I’ve had so many thoughts running through my head as I’ve read the news about the shooting carried out in Atlanta by a conservative Southern Baptist, a born-again Christian named Robert Aaron Long. The victims were predominantly women of Asian ancestry. The man viewed himself as eliminating temptation. There is so much in this that is illustrative of the conservative Evangelical variety of Christianity. Yes, it tells people they should not kill, but it also tells them many other things that might naturally lead someone to carry out a horrendous act. It simply will not do to say that the killer was “not a real Christian,” no matter how sure you may be that what he did is not a valid answer to the question “what would Jesus do?” It will not do to only emphasize the role of religion so that racism is ignored, nor to do the reverse, since human beings act out of complex intertwined beliefs and motivations. It will not do to apologize in a manner that says “not all Christians” however true that too may be on one level. If we do not have direct access to the communities and constituencies that are typified by the values and cultures I discuss here, we should nonetheless call them out. Often the fiery preaching and argumentative dogmatism of conservative Evangelicalism causes those who dislike conflict and value peacemaking to avoid confronting bigotry, remaining silent in a way that cedes the platform to others who use it to say things that horrify us. What in this individual’s formation in conservative Evangelicalism contributed to this? We may begin with the Southern Baptist penchant for denying the importance or even the reality of structural evil, something shared with many Evangelical churches but especially strong in this denomination whose very origin was due to defense of slavery and racism. When evil is ignored, it is likely to grow. Most conservative Evangelicals are not taught to recognize how social structures may be sinful nor how despite their individual efforts they may nonetheless be entangled in corporate sin. If racism is not denounced in your church, you may assume that is because there is no need, that everyone agrees that it is to be rejected. But that isn’t what everyone there hears. Some hear the silence as affirmation that the views they hold do not need to be changed as they are not being challenged. The view of sexual urges as themselves evil tend to lead to the depiction of them as external demonic attacks rather than normal aspects of biological existence that one cannot eliminate in a healthy human existence but must control and manage, just like hunger or lethargy. Satisfaction of a craving for sex or sugar provides a high that can become addictive. Repressing and/or demonizing one’s own biological nature seems to inevitably lead to it emerging in ways that are at the very least unhealthy, and sometimes are perverse and criminal. Add to this the view of the powers of darkness, even if imagined spiritual beings like demons, as corrupt beyond redemption and so deserving only of destruction, and one has the basis for a belief that the way to deal with evil is to find the source outside oneself and destroy it. None of the above is healthy. All of it in combination is toxic and at times lethal. As David Burnett wrote yesterday on Facebook:
I have already seen a particularly heinous narrative about these crimes being shared that is nothing more than distortion and deflection, coming straight from the mouth of the murderer and perpetuated to the media through the white male racist county sheriffs deputy, Captain Jay Baker, saying the crimes were merely sexually motivated, that they did not appear to be racial or political, and that the murderer had “a really bad day.” This kind of narrative is typical of white male supremacy’s blame shifting/victim blaming, which is far from surprising coming from a white male Tr*mpian deputy who was selling anti-Asian t-shirts not too long ago (see article). A white male murders 8 people, then is brought into custody safely and has a white male deputy saying the killer had “a really bad day.” This is the putrid stink of white privilege.
In reality, it appears what we are witnessing here is an intersection of Anti-Asian racism, Asian fetishization, white male supremacy, white nationalism, misogyny,￼ and American evangelical purity culture. If this combination is surprising to you, it’s because you haven’t paid attention. The murderer, a white male “God and guns” Southern Baptist, allegedly claimed his crimes were fueled by his “sexual addiction,” wanting to eliminate “temptation.” This rhetoric is standard fare in the sexual repression and demonization of evangelical purity cultural, and part and parcel of the blame shifting that undergirds and perpetuates white male supremacy.
The locations that Long targeted were massage spas. These are sometimes imagined and occasionally are covers for prostitution, and there is some evidence that Long had been to ones that were. There is, however, no evidence that the establishments Long targeted were in this category. To be clear, even if they were, that would not in any way justify his actions. What pointing this out does is help to highlight that the issue was one of Long’s own sexual imagination, moral perversity, and willingness to sin through murder as a means he imagined would help lessen his temptation to sexual sin. Just as with racism, if your church isn’t talking about sex and how to think about it as well as practice it in healthy ways, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. And if it is talking about sex in ways that view it as inherently negative, or encourage victim-blaming and in other ways treat people inequitably along gender lines, it is a problem. I am disturbed by what Long did. I am disturbed and have been by a long time by the churches that foster unhealthy ways of thinking and then express surprise when they emerge in pathological and criminal expressions. I am disturbed by the rush of some to excuse their religion or some other group from bearing any responsibility in a moment when the only thing that is called for is siding with the communities of the victims who feel threatened. I am disturbed by the fact that someone can be the son of a youth pastor in any Christian tradition and describe themselves in their Instagram profile as having their life summed up in terms of “Pizza, guns, drums, music, family, and God. This pretty much sums up my life. It’s a pretty good life.” I am disturbed that someone can be depraved, violent, and twisted, and be made worse rather than better by the religious community that surrounds them. I grieve with the victims and stand in solidarity and empathy with Americans of Asian ancestry who are not free to feel safe and welcome in their own country. Of related interest:
There will be a free lecture on March 23rd: Lecture: Anti-Asian Violence and Black-Asian Solidarity Today