Category Archives: religion

Robert Aaron Long and the Equation of Sex and Sin

The man who confessed to murdering eight people in three metro-Atlanta massage parlors denies that the rampage was a hate crime. But we’re not taking his word for it. We’re considering the ethnic identity of the victims, the past year of anti-Asian rhetoric and surge in anti-Asian violence, and the long history of anti-Asian racism in America. In other words, the whole context.

Good. So let’s also examine the larger context of the motive Robert Aaron Long actually expressed: sexual addiction.

“He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction,” said Captain Jay Baker about Long’s confession. “We believe that he frequented these places in the past,” Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds told reporters, “and may have been lashing out.”

Where in the world did Long get the idea that his sexual desire was a terrible problem for which these women had to pay?

It’s not a big mystery.

Long is a devout Southern Baptist. He led a high school Christian group and served on his church’s Student Ministry Team. In 2018, he was baptized in that church, the Crabapple First Baptist in Milton, Georgia. One schoolmate of Long’s remembered him as a “super nice, super Christian, very quiet.” When he heard about the shooting, he said, “I mean, all my friends, we were flabbergasted.”

He should be shocked. But not because Long is a Christian. In fact, a strict Southern Baptist upbringing might well contribute to the belief that sexual desire is the height of sin and the twisted logic that female sex workers (or perceived sex workers), in causing the desire, caused the sin.

Where in the world did Long get the idea that his sexual desire was a problem for which these women had to pay?

In its recent statement, the Crabapple First Baptist Church categorically denies the link: “The women that he solicited for sexual acts are not responsible for his perverse sexual desires nor do they bear any blame in these murders. These actions are the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind for which Aaron is completely responsible.”

Of course, Long is solely responsible for the murders. But we should not let his church off the hook just because they say we should.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the organization of conservative Baptist churches to which Crabapple belongs, preaches that sex is strictly a procreative act, sex outside of marriage is a sin that leads to damnation and lust is something that “we need to help men kill.” It was the SBC that launched the True Love Waits abstinence campaign, which promoted not just waiting until (heterosexual) marriage to have sex, but also total “sexual purity”: no sexual touching, no pornography, no sexual thoughts.

That means that Crabapple First Baptist describes as Long’s “evil” and “perverse” sexual desires may simply be . . . sexual desires. Its loathing of sex likely became his self-loathing; its shaming, his lethal shame.

Linda Kay Klein, the author of “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Freehas noted that fundamental to purity culture is the idea that “men and boys are easily sexually tempted, and that women and girls are responsible for protecting men and boys from the temptation that is their bodies. That means not being seductive in any way, not wearing anything that could cause a man to think or act in a sexual way. And that if women and girls would just do that, then everyone would be safe.”

Here’s an example of this attitude, from a blog post entitled “Modesty Matters” by Kara Bennett, wife of the pastor of Faith Baptist Church of Faith, North Carolina: “when a young lady dresses inappropriately . . . Her sin spreads. As she strolls down the beach in her immodest bathing suit or worships on a Sunday wearing a revealing dress, everyone who sees her is handed temptation. The men and boys around her must battle the sin of lust.”

In strict patriarchal religions where sex is considered a sin, the solution to the problem of male desire is female erasure. It’s not just evangelical Christianity: in ultra-Orthodox Judaism, women must cover their bodies and their hair and sit out of sight in the synagogue; in fundamentalist Islam, women wear hijabs or burqas to protect themselves from male desire and to protect men from temptation.

“In the evangelical community,” writes Klein, “an ‘impure’ girl or woman isn’t just seen as damaged; she’s considered dangerous.”

It is in this context and with this upbringing that Long saw his own sexual desire as sinful and women he desired as embodying a “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”

“Super nice, super Christian” Long was super indoctrinated into a belief system that held women responsible for the sin of male desire. As we try to understand the lethal mix of racism, misogyny, and gun culture that set the stage for Tuesday night’s tragedy, that belief system should bear scrutiny too. No matter what the church says.

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Praying, But Not to God

I write this on International Pizza Day, so I wish you a Happy IPD, and a tasty pie made just the way you like it. We’re sad not to be celebrating in the usual way, i.e., the one described in How to Start Your Own Holiday.

Also, please enjoy this essay I wrote about prayer at the Biden inauguration. I won’t be putting every Washington Post piece on my website–since I can really only point to them anyway–but I do want to call your attention to one that emerged from years of thinking about religion and God in the public sphere as well as from that crystalline moment on January 20.

Other recent columns anticipate Trump’s future presidential portrait, appreciate feeling body-less in the Zoom era, and, just this past weekend, explain why a person should watch the Super Bowl (note: it’s true even if the game in question is very, very bad). And more!

But this one, reflecting on the need for prayer and wondering if we could pray while keeping church and state separate, is one that I hope kicks around for a while. Read it here and let me know what you think.

You can read the rest of the column here at The Washington Post.

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Why All the Dead Babies?

Passover makes it especially clear: religion is not where morality comes from.

This piece was originally published in FaithStreet years ago, but when I searched for it recently it was gone. So I’m reprising it here, slightly updated. It’s a bit of an antidote to my recent concession that religion can be useful.

As an atheist mom, I am sometimes asked, “How do you teach your children morality?”

