Understanding Knoxville

By Don Rollins

American religious history is littered with a long list of tragedies that, no matter how we factor for culture or era or overarching zeitgeist, just don’t compute: missionaries that practiced theological chauvinism among native peoples; wunderkind evangelists that sold salvation to the gullible; pious politicians who touted their “pro-life” dogma as authority for misogyny, racism, homophobia and xenophobia. Think of those haughty Pilgrims, the Salem trials, Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate and Waco. Indeed, for all the upside of religion as practiced in this country, the faithful have some serious explaining to do.

But sometimes it’s religion taking the abuse, not doling it out. (News flash to those that think every priest is a pedophile or every fundamentalist is a whack job: Religion can be a force for good. Ask the family who’re off the street tonight, gratis of the congregation that runs the shelter. Talk to the prisoner whose only friend is the pastor, rabbi or imam who sees the face of a victim as well as a perpetrator.) Take last month’s shootings at a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville. What did that congregation do to enrage a man to the point of brandishing a shotgun and opening fire? Was it because they reject second-class citizenship for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folk? Was it because they advocate for reproductive freedom? Because they promote diversity?

Jim Adkisson, the alleged shooter, didn’t operate in a vacuum. Nobody does in instances like that. The letter he left as explanation for his plan (which included his own “death by police”) cites liberalism as the impetus for the shootings. It was liberals that took away his marriage and his job and his food stamps. And so eight human beings would pay.

Adkisson’s letter might explain things, but it doesn’t go far in helping us understand them. It took the right combination of variables to create that bloody scene down in Knoxville.

Family therapists and congregational consultants recognize the names Murray Bowen and Edwin Freidman, two theorists who rejected the notion of “identified patients” in a given system, whether we’re talking about a family or an entire organization. The idea is to look at the context in which dysfunctional behavior occurs, not just the behavior itself. Bowen and Friedman suggest that blaming one piece of the system—say, the rebellious teen or difficult parishioner—ignores the many factors that are almost always in play when craziness (“acting-out”) takes place. Systems theory never absolves one from responsibility, but neither does it settle for simple explanations for complex situations.

So what factors were in play that summer Sunday morning when a children’s production became the backdrop for murder? Unmanaged mental illness? Unrequited love? Unrelieved poverty? Unbridled prejudice? The point is not to go bleeding-heart here, making the case for killer-as-victim; there are plenty of us walking around with scrambled brains, broken hearts and empty pockets. The point is that the Jim Adkissons of the world are archetypes for what’s wrong with the world: confusion, loneliness and suffering. Stuff we can act-on.

If found mentally competent and convicted, should Adkisson receive the full measure of the law? Absolutely. But shame on my fellow liberals and me if we move up into our heads and wax eloquent about the legal system or the prison system or capital punishment. Shame on us if we ignore yet another opportunity to be reminded that all around us are hurting people. And shame on us if Knoxville doesn’t move us to look around today for somebody to help.

In the end, Knoxville was not just about Jim Adkisson. It was not just about a liberal church. It was not about liberalism itself, glorious as that might sound in our progressive ears. Knoxville was spiritual ground zero for the kind of horror that only a number of variables can produce. We can’t undo it, but we can rededicate ourselves and our resources to help give compassion a fighting chance in this world of woe.

Systems theory says things don’t happen in a vacuum.

Rev. Don Rollins is pastor of the Nora Unitarian Universalist Church in Hanska, Minn.

From The Progressive Populist, Sept. 1, 2008

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2008 The Progressive Populist.