March 24, 2021

CHANG | White Evangelical Christianity and the Atlanta Shootings

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Like many of you, I have been reeling from the shootings in Atlanta last week. Eight women, of which six were Asian American, were killed. Many different conversations have been broached — with friends, white or otherwise, family and online — wondering how senseless violence “like this” could have happened (the answer I wanted to give was to read a book).

One of the things we know about the suspect, Robert Aaron Long, is his religious background: he was a churchgoer who belonged to the Southern Baptist congregation. This might be surprising for those who view Christianity as a religion that espouses peace and togetherness above all else. Then again, Long’s faith might be completely unsurprising for those who think of Christianity as an excuse for hate, backed by historical examples that span the Crusades to the Westboro Baptist Church.

Other prominent journalists and thinkers, both inside and outside of Christian circles, have already tackled how church teachings on sexuality and uncritical affirmation of purity culture were part of Long’s thinking. To him, the Asian women working at massage parlors were a source of temptation and threat, so Long felt that he had to eliminate them. In his twisted view, the women were at fault.

But what hasn’t received a lot of attention is that the church’s teaching on race and racism, or lack thereof, needs re-examination. Growing up, I, like Long, attended a church that was predominantly white. And by predominantly, I mean that I was the only Asian person in the congregation. Of course, there had to have been others — a membership of over 4,000 people made that inevitable — but it was safe to say that I was in a very small minority. 

Many churches across the United States, whether by choice or by demographics, are also predominantly white. To no one’s surprise, minorities often flock to ethnic churches as a result, finding comfort in attending services with people who have the same cultural background. The white Evangelical Church has a problem talking about race. Brett Cottrell, who led youth ministry while Long was involved, said, “I don’t recall any sermons dealing specifically with racism, but the general tenor was to welcome and to be as inclusive as possible.” In a white church, being welcoming and being inclusive means little. A church environment that lacks teaching — through sermons, small groups and Biblical study — that explicitly preaches against racism allows implicit bias and racialized hate to fester. Indeed, many churches like the Southern Baptist congregation Long belonged to swore off Critical Race Theory as incompatible with their faith.

Even though Long said that the attacks were not racially motivated, the impact on the Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities has been enormous. It is possible, and even likely, that this impact will go unaddressed by many churches. As Raymond Chang, campus minister at Wheaton College, writes, “…the white evangelical church in the west has not only remained silent but also … been the (sic) among the greatest resisters to faithfulness around God’s call to love neighbor….” 

White evangelicals are at a crossroads, with lives at stake. Will churches put forth a good faith effort to truly welcome and affirm all members of their congregations and all parts of the Bible, including every passage that mentions loving or preaching to “all the nations” (as in John 17:23 or Acts 1:8)? Or, will the exodus continue — the “quiet exodus” that began with Black believers leaving white evangelical churches?

Don’t think for a second that you have escaped the pervasiveness of whiteness and white evangelical ideology at Cornell. It does not take an opinion columnist to remind you of the various hate crimes that have occurred on this chunk of hilltop in Ithaca, even in the past few years. This criticism demonstrates how the fabric of society is inculcated by an inability and silence to speak about racism — whether against the Asian American community or Black community. 

We should not ask Asian Americans how such a violent event could have occurred when exclusion is intrinsic to Asian American history. Rather, we should question how we have contributed to structures that allow and even perpetuate violence — like, in this case, the white evangelical church’s silence on race.

Darren Chang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Swamp Snorkeling runs every other Thursday this semester.