Christian Culpability in Atlanta’s Mass Shootings
Perhaps you were paying attention to the news on March 16, 2021. I was going about my day when alerts started buzzing on my phone about a mass shooter in Atlanta, Georgia. The initial reports were that a gunman had gone on a shooting spree and was targeting massage parlors. A manhunt was underway to find the assailant who turned out to be 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long. Using a 9mm handgun, Long shot and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. Given the marked increase in violence towards people of Asian descent living in America, there was speculation that Long’s shooting spree was a racially motivated hate crime.
Not long after Long was taken into custody, there was a press conference held by Jay Baker, the Cherokee County Sheriff’s spokesman. Baker explained that detectives had ascertained that Long’s crime was not driven by hatred of Asian people. Rather, Long claimed to struggle with a sex addiction. He was a frequent patron of the spas and massage parlors that offered services where he could satisfy his sexual desires. Unfortunately, as a devoted Christian, Long felt that utilizing the massage parlors as a sexual outlet was hindering his relationship with God. According to police, Long’s decision to murder these women was a desire to eliminate the source of his temptation. Baker ended his remarks by saying that Long was just having a “bad day.”
There is so much to unpack in this short description of this horrific crime. First of all, as I watched the press conference, I felt Baker’s description of the crime was demeaning to the lives lost to Long’s rage. I’ve never had to do a press conference after a mass shooting, but the insinuation from Baker that Long is a good Christian guy who simply made a bad choice was both flippant and insensitive. Indeed, Baker sounded as though he was subtly defending Long’s actions. If one of my family members died in the attack, I would certainly feel as though the police cared more about the murderer than the death of my loved one. Therefore, whether or not race was a motivating factor in the attacks, clearly the fact that many of the victims were Asian and working in the sex industry impacted the perception of their worth.
However, there’s more than just racism at play in why Aaron Long has been treated with deference. A big reason why the severity of Long’s crimes have been downplayed is because of the influence of evangelical Christianity on Southern culture. The role of the evangelical church in defining sexual ethics in the South plays a major role, not only in terms of the optics of this shooting spree, but also in terms of Long’s motivation for committing the crime in the first place.
The God of the Southern Baptists
If we’re going to drill down into theology that propelled Long to commit this crime, we first need to understand Long’s relationship with the church. An Associated Press reporter spoke with Nico Straughan, who met Long when he moved to Atlanta in seventh grade. Although church attendance is culturally normative in the South, Straughan noticed that Long was more invested in his Christianity than most of his peers, bringing a Bible to school every day. Long is a member of Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Ga. Crabapple is affiliated with the Southern Baptist denomination. Brett Cottrell, Long’s youth pastor, described Long as a mission-minded young man who was very invested in youth group and a leader among his peers.
On the surface, all of this seems normal. Lots of people in the South are affiliated with the Southern Baptist denomination. However, there are some particular teachings in the Southern Baptist tradition that are very important to draw out in this whole scenario. The first and foremost is how Southern Baptists portray the God of the Bible. If we think of the Christian God as being on spectrum, where at one end God is loving, accepting, forgiving and restorative and, at the other end, God is angry, rejecting, judgmental and putative, the Southern Baptists tend to portray God as being the latter rather than the former. A good example of this is the preaching from the Southern Baptist pastor Charles Lawson.
The qualities and characteristics one ascribes God matters a great deal because these features frame how you think of yourself in relationship to God. If God is loving, accepting and forgiving, then, when you make a mistake, you will likely imagine God like a gentle parent, holding you close and trying to nudge you towards restoration. On the other hand, if God is angry, rejecting and judgmental, then, when you make a mistake, your expectation is that God will punish you either in this life or the next.
Southern Baptist pastors commonly frame God as a divine being who is more than happy to throw you into hell for your sins. Hence, your reason for following Jesus is to avoid the consequences of an eternal afterlife of suffering. God is watching your every move, keeping a record of everything you do. If you cannot abide by the rules that God has preordained for the human race, you will quickly find yourself on God’s naughty list.
Interestingly, when it comes to the Southern Baptists, God’s rules, particularly when you are young, revolve largely around sexuality. The sexual ethics taught by evangelicals like the Southern Baptists are derived from what is known as the Purity Movement or Purity Culture. Although Purity Culture is complex and nuanced, at its core, the purity movement relies on a fundamental premise: God desires for humans to remain completely sexually pure until they are married. Practically, what this means is you must abstain from all forms of sexual thought and contact until you are within the confines of Christian marriage, at which time you are free to indulge your sexual appetite.
There’s a couple of things that are important to know about Purity Culture. The first is that when purity theology is taught to teenagers, the message being preached is that engaging in any sexual activity outside the confines of marriage is morally wrong. Indeed, youth are taught that sex is inherently evil and to be in good standing with God, one must completely repress their sexual desires and feelings. If you want to learn more about Purity Culture, episode 1 of Season 2 of the Restorative Faith Podcast addresses this in a much deeper way.
