Guest post by MJ Lisbeth
Even after the Trump (mis)administration and a seemingly endless string of mass shootings, Robert Aaron Long’s killing spree shocked me. But it also stirred up other reactions that I’m just now sorting out.
On one hand, I felt disgust at Long because he attacked members of an ethnic group that is under siege. Within a few days, within a few miles of my apartment, Chinese and other Asian people—including a woman in her 70s—were brutally beaten. Moreover, his victims were also further marginalized and stigmatized because they were sex workers. Very few people actually choose to make a living that way: More often, they are paying off a debt to a smuggler, drug dealer or pimp, or simply find themselves cast adrift with no other skills or means of survival. I think now of the young queer people in the LGBT youth group I co-facilitated for two years. Some were kicked out of their homes when they “came out,” or ran away from home because they were bullied. A few, I knew, were turning “tricks” minutes after our group sessions ended.
So, perhaps, I could say that I took Long’s actions personally, not only because of those young people, but also because my status is not much greater than theirs, at least in the eyes of some people. As a transgender woman, I have been falsely accused of all manner of sexual misconduct by people who knew they could invoke stereotypes and caricatures to exact revenge against, or simply bully, me.
At the same time, while I do not condone what Long did, what I feel about him is more complicated than what I felt about, say, Dylan Roof. I had an easier time condemning and—dare I say it?—hating Roof because he seemed to act on a purer kind of hatred and bigotry: He admitted he killed nine African Americans because he wanted to start a race war. And, quite honestly, from what I learned about him—not much, I admit—he and I seemed to have little in common.
In contrast, I can find some points of comparison, if not identification, between myself and Mr. Long. While I don’t think I’m a sex addict, whatever that means, I can understand, at least somewhat his anxiety over his sexual desires and impulses. Though mine, I imagine, are and were very different from his, I think we share this: Our desires (and, in my case, my identity) were seen as “sinful” by the religious communities in which we participated, as well as by the secular authorities (his, via his family and community; mine, products of the time and places in which I grew up) that ruled our lives.
I was raised as a Roman Catholic half a century ago. Later, I would “answer” what I thought was a “calling” from “the Lord” (which I now realize was a kind of breakdown) by “accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior” and becoming with an Evangelical church and organization. In reality, what I needed were a good therapist and a support group. The particulars of Long’s religious life were surely different from mine, but I believe we shared this: Inculcation with an intense belief in an implacable being that caused us no end of anxiety.
As someone who was sexually abused by a priest, I can attest that one of the ways the church gets its “hooks” into young people is by filling them with guilt about their biological and psychological impulses, however common they may be. Those impulses conflict with their fealty to the Divine, according to the teachings of the Church, and must therefore be extinguished (via celibacy) or sublimated into a sanctioned relationship that leads to the production of more future church members. But whether you celibate (I know, you’re not supposed to verb adjectives) or procreate, your faith can never be enough.
I suspect that something like what I’ve described is at work in other Christian churches. Certainly, it was in the Evangelical church in which I was involved, and from which known and suspected homosexuals, smokers and other “sinners” were expelled. The fear of losing one’s community (and possibly family) compounds the anxieties someone might have about not being “saved” and being thus consigned to eternal torment.
Now, I won’t pretend to know the exact nature of Mr. Long’s sexual desires. He says he was an “addict.” His claim begs this question: Was he always so? Was he—or anyone—born to be a “sex addict?” Or did suppressing his desires in the name of faith cause him to occasionally “binge” like students on Spring Break in South Beach after being cooped up all winter? Could William Blake have had someone like Mr. Long in mind when he wrote, “Prisons are built from stones of law/Brothels from bricks of religion”?
One thing I know: Having to deal with suppressed desire, and anxiety over a seemingly implacable God and church, makes quite a load to bear. Especially if you are young. (Modern neuroscience shows us that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until about age 25.) Especially if you have been surrounded people and institutions that inculcated you with anxiety about your destiny and shame about your desires.
As I mentioned earlier, I neither condone nor excuse what Robert Aaron Long did. But he is not the only villain in that tragedy. He must be held to account but he also needs help as much as–again, dare I say it?—I needed it when I was abused. As I needed counseling and therapy (which, to be fair, almost nobody in that place and time knew how to do), Robert Aaron Long needs some serious de-programming, not only from a belief in the need to please an unpleasable imaginary being, but also from the notions about gender roles and racial hierarchy that enforces. So do many other young people; so did many of us: We got the same kinds of indoctrination, reinforced in similar ways. Unless those are dismantled, indicting and punishing Robert Aaron Long will serve no other purpose than to indict and punish Robert Aaron Long.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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