The Rev. Richard M. Stower: Hatred of liberals can’t shake a strong faith in humanity’s goodness
Last week there was a silent vigil in front of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church of Scituate. The vigil stood as witness against the hate that manifested itself in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville on July 27.
In the week following the shooting, which killed two and injured several, over 200 Unitarian Universalist churches in the United States and Canada have held similar vigils.
Why this outpouring of grief and support for the Knoxville congregation? I think it is because it has shaken the elemental Unitarian Universalist belief in the goodness of humanity and the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It is hard for us to fathom that a person, for any reason or no reason, would want to go into a church and shoot people. It is hard for us to fathom that there are people, who for any reason or no reason, want to set fire to the world.
Our religious perspective is a liberal one. We celebrate the open, questioning mind. We cherish our doubts. Within the Scituate congregation there are different religious perspectives. We celebrate that, too.
And so, we are proud to be called liberal. This pride is nothing new to us. As First Parish of Scituate approaches its 375th anniversary next year, we are mindful of our origins. Our religious forebears were dissenters, from both the crown and the church.
From Colonial times to the present, Unitarians and Universalists (the two denominations merged in 1961) have been in the forefront of social reform. We have been a significant part of the abolitionist movement. We were in favor of the right of women to vote, the improvement of sanitary conditions, economic justice for workers and civil liberties.
There have been Unitarian Universalist martyrs to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. We support the environmental movement to reduce global warming. We support marriage for gays and lesbians. So, yes, we are liberal.
But, to be killed because we are liberal? To be targeted because we are liberal? To be singled out because we are liberal? It is no surprise that in present-day America, political – and religious – discourse is no longer civil. There was a time in my life when members of different political parties and different religions could agree to disagree – even vehemently. No more.
Radio and television commentators spit out the world “liberal” and say that “liberals” are destroying America. The vehemence once used for our international enemies is being used against other Americans. Is it really that much of a stretch to suggest that for many of these commentators there is no difference in their tone between the American liberal and al-Qaida?
So, is it any wonder that a man, whose ideas against liberals were stoked to white-hot, goes into a church and shoots liberals? Is it any wonder that last month a group of high school star athletes in Pennsylvania so brutally beat a Mexican immigrant to death with blows so hard that the image of Jesus was left on his chest from the religious medallion he wore?
To quote from the current Batman movie, “Y’see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little ... push.” We need to cool the rhetoric in this country.
The other morning I went to a convenience store in Scituate to get some milk and I noticed the car next to me had a bumper sticker on the back which said, “Save America. Shoot a liberal.”
Words have meaning, whether heard on the radio, television, in conversation or on a car bumper. They have consequences, too – often deadly.
As minister of First Parish of Scituate, my faith in the goodness of humanity is bloodied but unbowed. For if we do not believe in the goodness of our fellow humans, what hope is there? If we do not treat each other with respect and with the understanding that there is the divine in another human being, what hope is there?
If that means that I am a liberal, a religious liberal, I am thankful to be one.
The Rev. Richard M. Stower has been minister of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Scituate, Mass., for 16 years.