”.

  • Dave

    It will be ironic if the prosecutor seeks the death penalty; opposition to the death penalty is widespread among UUs.

    There may be a little sociological wrinkle at play if the defense chooses an insanity plea: How can a person who thinks liberals are dangerous and gays are terrible be convincingly presented as deranged, if those are widespread local prejudices? (I say if because I don’t really know the way things are in Knoxville; I’ve only heard second-hand assertions.)

  • Stephen A.

    The “Liberalism under threat” line of thinking is incredibly hilarious, considering nearly every major newspaper and media outlet in the nation is a propaganda franchise for the religious and political Left.

    But I suppose if I was in a denomination that had not measurably grown in 25 years, and was .3% of the population, maybe I’d have a persecution complex, too.

    Conservative Christians “talk about liberals as if we are bad people”? Really? They think they’re “bad”? Why is that deserving a quote here? Are they not allowed to say “these are bad people” in a free society? The speaker condemns conservatives and talk radio as if it’s one monolithic “bad” thing, however.

    A national spokesperson for the UU denomination was also quoted and *perhaps* sheds light on why (small “o”) orthodox Christians may feel they’re “bad” Christians. Maybe because they’re self-professed “POST-Christians”:

    The denomination considers itself “post-Christian,” she said. “We include the teaching of Jesus and we appreciate the wisdom of the Bible, but we don’t limit our sources of inspiration to the Christian faith.”

    As her quote goes on, I was very surprised at the LAST religion they’re drawing inspiration from these days:

    Unitarians also look to other faiths, such as Native American beliefs, neopaganism, Judaism, Buddhism and, more recently, Islam.

    “ISLAM”!!!
    “recently”? (When?)
    I need an explanation as to what POSSIBLE inspiration Islam can be giving to Liberal Post-Christians. Anti-Christian rhetoric??

  • Dave

    Stephen A, it’s reasonable to feel persecuted when someone walks into one of your churches and starts shooting. (This is not something that afflicts only liberal churches.)

    UUs derive a sense of frustration, not persecution, out of their flat growth (negative as a percent of population). What they do about it is develop new programs to evangelize and argue about whether they should be evangelizing.

    There are a small but (apparently) growing number of UUs who grew up Moslem and retain some features of their faith of upbringing now that they are UUs — just as there are UUs brought up Jewish and Christian who feel similarly. The defining fact of UUism is not its liberalness but its lack of a creedal test of membership. Each individual is free, indeed is encouraged, to develop his or her theology, with such help as the denomination can offer. There is, in fact, an adult religious education module available from the UUA called “Building Your Own Theology.”

    This leads to UUism sometimes being dissed as the church where you can believe anything you want. It’s more accurate to say it’s a church where you can believe anything you must.

    Are there limits? Not in theory but certainly in fact. Someone with a racist or homophobic theology would not fit in at all, and would know it.

  • Jay

    I need an explanation as to what POSSIBLE inspiration Islam can be giving to Liberal Post-Christians.

    I’ll give it a try, Stephen A., assuming you truly would like to know how someone could draw inspiration from Islam.

    I have a UU friend who has been reading the Koran much like Thomas Jefferson read the gospels-taking out the magical parts and looking for the heart of the message. For Jefferson, the message of the Beatitudes was far more important that whether Jesus was the son of God. My friend says he’s finding the same kind of practical religion underneath the layers of poetry and magic in the Koran.

    While I have not studied the Koran in depth, I have known a number of very impressive Muslims and have read much about Islam. At its heart, Islam is very much concerned about duty to the community, particularly the less fortunate, just like Christianity. As Christianity originally found usury to be a sin, charging interest has been forbidden under Islamic law. Islam has, by and large, not had the racist history that many other religions have. Both Judaism and Christianity were relatively well tolerated in Muslim countries until very recently. The word “Islam” itself means peace; all religious traditions have their adherents who distort the “true” faith. Some one with a liberal religious outlook can find much to admire in the writing and actions the more peaceful representatives of Islam.

    Personally, I find many Sufi writings to be very inspiring. Here’s a quote from one Sufi writer I find particularly good for me to keep in mind:

    People with Wisdom know that it is important to correct their own mistakes, while people without wisdom find it necessary to point out the mistakes of others.

    Stephan A., I hope you’ll take the time to truly study Islam and look for its positive side. Karen Armstrong’s A History of God is a good place to start. Her book The Battle for God explains how fundamentalist outlooks have affected Islam, Christianty and Judaism in disturbing ways.

  • Stephen A.

    @Dave, I suggest that another “forbidden” theology is one in which God is an actual Being, is masculine in form, revealed a religion based on Faith and Morality as well as Reason, and is the Judge of all humanity. All things the founders of American Unitarianism and Universalism would have no trouble believing, but a new member expressing these views may very well feel persecuted, or at least very lonely, in a modern UU Fellowship. Believe me, I remember.