However, what’s important for our purposes here is that the sexual ethics that come out of Purity Culture can often be psychologically damaging. To give you a sense of just how damaging these teachings can be, let’s examine the results of a paper out of Loyola College in Maryland from 2007 entitled Spirituality, Religiosity, Shame and Guilt as Predictors of Sexual Attitudes and Experiences. In this paper, the authors discuss how Christians who are raised to believe that their sexual desires ought to be repressed are much more likely to feel shame associated with their sexuality.
Just to be clear, the authors distinguish between shame and guilt. Guilt is when our conscience tells us that we’ve done something wrong. Shame, on the other hand, makes us feel condemned to our very core. It causes us to question our worth and integrity. Sexual shame is particularly damaging in this way. Sexual shame is an emotional experience of unworthiness that clusters around events of the past. The association of shame with sexuality is a common experience for Christians steeped in the sexual ethics of Purity Culture.
In my interview with Linda Kay Klein the author of the book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, she spoke candidly of the destructive repercussions of Purity Culture on her relationships. For Linda, even the act of thinking about engaging in sexuality behavior would cause her to break out in hives. Her eczema would become so bad she would scratch herself until she bled. She would often end up in a corner crying because she didn’t understand what was happening to her. In Pure, Linda discusses how she interviewed hundreds of women and men who described similar types of experiences as result of being raised in Purity Culture. Linda makes clear that the combination of raging hormones with a sexual ethic that requires you to suppress, repress and deny your sexuality is a recipe for disaster.
This brings us back to Robert Aaron Long, a young man who grew up enmeshed in Southern Baptist Purity Culture. If Nico Straughan’s depiction of Long as a dedicated Christian is accurate, then he would have taken these sexual ethics very seriously. However, around the same time that Long is learning about the evil nature of his sexuality, he enters into puberty with his libido kicking into high gear. This would have created an intense inner conflict. He would fear that God was going to judge and punish him for any sexual missteps. Indeed, this turmoil made him feel ashamed of himself and ultimately set the stage for the violence that would eventually transpire on March 16th, 2021.
A Listless Path to Self-Loathing
To fully appreciate how destructive the theology of Purity Culture was in this particular instance, we need to examine the last three years of Long’s life. Although in high school, Long was enveloped by Christian youth groups and clubs, after graduating from high school, like many teenagers, he struggled to find his way. Long enrolled at the University of North Georgia, but he left after one year and started working odd jobs around town. This is apparently where his sexual preoccupation started to become a “problem” for him.
As a former youth pastor, I have witnessed a number of youth struggle after graduating from high school. The issue stems from the transition of moving from a highly structured environment, where adults dictate almost every element of your day, to having absolutely no structure. It’s kind of like getting pushed off a dock without a lifejacket. Some teenagers are ready to swim and love the freedom of being able to choose what to do with their time. Others are not prepared for a world without established boundaries. The limitless freedom is actually crippling to their sense of security, so rather than move forward, they either tread water or flail and start to drown.
Based on the information gleaned from reporters, the limitless freedom of post-high school life left Long without the structure to cope with his sexual impulses. In January of 2019, Long began seeing a woman in Chattanooga, Tennessee and, against his parent’s wishes, moved up to Tennessee to be close to her. Although it is unclear what transpired during this period of time, by August, Long had returned to Georgia and had checked himself into Maverick Recovery, a 12-step half-way house in Roswell, Ga. Although Maverick Recovery is generally for recovering alcoholics, Long was using it as means of getting his sexual impulses under control by bringing structure back into his life .
Unfortunately, Long’s goal of becoming sexually pure was not going well. During his time at Maverick, he began utilizing the services of the massage spas, the very same spas he would target during his shooting spree. The Washington Post interviewed Tyler Bayless, Long’s roommate at Maverick from August 2019 through January 2020. Bayless explained that Long felt that his addiction to sex was hindering his relationship with God. Bayless explained, “[Long] was the kind of guy who would hate himself for masturbating, would consider that a relapse.”
When I was a student at Rice University in Houston, Texas, I encountered this type of severe thinking around sexuality. I was part of a men’s Bible study and the leader was a Southern Baptist. He would often discuss how masturbation is a sin. Since Jesus directly prohibits thinking lustful thoughts in Matthew 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Therefore, since masturbation requires lustful thoughts, your goal as a Christian should be to never masturbate.
