Labels and Liberals

September 21, 2008
Rev. Victoria Weinstein



On the morning of July 27 just this past summer, a man attended a Sunday morning program at the Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville, where two congregations were sharing the Sunday morning together. The kids were doing a production of "Annie, Jr." a kind of mini-production of the musical "Annie," the 1970's hit based on the Depression-era comic book strip about the little orphan with the red curls and optimistic outlook, who was fond of saying "Leapin' Lizards."

The man, Jim Adkisson, had a guitar case with him. He walked into the packed sanctuary and opened fire.  There was not a guitar in that guitar case.

He shot usher and board member Greg McKendry, who was lovingly described by one of the church members as "a refrigerator of a man" and by another as "a friendly, warm, big, giant bear of a man."  Visiting friend Linda Kraeger was also murdered.  Six other adults were injured before Adkisson was tackled and subdued by several other congregants and taken into police custody.  No children were harmed.

And it was the fourth or fifth church shooting of 2008, and the second for our tiny denomination.

The story made the national news, and reactions were as expected.  There was broad support for the victims and for the congregation, both locally and across the nation.  Much of the coverage emphasized the heroic sacrifice of usher Greg McKendry who made himself a human shield and undoubtedly saved many lives, as the gunman had 76 rounds of ammunition in his rifle. 

The Unitarian Universalist community responded to the tragedy within and outside of our own small family.  We took out a NY Times ad that proclaimed, "Our doors and our hearts will remain open." There were front page statements on the web sites of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Southwest District of UU congregations, and many congregations held vigils or services of remembrance.  I attended a vigil in Boston on the same night that the Knoxville congregation held theirs, and participated in a service of memory in Cohasset, representing our congregation.  Some of you were there.

Adkisson, the assailant, wrote a letter explaining his motives.  He was an enraged, frustrated man who had been unemployed for some time and who was on the verge of losing his food stamps.  He described himself to a neighbor as an old-time Confederate and a friend described him as a loner who hated liberals, blacks and "anyone different." In a four-page letter explaining his motives, Adkisson said that he "hated the liberal movement" and had targeted the TVUUC because of its liberal commitments.  According to the police report, Adkisson was "upset with liberals in general as well as gays." 

But this wasn't as random an act of violence as it first seemed to be.  Adkisson knew the congregation because his former wife was a very active member when they were married.  Court records show that she obtained a restraining order against him before their divorce.  Did their divorce have anything to do with his eventual decision to target TVUUC? We don't know.  We only know that he went in that morning expecting to kill many people he identified as liberals (he wrote, "If I can't get the liberals in power, I'll get those who put them there"), and that he expected to be killed by the police during his rampage.  It is to the congregation's credit and courage that he will live to stand trial and probably spend the rest of his life in prison.

Let me read you some of the text of the New York Times ad that went in on August 10th, that was signed by the UUA President, Bill Sinkford,

"Police reports suggest that the Tennessee Valley Church may have been targeted because of the congregation's justice work in the community: opening its doors in welcome to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people; feeding and housing the homeless; and working for racial justice. Indeed, TVUUC faithfully embodies Unitarian Universalism's focus on deeds, not creeds.

Unitarian Universalists know that our congregations are places where our spirits can be nurtured and we will be lovingly supported on our spiritual journeys. But we are not content to leave our faith in our sanctuaries when Sunday worship has ended. We are called by our faith to help heal our world. And we thank people of all faiths who have reached out with support.

On August 3rd, just one week after the joy and innocence of their Sunday service was defiled by gunfire, the TVUUC congregation rededicated their sanctuary to peace. Inspired by the Unitarian Universalists of Knoxville, Unitarian Universalists everywhere have rededicated themselves to our religious mission: to welcome the stranger, to love our neighbor, to work for justice, to nurture the spirits of all who seek a liberal religious home, and to help heal this wounded world."

Beautiful words, and I think a beautiful description of the ultimate commitments of the liberal religious community.  But there is some confusion about what it means to be a liberal religious community – about that word "liberal," which some people understandably conflate, or equate, with political liberalism.