    @Jay, you misunderststood me. I do respect Islam, find a lot of it positive, and have no problem believing that someone can derive inspiration from Islam.

    I do have a HUGE problem understanding how liberal Christians (“POST-Christians” as the rest of the sentence you quoted says) who don’t really accept God in any traditional sense can do so, other than in a vague cultural sense, as Dave suggested. I suppose that’s akin to Jewish people who have only a tenuous attachment to their faith and traditions and are no longer Observant.

    And more to the point of the blog, I have problems with reporters letting quotes like this go by without doing a double-take and digging deeper. Perhaps he did, and we’ll see a story on this another time.

    (And I believe “Islam” means “submission” and “obedience” as well as “peace.” Not that there’s anything sinister about that, since most religions require submission to God’s will.)

  • Dave

    Jay, “Islam” means “submission” as Stephen said. “Salaam” means “peace.”

    Stephen, I’ve already expressed my regrets once on this board about the intolerance you once ran into in a UU congregation. UUs have principles that speak against this, but no church is populated by people who conform to their own principles 100% of the time.

    If you showed up with that theology at the congregation I attend, your reception would depend entirely on whether you tried to shove it down other people’s throats, especially the revelation and Judge parts. Having observed your behavior on this board, I would predict that this would become a real problem in short order, and you’d depart with another tale of “intolerance,” having created the problem yourself.

    You are incorrect about how people brought up Jews integrate their backgrounds into UUism. You would find some entire congregations celebrating Passover annually because one member was willing to lead it. I’ve been in such a UU congregation. I’ve been in another one that celebrated Kwanzaa annually, on similar grounds.

  • Stephen A.

    Thanks Dave, for your guidance. Let me assure you (quickly, because this is OT now) that I came meekly and as a seeker, and knew enough about UUism than to seek to impose conservate politics on them, even though I got Marxist political doctrine imposed on me every week instead of religious pluralism, tolerance, and unity. In fact, I came as an enthusiastic disciple of William Ellery Channing, but he would have been a stranger there at that time, some 17 years ago, and, from what I have read, would be today as well.

    I am glad there are islands of tolerance for religious expressions (aside from Wicca) in some UU congregations today, though. Great news.

    Note that I was in Florida during my UU experience, so the congregation was older, and had gone to FL to escape from their kids, jobs and organized religion. So maybe they were just particularly bitter non-observant Jews and ex-Christians.

    BTW, a little thought experiment: Try slamming your OWN side of the spectrum for a change. I do here, a good number of times. Reporters should do it, too. I bet you would have never pegged me as a bit of a religious liberal (pluralist, really) but you never know – and that’s the point.

  • Dave

    Stephen, since your experience is of one UU congregation, you can’t really say whether UUism contains islands of tolerance in a sea of intolerance, or vice versa. You don’t know if you were on an island or swimming in the sea. My experience is of belonging to two UU congregations, attending many district and national Assemblies, serving on the board of a theologically-oriented national UU organization, and organizing or attending UU campout and conference retreats.

    I’m also unsure if your reference to Wicca as an exception means you think it’s accepted or not accepted in UUism. I offer three annual services at my congregation reflecting the Pagan holidays of Samhain, Yule and Beltane, and they are well received.

    Try slamming your OWN side of the spectrum for a change.

    I’m not out to slam any part of the spectrum. I’m on this board because I agree with the premise that the press doesn’t get religion. (Not just UUism, either; I’ve been offended by the press’s ignorance and short-sightedness toward Humanism and neoPaganism as well.) When someone here says something worth rebutting, I rebut it, but I’m not carrying a chip on my shoulder against anyone.

  • Stephen A.

    Well, I read the papers, too, and read notices and articles about UU churches throughout the state and in other states that reflect the vision and values of both liberal theology and liberal religion, and I would actually be shocked if one of them did not, so it wasn’t meant as a slur, just an observation. My aunt, uncle and cousins are also UUers, and I clearly detect their hostility towards the “Religious Right” just as I detect hostility for the Left from some of my rightwinger friends.

    My point about “slamming” (perhaps poorly stated) was that one should try to see things from the other person’s perspective – esp. if that person is a reporter. And despite the word “Try” it was directed to no one in particular, or at least shouldn’t have been.

  • Jay

    Jay, “Islam” means “submission” as Stephen said. “Salaam” means “peace.”

    What I’ve always heard is that the root of the word “Islam” means “peace” in Arabic. I see the two words related in many places, such as http://saif_w.tripod.com/questions/violence/concept_of_peace_in_islam.htm. Submission and peace are certainly related concepts. I am no Arabic scholar, to be sure.

    Stephen A.-why should liberal/post-Christians be any less likely to find inspiration from Islam than anyone else? I find inspiration in all sorts of places that might not be my religion.


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