The obscure lessons of last Sunday

Many Knoxvillians heard Sunday morning's awful news not from the Internet or television or even a phone call but oracle-like, from the pulpit, a shaken minister announcing a tragedy that would soon be known to the nation.

We expressed horror and concern for the victims, of course. The fatalities were names most of us had never heard before, but repeated several times before we went to bed that night. If the same people had been afflicted with some aggressive form of cancer, or if they had been hurt equally badly in car wrecks, most of us likely would never have heard about them. It's how they were hurt that shocks us.

After learning our friends were safe, what most of us wanted to know most, too urgently to carry on with any Sunday routine, was why. Who was this guy, and what was he thinking when he put on a Tennessee-flag T-shirt and loaded a shotgun into a guitar case and drove down to Knoxville? To walk into a church he'd never attended, where children were singing? To shoot peaceful strangers?

We prefer to believe there's a reason for disasters, even if it's an evil reason. If we can find it, the world at least still makes sense. But sometimes there's not one. At least not one we can discern with any clarity.

Of course, it wasn't just any church. It was a Unitarian Universalist church. It's an unusual church, in that it has little prescribed doctrine. Among its members are those who think of themselves as Christians, as well as those who think of themselves as Jews, as well as others who associate themselves with other faiths, or with no clear faith.

Unitarian Universalism is often contrasted with doctrine-based denominations as something wholly different from faith. What they do have in common with each other, and with other churches, is that they believe it's important to set aside an hour or two each week to consider the big picture: the distant past, the distant future, and what's beyond our world; to contemplate matters unproven. Compared with prime-time, online, strip-mall America, maybe they're all in the same minority. America thinks of itself as a religious nation, but in fact only a fraction of Americans—even a minority of Southerners—attend church services regularly. Attendance at the Unitarian Universalist Church is high. As many of us were making coffee, reading the funnies, waiting for Meet the Press, an estimated 200 congregants witnessed Sunday's horror.

Throughout its history, the church has examined issues of civic improvement with an unusual earnestness. It's not surprising that among those there to witness the shooting were several local elected representatives and candidates for office.

The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church has also attracted university professors of all disciplines, people who have made a career of questioning every hypothesis. For people who've made a career of looking for answers, the Unitarian Universalist Church has been a place to discuss and explore. (We may not think of professors as burly or bold, but never underestimate one if you brandish a loaded gun near his grandkids.)

Engraved high on the walls of the 10-year-old church, outside of the range of the TV cameras, are nouns suggesting aspects of the faith: Freedom, Charity, Diversity, Grace, Hope; Mystery.

Americans famously value individual liberties in politics, education, economics. More than any other mainstream denomination, Unitarian Universalists cherish individual freedom in matters of faith. That very American value of individual liberty even in matters of faith comes with dependable controversy.

The Unitarian Universalist congregation is 60 years old. That congregation is actually the fourth Unitarian church group formed in Knoxville since the Civil War. The first three lasted only a few months or years.

The current church dates from a different group in 1948, who got together wherever they could find a place, a school or sometimes a room at the Andrew Johnson Hotel, and made it stick. Almost off the bat, the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church promoted racial desegregation, probably more vigorously than any other predominantly white congregation in town, pushing for an end to discrimination in Knoxville government and business practices 15 years before the Civil Rights Act. Since then, they've served as a sanctuary for other overlooked minorities, including refugees, and, recently, gays. I'm not a member, but I've attended several services there, and know them to be a sincere congregation with a strong sense of duty to the community. There is nothing that could make any sense to you and me that would explain what happened on Sunday. Still, we want to know, for clues about what we're up against.

It's not as if we're a more violent society than we ever have been. Murder was much more common in Knoxville a century and more ago. But the idea of killing people just because they think differently is what's new to America, or at least to Knoxville.

Maybe we hate each other more than we used to. Despite modern communications, or perhaps because of it, we're more isolated than we used to be. We have new places to hide, and sulk. Talk radio and cable TV and Internet websites prey on the lonely and sell them hate like lemonade.

Vulnerable losers have always been eager to blame some handy minority. Only recently have they received, in a constant stream in their own homes, daily encouragement.

If the perpetrator hoped to further an anti-liberal agenda, it wasn't a rational one. On September 15, 1963, a bomb thrown into a church in Birmingham killed four girls, aged 11 to 14. That gesture didn't turn out to help the segregationist cause much. Nobody in the white South—that is, nobody rounded to the nearest whole percentage point—was happy to be associated with killing innocent people at random in a church. Even outspoken racists were shocked at what their rhetoric had wrought.

We can only hope that, in spite of the daily stream of hate talk, our politically polarized society can come together on that basic value. It's a good thing that we were so shocked on Sunday morning. We should pray the shock never wears off.