Not only is this a misinterpretation of this text (you can read more about at the end of this article), but, more importantly, this perspective on Christian sexuality is unhealthy and damaging. Such an interpretation denies the reality that humans are sexual beings. Men and women are designed to experience regular sexual release. Masturbation is natural among primates and is important to our physical, mental and emotional health. Therefore, even if Jesus did not indulge his sexual appetite (which we can’t know for sure), one has to remember that Jesus spent a lot of time with prostitutes. This fact alone indicates to me that Jesus was likely attuned to and sympathetic towards the human need for sexual stimulation and release.
A Battle for Salvation
Sadly, Long was never a provided with this counterbalance. Long believed that masturbation was inherently wrong and so whether he was thinking lustful thoughts in his mind or viewing pornography, he believed that his actions threatened his eternal salvation. According to Bayless, “[Long] hated the pornography industry. He was pretty passionate about what a bad influence it was on him. He felt exploited by it, taken advantage of by it.”
In order to avoid the temptation, Long bought a flip phone, installed porn blockers on his web browsers, and limited his use of the internet. But the more Long repressed his sexual desires, the more those desires expressed themselves in ways that caused turmoil in his life. Bayless explained that Long’s relationship with his girlfriend imploded when she found out that he had been patronizing massage parlors and spas.
After the collapse of his relationship, Long continued to frequent the spas. Once, after coming back from the spa, Long told Bayless he was having suicidal thoughts because he was “walking in darkness”. Long believed that the struggle between his sexual desires and his Christian faith was really a struggle for his salvation. Even though Bayless encouraged Long to seek the help of a psychologist, Long refused secular care. The only therapy he would consider was from Christian counselors who would continually reinforce the toxic Purity Culture theology taught by the church.
Once Long finished his stint at Maverick, he checked himself into HopeQuest Ministry Group. HopeQuest was originally founded as a Christian recovery center for drug and alcohol abuse. Today, more than half of their clients are people struggling with sex and pornography addictions. Long became part of their intensive inpatient program. HopeQuest is located in Long’s hometown of Woodstock and one mile from Young’s Asian Massage, the first target of Long’s shooting spree.
We don’t know what transpired in the time between Long checking into HopeQuest and the shooting itself, but we can take an educated guess. Long likely relapsed into masturbating with the aid of pornography and utilizing the sexual services offered at the spas. This may have happened once or several times, but, at some point along the way, Long felt ensnared by his desires. He didn’t believe he would ever have the will power to change his behaviors and worried that his salvation was going to be forever compromised.
As long as the temptation of pornography and sex workers existed, then he would be forever trapped in this cycle. This led Long to make a decision: if he couldn’t change his behaviors, then he was going to have to remove the temptation from his life. He had no power to erase pornography from the internet, but he did have the power to end of the lives of the women who worked at the spas. By killing them, he would be eliminating a major source of sexual temptation for himself and others.
Although to a normal person this type of thinking sounds crazy, when you are steeped in conservative evangelical theology, this is not too much of a stretch. An important element of the Southern Baptist thinking that we have not addressed is the entrenched patriarchy. Women are not given equal standing with men in the Southern Baptist Church. Women are not allowed to teach men. Indeed, as Linda Kay Klein described in her interview, women are viewed as objects, literally stumbling blocks over which the boys and men would trip on their pathway to God.
This mentality is very common among all hyper-conservative religions, not just Christianity. This is why in certain sects of Judaism and Islam, women are expected to cover themselves. This is not just a matter of propriety, these coverings are necessary because women represent a temptation to men. There is an unspoken assumption within these communities that men cannot be expected to control their desires. The logic goes, if it wasn’t for women, men would never be sexually tempted. Therefore, because women are the problem, the responsibility falls to them to prevent men from falling into temptation. Furthermore, if a woman refuses to uphold her responsibility, then the men are given the freedom to remove the temptation from their midst.
This mentality, whether implicit or explicit within Long's Southern Baptist upbringing, is why Long took it upon himself to remove the sexual temptation from his life. The women who work in these spas are beneath him and should not be tempting him in the first place. This also explains why the police would describe Long as just having a “bad day”. The fact that these officers are part of this highly repressive Christian culture means that they can commiserate with Long’s struggle. Consciously or subconsciously, they understand why he would take such drastic measures.
Please understand, I’m not saying the church is responsible for Long’s actions. At the end of the day, Long is responsible for his own actions. Nobody forced him to buy gun and murder eight people. He made that decision all by himself. That said, the church’s teachings were a silent partner in creating the mental environment where this type of decision made sense to him. Therefore, we have to acknowledge that the evangelical Purity Movement, however well intentioned, has done more harm than good and should be abandoned. The question we must answer going forward is how can the church promote healthy sexuality going forward?
