It’s not good enough to repudiate
Last week, the U.S. witnessed another fruit borne of its racist and sexist soil, when we saw Robert Aaron Long, a member of Crabapple Baptist Church, shoot up three different Atlanta-area spas, killing eight women, six of whom were Asian women. He told police he was reacting to a “sex addiction,” but witnesses reported he said “I’m going to kill all Asians.” Regardless of his motives, though, it is clear that his action was completely heinous and Christian leaders were quick to condemn it. They didn’t always agree on motive, and some people refuse to acknowledge the racialized component of this, but condemning of the killings was universal.
Even Long’s church, Crabapple, issued a well-worded statement repudiating Long, excommunicating him, and made it clear that his sexist and racist motives were not of the Lord. I think his church typifies a solid statement from churches, but I do not think it goes deep enough. When it comes to the most heinous crimes we experience, we must stop reducing them to individual circumstances, and see the systems at hand that perpetuate these actions.
A history of oppressing Asian women
The legacy of racism in the United States touches everything in our society. Race is always a factor in our everyday affairs. But even naming systemic racism as a factor in these murders is not specific enough. There is a specific legacy of oppressing Asian American women that must be interrogated, if we want to heal from this nightmare.
Dr. Jennifer Hope Choi writes this for the New York Times:
The long, fraught history of Asian female subjugation in the United States dates as far back as the 1860s, when Chinese girls and women were auctioned on the San Francisco wharf and sold into sex slavery or forced prostitution. Post-Korean War, many G.I. brides who immigrated to America found themselves, later in life, resorting to sex work as a means to survive.
Claudine Ko offers this:
There are two Asian-Americas: one that is invisible, the other marginal. Unlike the massage workers, I am perceived by society as a model minority, representative of successful Asian-Americans. But that alone, I have learned, does not constitute power or freedom.
May Jeong argues that there is “historic, structural violence” against Asians, coupled with a codification that institutionalizes both Asian Americans oppression and fetishization. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred Asians from entering the country, and the Page Law of 1875 only screened Asians according to their “virtue.” Here’s how Ko puts it:
“Immigration officials asked every female applicant, ‘Are you a virtuous woman?’ They ‘apparently operated on the premise that every Chinese woman was seeking admission on false pretenses, and that each was a potential prostitute until proven otherwise,’ according to ‘Unbound Feet’ by Judy Yung, a historian and emerita professor of American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Coupled with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Page Law of 1975, Ko writes, “In this way, the Asian woman became an object of hatred, and lust, a thing to loathe, then desire, the distance between yellow peril and yellow fever measured in flashes.”
So, in the words of these Asian women, we can see how woven into our society the specific and systemic oppression of Asian women. This does not make Long’s individual motives not racist, but it showcases, that regardless of his motives, racism and sexism against Asian women put them at a much higher risk for abuse and death.
Society does infect the church, but is uniquely complicit
So the history of oppression of Asian American people and Pacific Islanders in the United States does affect our churches, but our churches are not simply victims of this scourge, we have our own complicity to consider. And this act of terror was indeed an act of Christian terror, and I can’t let that go. It would be irresponsible of me as a pastor not to see only the sociological and historical aspects here, and not the religious aspects as well. The two intersections of these murders, race and gender, have specific rootedness in Evangelical churches across the United States, and I think all churches need to consider how they approach these issues, because even if the seeds we plant don’t result in a killing spree, they can still do a lot of damage. I want to address three areas that the church should focus on to help extract some of the theologies and teachings that can lead to racist and sexist violence.
Focus more on belovedness, not brokenness
Sin is a serious issue. And I mince no words about its powerful effect on our whole society. Sexism and racism, in particular, are examples in this very post. But too often, we focus how we are trapped in cages of sins and aren’t free in Christ. It is as if, the further we condemn ourselves, the more glory goes to God. But while we must reckon with the gravity of our sin, we need to focus much more so on the grandeur of grace, and moves into our belovedness with God.