I’m not a cultural anthropologist, an evolutionary biologist, or a neurologist. I don’t know where we get our sense of right and wrong. But I do know one thing: No one’s morality comes from the Bible. At least no one I want to meet.

Passover is a perfect example. When our kids were little, Adam and I — both raised Jewish — would go to my in-laws’ house for a Passover Seder, our three godless kids in tow. We’d open the door to the most delicious smell this side of bacon: matzo-ball soup.

Sorry, kids: two hours till dinner. Don’t touch that matzo! Look: Mom has brought you coloring pages!

I would bring all the Internet had to offer small children suffering through a Seder: Crosswords, word searches, and color-your-own cartoons of lice, flies, boils, locusts, and, especially, frogs — the fun plague.

But no matter how many pictures of frogs I waved around, my children fixated, outraged, on the dead babies.

They did not know the 10 Commandments, much less the 613 laws of the Mosaic Code. They had not studied sharia; they had not heard of The Beatitudes. Still, somehow, they got the notion that killing babies is wrong.

There is a lot of baby killing in Moses’ story, beginning with the Egyptian edict that all the baby Hebrew boys be thrown into the Nile and ending with the Angel of Death killing all the (non-Jewish) firstborn children.

In this context of infanticide, distracting my kids with frogs felt a little dishonest. So after a couple of years, I decided to acknowledge the horror of the story. Then I could at least reframe the carnage as the tragic collateral damage of a system of oppression.

I found quotes from Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. I found a CD with Paul Robeson singing, “Go Down, Moses.” I helpfully stickered my father-in-law’s Haggadah — the Passover playbook — with circled numbers keyed to a sheaf of supplemental materials on slavery.

Rather than relying on the verses selected in our Haggadah, I decided to return to the source: the book of Exodus itself. Although I didn’t believe Exodus was literally true, I thought it probably still contained powerful truths on the themes of slavery and freedom, tyranny and redemption.

Then I went back and read it.

Passover, as originally conceived, celebrates neither freedom nor justice. It celebrates the triumph of one god over other gods, one people over another. In this triumphant story, murder is rampant and rarely justifiable.

Animals die first: countless fish from the water-turned-to-blood (Exodus 7:21), land animals from livestock disease (9:5), then anyone or thing caught out in the worst hail/firestorm Egypt ever saw (9:25). And then, for the tenth plague, brutality, not justice, is meted out:

“Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt — worse than there has ever been or ever will be again” (11:5-7).

All of this is particularly horrible because every time Pharaoh wants to let our people go, God hardens his heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3,9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 14:4, 14:17) so as to spread his fame in an age before the printing press or Twitter.

“But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 14:4; also 7:1-5, 9:16, and 11:9).

Glory in the eyes of the Jews is an even greater obsession. We are to remember him as “the Lord who took you out of Egypt” (Exodus 6:6, 10:2, 12:17, 12:27, 13:3, 13:8, 13:9, 13:14, 13:16, ad inf). We are in his debt and at his mercy:

“If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians” (Exodus 15:26).

This isn’t God the Father so much as the Godfather.

As for slavery, the Old Testament makes it clear: there’s nothing wrong with owning slaves — just with being slaves. I’m not a biblical scholar or a historian. The rules in Exodus 21 about how one is supposed to treat one’s slaves may well represent, in the context of the biblical era, a giant moral leap forward.

But Passover, as it is set forth in Exodus, is not an anti-slavery, anti-oppression holiday. It’s an us-against-them, praise-the-Lord holiday.

I’ve never been to a Seder that presents Passover that way. Never. Some are more sectarian than others, but all of them reach for general themes that affirm — at the very least — that slavery is wrong and that struggle against oppression is righteous.

The Jews I know — believers and nonbelievers — comb Exodus looking for phrases that meet our ethical standards. We leave the rest out. We make scripture conform to our morality, not the other way around.

I remember once when I was a child standing next to my father during Yom Kippur services. We turned to such-and-such a page to read aloud a prayer about sin and repentance and before I could begin, my father leaned over and whispered fiercely, “Don’t you read that. It’s not right: you’re a child, you haven’t sinned.”

It’s not right. Every day parents are leaning over and whispering that to their children. Or showing it by example. These people don’t get their morality from their scriptures — they bring their morality to it.

Like the bar mitzvah boy who interprets his short portion of the Old Testament with extreme creativity. Or the priest who grants annulments with unorthodox leniency. Or the Presbyterian minister who performs same-sex marriage ceremonies, no matter what Romans 1:26–27 may say.

Why stick with those old texts at all if you have to twist, excerpt, or quietly ignore them? Why did I struggle with Exodus once a year, when I could just give up on Passover entirely and feed my kids matzo ball soup on Martin Luther King Day?

Habit, I think. As a family we have by now more or less kicked it; we seem often to be coincidentally out of town on Passover, or coronavirally confined to our homes. But we’ll surely find ourselves at a seder again, and it doesn’t have to be a waste. There’s something to be said for reading those passages aloud together and together proclaiming, It’s not right. Or studiously ignoring those passages and congratulating ourselves, as a people, on our moral progress.

If you look at it that way, Passover is an annual celebration not just of how long the Jewish people have lasted but also of how very far we’ve come.

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