O God, here we go again, I thought as news wires began to sketch the tragedy played out in Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church last week. My reaction would have been the same had the needless loss of lives occurred in a university, a business office, a government building or elsewhere. The basic ingredients are the same in whatever place the shootings take place–hatred, a gun, grief, and countless questions of why. As a religious leader, I hear most often the question “Why?”–Why did God allow this to happen? Why can we not stop such senseless tragedies? Well, I am not an ombudsman for God dedicated to defending the Almighty’s ways. However, I would hope that both religious and non-religious people understand that what happened in that church sanctuary in Tennessee was not about God but about the destructive power of human hatred, the danger of a readily available gun, and irrational actions of prejudice and intolerance spinning out of control.
Is there anything we can do to help? Yes, by all means. First, we can grieve with those who are grieving. I do, and my guess is that you do as well. Second, if we pray, we can embrace with our compassionate thoughts and prayers members of that congregation, members of the families of the victims of the shooting, and the family and friends of the man who repeatedly pulled the trigger. Third, we can respond to yet another shooting of innocent people by building public support for legislation that thoughtfully regulates guns and seeks to stop hate crimes. The problem involved in this tragedy as in so many others we have seen lately is not the absence of God but the silence of advocates for laws that can accomplish what will never be the result of good intentions and fond hopes alone.
What cruel irony it is that a man would shoot-up a Unitarian Universalist Association congregation because of a level of anger that may have been psychotic and a mind that perhaps had moved from disturbance to serious illness. No group of religious folks that I know is more likely to be united in fighting poverty, advocating justice, and seeking to help the weakest, the poorest, and the most ill among us. Unitarian Universalists are faithfully present among all of us who understand how difficult times are and how, subsequently, a mass of humankind is hurting badly.
No good can come from identifying this tragedy as a consequence of the ongoing ideological struggle that is dividing our nation into good and bad, right and wrong. This shooting, like many others, however, does remind us of the powerful impact that the rhetoric or the literature of hatred can wield.
Personally, I am confident that the Tennessee Valley congregation of Unitarian Universalists will reach out to help others grieve even as they manage their own grief and seek to offer healing to a troubled community. As that happens in the Volunteer State, my hope is that members of the Interfaith Alliance all across this nation will join scores of other people in renewing efforts, at a minimum, to establish tolerance while not ceasing until the goal of inclusion is reached and to allow your voices to be heard and your influence felt in relation to domestic policies, judicial rulings, and legislative actions aimed at a civil society literally–literally–committed to liberty justice and all.
Ever since I listened to reports of the deaths in Tennessee, the words of an ancient Hebrew prophet have been pounding in my head: “How long, O Lord, how long?” How long will we hand people the guns they need to kill their fellow citizens? How long will Congress stall before passing meaningful hate crimes legislation? How long will lies be told about an abuse of freedom as a strategy to stall or kill legislation that moves us closer to civility? Please understand, I repeat the prophet’s rhetorical question not looking for an answer from heaven, but waiting for the demonstrated will of people coming together to achieve in this nation a kind of compassion and justice that unfortunately we have not seen in a while from our leaders.
Please know that the Interfaith Alliance will not grow weary caring about tragedies such as this one. And, we will not cease asking you to help us in creating communities of inclusion as a result of mutual understanding, respect, and civility among neighbors, calling on our representatives in government to do their rightful part in helping to eradicate hate-based violence, and seeking to model by the fellowship in our organization the kind of life that we commend to the nation.
I pray for you comfort for you grief in the face of tragedy and restlessness in your hearts and wills until actions are taken to eliminate the horrible causes of grief that can be avoided. For all who pray, it is fitting to say with sincerity, “God, help us.” But it is also fitting for all of us to say to each other, “Let us not falter or stop until our healing work in this nation is done.”