Truly, there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus, and we are invited into interrogating our sin, without fear of rebuke or condemnation. The work of the cross is complete, as the Daily Prayer writer said last week, “Everything that needed to happen to heal the world, happened on that hill on that Friday.” The work is done. God has reassured us. We no longer need to fear. We are healed, and transformed. And even when we engage in patterns of the world, we continue to move toward sanctification.
We aren’t good because of who we are, but rather because of who God is. This is an essential piece of theology that we need to keep emphasizing. We are now related to God, once again, through the work of Jesus on the cross, and that relationship transforms us. It is disappointing that many people who have a very high view of God’s sovereignty, end up having a very negative view of human anthropology. Let’s see the best in one another, and name that goodness regularly.
I think that Long felt so badly about himself, and his “sexual addiction,” that he turned that anger onto these Asian women. I’m not suggesting that a positive viewpoint of himself would have solved this problem, but I don’t think the condemnation that is so endemic in Evangelical churches helped. We need help to see ourselves the way God sees us.
Purity culture objectifies women and leads to violence
We need to have healthier theology about sex. I have written about a way forward here, but purity culture and guilt surrounding sexual expression and desire that plagues so many young men and women, leads to crippling guilt about our bodies, that leads us to hate them and one another.
Boys are taught that they see women as objects, and women are admonished to not be a “stumbling block” for boys. Not only does this lead to immense shame, it’s just a simplistic teaching. Avoidance or prohibition just are not adequate to explain the complexity of our sexuality. And if anything is clear it’s that the strictest pastors on fundamentalist purity culture, are usually hypocritical themselves. So it’s all a fraught teaching.
But the violent guilt that we feel in our bodies because of this toxic teaching damages us and others. It controls women and teaches men to do the same. It tries to hold captive the mind of boys from going to rather natural places. It dehumanizes all us, objectifies us, and is deeply sexist. And so for all of the talk about Long’s confession that a sex addiction led to these murders being a bad excuse, I believe that the bad theology, with which he was indoctrinated, in part led to his anger against these women.
Stop talking about the dangers of antiracism, and start being antiracist
Thirdly, it seems to me like of Evangelical churches, and even more progressive ones, have an irrational fear about the deconstruction antiracism will do to their churches. To be sure, to the extent that our churches are affected by racism and white supremacy, antiracism will feel like a violent deconstruction, but it is absolutely necessary. Not only do we have to extract racism from our churches, as we submit to the leadership of Christians of color, we need to actively preach and act against racism.
We need to undo patterns of racism in our church and then speak and act prophetically about it. What I see more frequently is suspicion about antiracism, named as “critical race theory,” too often. These kinds of sentiments are rooted in racism. They are coded as suspicion of the “world,” but they result in racism against black and brown people. It is better to risk being the indignity of being associated with “worldly” antiracism, than it is to suffer the indignity of racist violence.
Here’s how Jemar Tisby in How To Be Antiracist puts it: “Let us remember that potency in the fight against racism rests not solely on innovation but also on action. Even if a suggestion feels familiar to you, now may be the time when you can put it into practice or when you can execute a strategy more effectively.”
Churches then should develop antiracist theology, but also learn the best practices from antiracist churches around them. We need to make our bodies authentically diverse, and if we can’t because of where we are located, develop ecumenical ties that foment that diversity.
Moreover, we need to act for racial justice in our whole world as well (and so that means churches are a part of changing how structural racism works in our society). Churches should be prophetically acting, instead of suspicious of this antiracist reckoning. I wish Christians would have started it, but it is here, and I believe from the Holy Spirit.
It’s not enough to simply say racism is wrong, it’s not enough to try to take it out of congregations, we need to disciple our people to be antiracist. We need to make antiracism a part of Christian discipleship.
Another way is possible
What Aaron Long did was preventable. We need to keep building churches that lead us to dignify everyone, regardless of race and gender. We need a better theology of sexuality and sin. We need to see that it’s not enough to simply say what he did was wrong, but we need to learn how we came to that place, and how move in another direction.