Nailing down motives

unitarianSome tragic news is coming out of Tennessee. Yesterday, a man armed with a shotgun walked into a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville yesterday and killed two people and shot seven others. Whenever something senseless like this happens, the media rush to determine why. Early reports from Knoxville had neighbors suspecting anti-Christian animus:

The man accused of a mass church shooting this morning was described by his Powell neighbors as a helpful and kind man, but one who had issues with Christianity.

"He had his own sense of belief about religion, that's the impression I got of him," said neighbor Karen Massey. "We were talking one day when my daughter graduated from Bible college, and I told him I was a Christian, then he almost turned angry.

"He seemed to get angry at that."

According to Massey, [Jim] Adkisson talked frequently about his parents who "made him go to church all his life ... he was forced to do that."

It seemed curious that an anti-Christian gunman would target a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Both Unitarians and Universalists share a founding in Protestant Christianity but they seek spiritual guidance from all traditions and religious beliefs. Later stories revealed that the gunman had written a four-page letter that shed light on his motives:

The shotgun-wielding suspect in Sunday's mass shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church was motivated by a hatred of "the liberal movement," and he planned to shoot until police shot him, Knoxville Police Chief Sterling P. Owen IV said this morning.

Jim D. Adkisson, 58, of Powell wrote a four-page letter in which he stated his "hatred of the liberal movement," Owen said. "Liberals in general, as well as gays."

Adkisson said he also was frustrated about not being able to obtain a job, Owen said.

The Knoxville paper did a good job of succinctly explaining why the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Univesalist Church might have been targeted:

"It appears that church had received some publicity regarding its liberal stance," the chief said. The church has a "gays welcome" sign and regularly runs announcements in the News Sentinel about meetings of the Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays meetings at the church.

The church's Web site states that it has worked for "desegregation, racial harmony, fair wages, women's rights and gay rights" since the 1950s. Current ministries involve emergency aid for the needy, school tutoring and support for the homeless, as well as a cafe that provides a gathering place for gay and lesbian high-schoolers.

It turns out that Adkisson's ex-wife might have been a member at the congregation as well. Tragically, one of the dead was a devoted member of the congregation who died a hero, according to the Associated Press:

Church members praised Greg McKendry, 60, who died as he attempted to block the gunfire. Church member Barbara Kemper told The Associated Press that McKendry "stood in the front of the gunman and took the blast to protect the rest of us."

As this story continues to unfold, reporters must not only explain the shooter's deranged motives but seek to explain how religious motivations guide the UU tradition. There is a rich history and legacy to explore.

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