Limits of Religious Freedom and the Atlanta Spa Shootings

Last Tuesday, 21 year old Robert Long shot and killed eight people at several Atlanta area massage parlors. You can read NBC coverage here and USA Today here. This type of crime is particularly jarring because the motive is so hard to understand. Murder committed out of anger, or in the course of robbery, at least we can comprehend. But why would someone just start shooting total strangers?

As the victims were Asian, it’s possible this crime could be part of the recent wave of violence against people of Asian descent. If that is the case, it would be a hate crime. However, it’s not clear whether that is true. The investigation has not so far determined whether Long chose these spas because they are Asian, or whether that was not his intent. So for the purpose of the discussion let’s set the hate crime element aside.

What does seem clear is that Long was suffering from enormous personal stress. He had recently lost his job and been kicked out of his parents’ house. What I want to focus on, though, was his reported self-loathing. Friends described him as suffering from sex-addiction and a monumental struggle to avoid sexual temptation and pornography.

The Shooter’s Religious Struggles

Tyler Bayless, identified as Long’s former roommate, says that Long frequently went to massage parlors for sex, and the guilt he felt for doing so tore him up inside. He always brought up sex in the context of his faith and relationship with God.

Bayless says that Long once asked him to take away his computer to prevent him from looking at porn, and used a flip phone so he couldn’t view porn that way. Long himself reportedly told authorities that the massage parlors were ‘a temptation that he wanted to eliminate.’

Long was a committed member of Crabapple First Baptist Church, which reportedly preaches that porn and unmarried sex are sinful and interfere with a person’s salvation. (It is difficult to verify this particular Church’s ideology now as in the wake of the shooting they removed their website and social media.)

While of course it is speculation, Long’s state before the shooting seems possible to reconstruct. As a single young man he felt immense sexual desires, which he struggled mightily to repress since there was no acceptable outlet. At times he gave in to temptation by viewing porn or going to a massage parlor, and after he did so he was wracked with guilt. He had soiled his soul, betrayed his Church, and risked his eventual salvation. This morphed into anger- why do these women at the massage parlors make themselves so readily available and alluring? Why do porn sites make their smut so cheap and easy to find? Why don’t these people understand that they are evil and ruining his life, stop tempting him and just leave him alone?

Throw in the loss of his job and problems with his parents, and a powder keg of anger and guilt explodes.

Long’s Church does not support or condone the violence Long carried out. In fact, they issued a lengthy condemnation, adding that they are starting the process of removing Long from membership. There’s no doubt that if they had any indication of the crime Long was about to commit, they would have done everything in their power to stop him. But unfortunately, the Church likely still played a role in what took place.

Religion and Human Rights

Freedom of religion is one of the most basic and widely agreed upon human rights. This includes the right to hold religiously grounded views on controversial social issues- that it’s wrong to have sex outside of marriage,  porn is a sin, there are limited or no justifications for abortion, and so on. Everyone has the right to hold these opinions and to live by them if they choose. Religious freedom also includes the right to preach one’s religious views in houses of worship, celebrate them in religious services, and promote them as part of the expression of one’s faith.

But what about the guilt and pain these beliefs cause to adherents who are unable to live up to them? Crabapple Church says that anyone who sinks into despair and guilt, let alone carries out violence, has actually misunderstood their message and perverted the faith. But a religious group cannot absolve itself of responsibility for pain its teachings cause so easily.

A key tenant of the human rights movement is that human rights are inalienable. No matter how noble, justified, or pressing the cause, one person’s rights can never be trampled even if the purpose is to enhance or protect the rights of others.

The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all members of the human family are entitled to freedom from fear and to live in peace. Preaching that whoever succumbs to their natural temptations will suffer eternal damnation clearly causes some people intense panic and despair. Even if that is not the intended message, there is no way around the fact that is sometimes the effect.

There’s a conflict between the right to hold and preach whatever religious views one chooses, and the obligation no matter what the intention not to subject others to panic and despair. Just because a view is a sincerely held religious belief, consideration of the possible effects that belief may have on listeners is needed before deciding whether it is okay to preach that belief to the public.

Crabapple Church would certainly never have knowingly subjected a congregant to physical pain or torture. But psychological torture is just as bad. They may have combined their preachings about the immorality of illicit sex and porn with a message about how God’s love remains unconditional towards those who fail or God grants everyone the ability to withstand the temptations to which they are subjected. But that doesn’t change the fact that whatever Church leaders may have intended, the message of despair and damnation is what Long heard.

The book of Proverbs states that ‘Life and death are in the hands of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21).” The Talmud (Erchin 15b) asks what this means- does the tongue have hands? The Talmud explains the proverb is saying that just as hands can kill, so too can the tongue. The Talmud then adds that the tongue is more powerful than hands. Hands can only kill at short range, whereas the tongue is like an arrow killing at long distances.

While religious groups are accustomed to turning to human rights principles to demand their freedom be respected, freedom of religion is no absolute. When preaching causes people to live tormented by crippling guilt, it’s the rights of devotees that need to be protected.

Photo: Photo is a memorial to the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings.

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