After spa shootings, faith leaders grapple with deep questions

Signs and flowers are displayed outside of the Gold Spa in Atlanta, Friday, March 19, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Signs and flowers are displayed outside of the Gold Spa in Atlanta, Friday, March 19, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Tragedy forces a look at how denominations address racism, gender bias, sexuality

The Rev. Catherine Renken knew the calls would start as soon as the black letters went up on the marquee in front of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in Kennesaw.

“Christian Nationalism is an oxymoron.”

Over the years, the church has posted messages, denouncing white supremacy, supporting Black Lives Matter and others, that have rankled some passersby.

It doesn’t bother her.

Pastor Catherine Renken posts messages on the marquee at Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in Kennesaw that spread the message about justice, love and the Word of Jesus. They have drawn complaints from some passersby. CONTRIBUTED
Pastor Catherine Renken posts messages on the marquee at Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in Kennesaw that spread the message about justice, love and the Word of Jesus. They have drawn complaints from some passersby. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

She uses each call as a moment to spread the word about Jesus’ message to love and respect one’s neighbor, even if they don’t look or think like them.

“It’s a pulpit for our church to speak strong words of faith,” said Renken, who became the pastor there in 2011.

She’ll use that pulpit on Sunday to speak in the wake of the shootings in metro Atlanta on Tuesday that resulted in the deaths of eight people, most of whom were Asian women.

She won’t be alone.

Christian leaders are grappling with what message they will deliver on Sunday and how the faith tackles such issues as racism, gender bias and sexuality.

Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock, the alleged shooter in the killings, was said to be very religious, but struggled with sex addiction. He admitted to authorities that he was the shooter and saw the spas as “temptation he wanted to eliminate.” Long has been charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault.

ExploreSuspect’s past offers clues about path to attacks

“I think the church is following a script of what they perceive American Christians should believe,” said Renken. Instead, they should “really reflect on who Jesus called us to be ... We have so much work to do just agreeing that yes, we should care for the immigrant. Yes, we should stand up for people in our community – our brothers and sisters – who are being harassed. That is simply not OK.”

Long was a member of Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton. In a statement released Friday, the church called the violence “a rebellion” against God” and said it was in the process of removing him from membership.

Crabapple blamed “a sinful heart and depraved mind” for the actions for which Long is accused — but Christian leaders are also facing questions about religion’s role in issues that have long been problems for the church — and sometimes caused by people in the church.

The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., has faced divisions recently over issues of race and sexual orientation.

Crabapple is part of the SBC, although church leaders declined further comment.

Crabapple First Baptist Church in North Fulton issued a statement condemning actions of suspected spa shooter Robert Aaron Long
Crabapple First Baptist Church in North Fulton issued a statement condemning actions of suspected spa shooter Robert Aaron Long

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, said Christians “must also lead the way in refusing to listen to and refusing to amplify the voices of those who would incite hatred against minority populations. Jesus has taught us this: hatred in the heart leads, in the fullness of time, to bloodshed. We should stand against that.”

That’s not to say problems lie solely with one denomination, or for that matter, only Christians.

Jamil Drake, an ordained minister and assistant professor in the religion department at Florida State University, said the church has a responsibility to confront societal issues that perennially plague people across race, class, gender and sexuality.

Just as it has a responsibility to address those issues, it also bears much responsibility for causing and upholding those systemic inequalities and biases.

He said there needs to be broader coalitions that go beyond religious affiliation.

“If the church is going to be relevant to the needs of their congregations and the needs of the community, it has to address those social issues,” he said. “It’s not just personal issues about what people do in their private lives, but, to some extent, their understanding of the sins of these systemic evils that continuously define American life and history.”

ExploreSuspect’s church calls Atlanta spa shootings ‘rebellion’ against God

And such history is not limited to race.

“The universal church, since the time of Eve, has had issues with blaming women for the frailties of men,” said the Rev. Marita Harrell, pastor of Connections at Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Atlanta. “There have always been people blaming God for their bad behavior. There will always be bad actors blaming things on God, but God is a God of love, light, truth and peace.”

Moore, of the Southern Baptist ERLC, outlined first steps for church leaders to address extremism.

“I have heard from many pastors who were shocked to see such attitudes showing up on the social media feeds of some of their members,” he said in response to emailed questions. “The church will always have those who reject the teachings of Jesus and the Bible, even from within.”

That means teaching church members to recognize what causes people to be drawn to violent extremist movements and to recognize conspiracy theories and hate propaganda. It also means working with mental health experts and law enforcement, he said.

Signs and flowers are displayed outside of the Gold Spa in Atlanta, Friday, March 19, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Signs and flowers are displayed outside of the Gold Spa in Atlanta, Friday, March 19, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

“As we have seen repeatedly in recent years, such ideologies not only destroy people spiritually from the inside out, but also often become deadly to others,” Moore said. “The church must denounce all of these racist and extremist ideologies for what they are: satanic counter-gospels.”

Senior Pastor Jason Dees of Christ Covenant Church in Atlanta said while no one knows what was going through the suspect’s mind, “the Christian response to sin is repentance and taking ownership of our own sin and faith.”

Writing in Christianity Today, Dees said he doesn’t blame the church or Christianity for the shootings.

“At the end of the day this is the kind of moment we need to remember the Gospel all the more that even in our sin we can look back to the very God we’ve sinned against for forgiveness because of the cross of Jesus Christ.”

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