Resolving the Conflict
One of the reasons why I focused on sexuality for Season 2 of the Restorative Faith Podcast is because I have known for a long time how damaging this type of theology can be to young people. There is an inherent conflict between the biological reality of human sexuality and the church’s restrictive approach. The biological reality is that humans evolved to be intensely sexual creatures. But it’s important to recognize that human sexuality is more than genital intercourse. We use our sexuality as a means of bonding with other with other humans. As Dr. Agustin Fuentes, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University said to my colleague Rebekah Anderson:
“People are socially sexual. The vast majority of all sexual activity is non-reproductive, and, I would point out, frequently does not focus on genitals. So if you think about the hormone systems, the physiology, the biology of sexual arousal and engagement, everyone always focuses on the genitals and the reproductive tract. But much of that is neuro-cognitive, behavioral and physical, with touch and looks and glances and expressions of devotion.”
In other words, sexuality is critical to our social behaviors as humans. If you, as a person, are asked to suppress, repress and deny your sexuality, then you are cutting off an extremely important element of what makes you human. More importantly, if that part of you never properly develops because you believe that it is wrong or evil, then you may end up not being able to enjoy the fullness of life God gave you. Therefore, I think there’s a few important things we need to get on the table.
Moving forward, we need to agree that having sexual thoughts, feelings and desires is not inherently wrong, nor does it make you a bad or immoral person. We have to agree that engaging in sexual behavior is a natural progression of human relationships, rather than an act sanctified by God that can only be enjoyed within the confines of Christian marriage. We need to acknowledge that heterosexual relationships are not the norm for everyone; that some people will be attracted to members of the same sex, some people will want change their sex and some people cannot define their sex.
What is critical in all of this is that the church removes itself from the judgment seat. The church needs to embrace the colorful tapestry that is human sexuality. What if Christianity were to tell people, “You can embrace your sexuality however you see fit, as long as you maintain healthy boundaries that discourage mental, emotional or physical abuse.” Think how that message would have changed the outcome of March 16th. Long wouldn’t loathe himself for his sexual desires. He wouldn’t worry that his salvation was being compromised and, most importantly, he wouldn’t have killed Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Daoyou Feng and Xiaojie Tan.
Ultimately, I believe that if the church is going to remain a relevant force for good in the 21st century, then the church needs to be dedicated to the formation of relationships based on love, honesty, mutual respect, consent and open communication. If this is our goal, then I believe the church will become a force for good in the world that will help Christians seek out healthy relationships rather than creating mental, emotional and physical turmoil that destroys lives.
*Another Interpretation of Jesus' Teachings on Lust
Since this article is quite lengthy, I ended up removing this explanation from the original article. If you are interested in why Jesus’ prohibition against thinking lustful thoughts in Matthew 5:27-28 (“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”) is not a prohibition against masturbation, please keep reading.
Before we dive into this, I want to provide a little bit of cultural context. First of all, let's talk about the word adultery. A general definition is when a person who is married has sexual relations with someone who is not their spouse. Interestingly, this general definition of adultery is not the biblical definition. According to the Bible, adultery has very different definitions based on your gender.
From the perspective of the Torah laws, adultery for a man is when he sleeps with a woman who is married. (Dt. 22:22-24) Married men were allowed to sleep with prostitutes without consequence. Such action was not considered adultery. On the other hand, adultery for a woman is when she sleeps with anyone who is not her husband. She’s not allowed to sleep with a prostitute and get away with it. This cultural context will become important when discussing Jesus' teachings on lust.
What many people don’t realize is that Jesus’ teachings on lust precede his teachings on divorce "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." (Mt. 5:31-32).
In this instance, the two are tied together. In ancient Palestine, only the man could initiate a divorce because his wife was his property. Furthermore, a man could divorce his wife for literally any reason he could think up. He could divorce a woman for not bearing him a son, for not cooking a proper meal, for looking at him the wrong way.
Once divorced, unless the woman comes from a wealthy family, then she would become destitute. Although her ex-husband can remarry as many times as he likes, marriage is no longer a viable option for her because no man will want to marry a woman who is not a virgin. Therefore, Jesus’ teachings on divorce are an attempt to defend the rights of women who often had no legal recourse because they lived in a deeply patriarchal society.
Jesus’ teachings on lust are attempting to achieve the same goal as his teachings on divorce. Jesus is trying to prevent men from abandoning their wives. If you’re not lusting after another woman, then the likelihood of divorce diminishes significantly. This is a far cry from the interpretation that Jesus’ teachings on lust create the expectation that humans should never entertain a lustful thought or that you cannot masturbate. From my perspective, I think Jesus is asking us not to wield our sexuality in ways that will hurt other people.
Again, if you want a deeper dive into the way the Bible approaches sexuality, I would highly recommend listening to Season 2 of the Restorative Faith Podcast. This takes deep dive into all the components of sexuality found in the Bible, where they’ve gone wrong and defines a positive path forward so that we don’t end up with more incidents, like the one caused by Robert Aaron Long.