Monday, July 28, 2008

Thoughts on a Tragedy

On Sunday morning a gunman walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville while a children’s program was being presented and opened fire with a shotgun. Two people were killed and five were seriously wounded. It is at least a little piece of good news that no children were killed or injured.

The police have tried to shed some light on the possible motives of the alleged gunman, 58-year-old Jim D. Adkisson. They found a letter in his vehicle in which he apparently expressed hatred for the liberal movement in the United States; he evidently associated the Unitarian Universalist Church with such liberalism. The authorities speculate that the gunman’s frustration with his inability to secure employment combined with his hatred of liberalism to prompt the shooting; he apparently had no previous connection with the church.

Such an act is horrendously sinful. It is also irrational. After all, untold numbers of Americans harbor extremely negative feelings toward those they regard as liberals—and untold numbers of other Americans harbor extremely negative feelings toward those they regard as conservatives—but almost none of those who nurture such emotions would ever even think about perpetrating violence against the objects of their mental wrath. So it seems to me that someone must be thinking and acting irrationally if he takes up arms and attacks innocent and unarmed people.

There is a lesson that all of us can learn from this incident, though: we should ask the Spirit of God to cause us to grow in love so that we will come to refrain naturally from using hateful words that come out of hateful hearts. To determine if we need to offer up such prayers we need to examine our own words and our own hearts.

I am concerned about the kind of discourse that goes on in our nation even among Christians. We categorize people and then we verbally attack the categories; we generalize about people and then we verbally assault the generalizations. Of course, we seldom mount such verbal offensives face-to-face; no, we express our negative thoughts to other similarly negatively thinking people and from their agreement conclude that we have found validation. In confining our remarks to such circles we can even delude ourselves into thinking that practically everybody thinks like we do—after all, everybody we talk to agrees with us! We even have our own particular news sources so that our biases won’t be challenged.

Let’s face it—all too often liberals despise conservatives or conservatives despise liberals, or these despise those or those despise these—you can name your own categories. And all too often words are spoken that reveal such hate.

Sometimes you can even hear such words in conversations among Christians—even in small groups at church.

A billboard near our church contains a public service announcement that has a picture of a confused looking little girl and the caption, “When you yell at your spouse, what is she hearing?” Well, when we attack and caricature and lampoon those with whom we disagree, what are our children—be they literal children or children in the faith—hearing? When we stay off to ourselves in our own viewpoint-affirming circles and talk about others without even getting to know them, what are we teaching our children about how Christians are to relate to others?

After all, how can we converse without meeting? How can we relate without understanding? How can we love without knowing?

“The way I talk says nothing about what’s really in my heart,” you might say.

But Jesus says, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

“OK, then, what’s in my heart may not be all that good but at least I would never do what that man did in Knoxville.”

But Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

No, we would not use our hands to kill those with whom we disagree. But what do our words reveal about our hearts? What do our hearts reveal about our lives?

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