A mass shooting perpetrated by Robert Aaron Long in Atlanta, Georgia, Tuesday has caused national outrage and has intensified already fraught conversations within evangelicalism about race and sexuality.
“Mercy,” tweeted Duke Kwon, lead pastor of Grace Meridian Hill in Washington D.C., “8 shot dead in metro Atlanta, most or all victims of Asian descent. Keep in mind, whether or not this incident proves to be a racially motivated hate crime, it’s gutting news for an Asian American community already reeling from the recent rise in violent racist attacks.” Later, Kwon tweeted,
The premature public naming of sexual addiction as primary motive effectively cast the killer in a sympathetic light as powerless victim, and immediately hypersexualized seven faceless women whose identities were already bound to be framed by exotified, dehumanizing tropes.
— Duke Kwon (@dukekwondc) March 18, 2021
The 21-year-old gunman killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent. Robert Aaron Long, who was a professing Christian and highly active in his church as a teen, claims to have committed the murders because of a sexual addiction.
Sheila Gregoire, a Christian author who has voiced extensive concerns about the way evangelicalism portrays sexuality, stated, “It’s time for the evangelical church to realize that the way we talk about sex and lust and porn poses a danger to women, as the Atlanta shooting all too horrifically showed us—and 8 people, including 7 women, died for it.”
Robert Aaron Long’s Shooting Spree
On March 16 around 5 p.m., Atlanta-area police responded to reports of attacks on several spas, one northwest of Atlanta in Acworth and two in Atlanta itself. The shootings took place at three businesses: Young’s Asian Massage, Gold Spa, and Aromatherapy Spa. According to police, Long had been a patron of the latter two businesses. One person was injured in addition to the eight people who were killed.
Authorities arrested Long hours later in Crisp County, Georgia, which is south of Atlanta in the central part of the state. They said he was heading Florida to carry out more attacks against “some type of porn industry.” Long, who has taken responsibility for the shootings, has been charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault. He is being held without bond.
Even though the majority of his victims are of Asian descent, Long has claimed that he was not motivated by race but rather by his struggle with sexual temptations. According to Capt. Jay Baker with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, “[Long] apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places, and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.” Long’s temptations were reportedly so acute that he considered committing suicide, but instead he decided to attack the spa workers in order to “help” people with struggles similar to his. Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms emphasized the importance of not blaming victims and said the spas were legally operating businesses as far as Atlanta authorities know.
Background on Robert Aaron Long
From late 2019 to early 2020, Robert Aaron Long sought help for his sexual struggles by spending time in a halfway house for people recovering from addictions. While there, he roomed with a man named Tyler Bayless, who was in the program for a drug addiction. Bayless told Reuters that Long was in the program for sex addiction and would relapse by going to “massage parlors” in order to seek out opportunities “for explicitly sexual activity.” Said Bayless, “In the halfway house he would describe several of his sexual addiction ‘relapses’ as he called them. He would have a deep feeling of remorse and shame and say he needed to return to prayer and to return to God.”
In a post on Facebook, Bayless wrote,
I lived with Robert Aaron Long for a few months. I can tell you right now that this is not racially motivated killing, but the product of an emotionally disturbed young man who was religious to the point of mania and who felt deep shame about why he frequented these places. I wonder how this would have gone if he had been in an environment where he wasn’t repeatedly told how sinful he was for the things that drove him. What a tragic loss of life, and a kid that was all around one of the sweeter people you’d meet.
While it is not clear whether Long was attending church at the time when he committed the shootings, he was at one time an active member of Crabapple First Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist church in Milton, Ga., and had been baptized at the church twice. Former youth leader Brett Cottrell told The Washington Post that Long was a “typical teenager” who participated in the church’s youth group, attended a weekly Bible study and volunteered at a “backyard Bible club with songs and games for kids.” According to Cottrell, Long had professed his faith at eight years old and frequently helped out at the church by stacking chairs and cleaning floors.