What is a political liberal? To be honest with you, I wouldn't dare try to say.  Does it mean to subscribe to a set of political convictions? You go down the list – universal health care, reproductive choice, marriage equality, end global warming, check, check, check? Same thing with conservative?  In favor of small government, supports free trade, the war in Iraq and the war on terror, and traditional family values? 

Check, check, check?

I think that ship has sailed. People are stumbling over themselves coming up with new hyphenated labels to describe their political convictions, and when we remember that the U.S. are one player on a global scene where each nation defines "liberal" "conservative" in wildly different terms, it doesn't look like we're likely to come into an era of clarity about these labels any time soon. Neo-conservative, libertarian, conservative liberal, progressive conservative, fiscally conservative Democrat, culturally liberal Republican, Green conservative for small government … help me, Jesus.

Political labels have their uses in a few places. They do. Candidates need them, for one thing.  They help pollsters get the pulse of a people. They are useful in surveys when nuances of people's individual positions aren't of interest. If you want to vote a straight party ticket, labels help.  They're good on signs.  They fit well on buttons. They help sell books and they work well for conventions and conferences.

But as far as reality and relationships go, political labels achieve one main thing: they objectify us and others.  Because classification is objectification.  I don't know who said it originally, but a friend of mine used to say it when anyone asked her to define her racial identity.  "Classi-fi-cation is object-ti-fi-cation!" she'd chant, and that shut a lot of people right up (mostly because they thought she was a little nuts! And she'd say "I'd rather they classified me as crazy than try to fit me into one of their little categories on a survey."). 

Classificiation is objectification.  The first way to demonize a person or a people is to classify them as "A Something," isn't it? We know that from history. From there on out, it's easier and easier to forget about their inherent dignity as individual beings.

But it is important that you know what is meant by religious liberalism, because in the context of our religious heritage, it is an important word and it stands as a separate strand of liberalism than political liberalism.  Here are the three most important things to know about what defines a religion as a liberal one.

1. A liberal religion is one that emphasizes interpretation of sacred scriptures rather than literal belief in them;

2. Liberal religion takes into account and respects the contribution of scientific knowledge to its existing tradition.  It is flexible and open to the receiving of new truths and wisdom, and actively seeks them.  We sometimes state this using Samuel Longfellow's phrase, "Revelation is not sealed."

3. Liberal religion is ultimately concerned with the here-and-now application of its teachings.  It is not interested in the transmission of creeds and doctrines from one generation to the next but in influencing each generation to "go out onto the highways and byways" and do works of righteousness and justice in the world.

Regarding this last point, it is important to answer the question of how Unitarian Universalists decide what is a work of righteousness and justice.  To answer that, we can confidently say that our commitments to issues like women's rights, the full inclusion of sexual minorities in the life and leadership of our movement, our concern for Earth and its non-human as well as its human habitants are derived in large part from our liberal Christian roots and our foremothers and forefathers progressive interpretation of the Old and New Testament, as well as from more contemporary humanist perspectives.

Our religious heritage is unmistakably grounded in the liberal religious tradition.  However, just as we require adherence to no specific creed or doctrine in our congregations, so are we free to politically affiliate as our consciences guide us.  

Now that I think of it, there is one last, fourth quality that we should associate with religious liberalism.  It is the quality of optimism in human potential and in the goodness and beneficence of God.  In the past century of so, this optimism has taken a hard beating, and events such as the shootings in Knoxville certainly do nothing to bolster them.  This is why it was so very right and so very good that, when they re-dedicated their sanctuary after the shootings, the Knoxville congregation sang the song "Tomorrow" from "Annie"  -- the song sung by that optimistic little Depression-era orphan, whose message of hope is part of our liberal religious heritage.

CLOSING SONG            "Tomorrow"                       Music by Charles Strouse  

Lyrics by Martin Charnin


The sun'll come out
Bet your bottom dollar
That tomorrow
There'll be sun!

Just thinkin' about
Clears away the cobwebs,
And the sorrow
'Til there's none!

When I'm stuck with a day
That's gray,
And lonely,
I just stick out my chin
And grin,
And say…

The sun'll come out
So ya gotta hang on
'Til tomorrow
Come what may
Tomorrow! Tomorrow!
I love ya Tomorrow!
You're always
A day