Debilitating fear is ‘killer’ byproduct of tragedy
Our July 27, Sunday morning service was just beginning as the horrifying news began to trickle in about the shotgun attack upon the crowded sanctuary of our sister church, the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. Two people were killed and seven were injured.
Why a Unitarian Universalist congregation? The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church is known in the region for its championing of social justice. How could anyone target such an actively compassionate religious community with such violence?
Subsequent investigation revealed an isolated and lonely man who for some reason identified "the liberal movement" as the cause of his own plight and the Unitarian Universalist church as a symbol of that movement.
How sad and ironic, for he would have found welcome and acceptance there - likely even assistance in finding employment, friends and relief from the downward spiral of his life.
Instead, he has left many who are compassionate and empathetic feeling unsafe and uncertain about the very openness that has characterized our Unitarian Universalist religious communities. Many in my congregation are telling me they no longer feel safe. What a long reach one angry man has, even several thousand miles, a continent and an ocean away.
But, what can I say? We are not safe. We never have been. Those communities and individuals who speak out for social justice never have been. Somewhere, someone will feel threatened; their familiar world will feel under attack. A few will strike out: some with words, some with divisive, destructive, discriminatory behavior, a very few with violence.
Again, the irony. Those few violent ones are often themselves the victims of that most subtle of social injustice: isolation, disconnection, loneliness.
So, in fear, we are tempted to hunker down. Make no waves. Avoid the community and join those very few in their isolation, disconnection and loneliness.
Frank Herbert's Bene Gesserit in the "Dune" series of science fiction novels are right with their philosophy, "Fear is the mind killer." It does not make us safer, but more vulnerable. With our minds deadened by fear, we do not see the options before us and acquiesce in our own victimization.
For many, that fear is the habitual response to the overdramatized violence brought to us by the electronic and print media. The polls continually report that the more television people watch, the more dangerous they perceive their communities to be. And even those who claim to watch none still overestimate that danger.
The second way to maintain the illusion of safety is to go with the flow, stay with the mainstream, take no risks, be the ultimate ditto-head mirror to the general opinion around you.
But if values matter, if our faith is that our communities can be better, even safer, then we must own the fear and move past it. We must continue to champion social justice. We must continue to welcome the stranger in our midst and continue to reach out to the isolated, disconnected and lonely.
We will not abandon our openness and welcoming for illusory safety. May we instead heighten our awareness of those isolated ones in our midst who need that word of support, who tentatively await that hand reached out in welcome. May that be a part of the legacy of that Sunday morning tragedy.
At the vigil held July 28 in Knoxville, at the Second Presbyterian Church next door to the shooting scene, the Rev. Bill Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, recounted a reporter's question about whether the man responsible for this tragedy would go to hell. This brought spontaneous laughter from the large UU contingent, a welcome break in the tension of the day.
But Bill's answer to the reporter's query returned the congregation to somberness as he said, "In my religious tradition, this man has already been living in hell here on earth." He said that none of us can allow our pain and anger to keep us from living our faith, from welcoming all people, from standing on the side of love. "We will not let that happen," he said. "We will continue our commitment to welcoming all people."
Mike Young is minister of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu.