The Atlanta Mass Shooting: Reflections on Numbness, Homelands, the Church and Race
When I first read the story detailing the horrific murders in Atlanta this past month, I struggled to really feel it. Too much was happening in my world here in Okinawa, too much grief and sorrow due to events here on the island. My heart simply did not have room to take in any more.
After shutting down the news for a week, I took another look. I read a few articles, spoke with friends and family, and watched a video my dad had sent, featuring some of his Asian American church colleagues in a call for solidarity.
Most of the content focused on whether or not this was a hate crime, the legacy of anti-Asian racism in America, and criticisms of the police officer who recounted the aggressor’s version of the story. Then, a few pieces looked at evangelical culture around sexuality and pornography, and how this may have contributed to this young man’s decision.
Being a mixed Asian American man, what happened in Atlanta hit my world directly. As the descendent of a Korean great-grandmother who was able to immigrate the US only due to a legal exception (Asians were banned from immigration at the time), seeing the four Korean names made it even more personal.
But too, as a pastor’s son, whose childhood was tightly wound up in conservative evangelicalism, I found myself paradoxically resonating with aspects of the aggressor’s story, particularly around how the church teaches us to relate to our bodies, urges and desires.
So here, I want to explore the disparate, seemingly contradictory fragments of my experience of this moment with the hope that this will bring some more space and coherence to our understanding of what happened in Atlanta last month.
1. Loss, Numbness, Witness
Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yu — they were a part of us. Daoyou Feng, Xiaojie Tan, Paul Andre Michels, and Delaina Ashley Yaun — these people, mostly women, were a part of the body that is our nation. No matter our ethnic background or political stance, our spirits recognize the loss of each of their lives. Their deaths ripple through our collective nervous system, which is intricately woven through all of our relations, whether we realize it or not.
But for any number of reasons, in times like these, we do not always feel the full weight of that loss. Sorrow evades us. Tears refuse to flow. We often feel a numbness, an inability to connect with the true horror of what our eyes see and our ears hear.
It is easy for us to feel like bad people for this — to feel like we should be weeping, or screaming, or feeling something more.
I want to say that it is OK to be numb. There is no “should” when it comes to the emotions we feel; for each one of us, there is only what *is*. Our nervous systems, over thousands of years, have developed sophisticated means of regulating, heightening and dampening emotion in order to keep us safe. In situations of overwhelm, certain regions of the brain are shut down. This is a wonderful, protective function. It is not dysfunction, and it is certainly not the result of us being bad people.
Our hearts hold fiercely to their truth. We cannot force ourselves to feel this or that emotion; we can only respect what is. In fact, as we will explore below, the chronic suppression of our bodies and emotions is part of how violence occurs in the first place: energy by nature has to move, and if not allowed to express, it will find a release. When we are present to what is in our hearts, however inappropriate or off-base it may seem, we suture a portion of the wound caused by that suppression. We say to ourselves, “I see you. And I accept you as you are.” In my experience, this is the beginning of all healing.
Indeed, in response after response, Asian Americans are crying out for our voices to be heard, our struggles seen, our existence recognized. Yes, there are calls for policy change, justice for the aggressor, and firearm reform. But overwhelmingly, what I have heard is a cry for the broader American community to see us and be with us in our pain.
The degree to which we are able to respond to this cry is proportional to how present we are with own experience. As neuroscientist Dan Siegel has noted, the most responsive parents are the ones who are aware of what is happening internally; this translates to a capacity to relate lovingly to their children, even in times of stress. Similarly, the more we are able to consciously connect with our own experience, the greater our capacity to witness and respond to events like Atlanta. What starts within inevitably manifests in the exterior world.
And so, whatever you feel — anger, grief, numbness, etc. — honor it. Listen to it. Tenderly allow it to be. Your heart is a wise, old friend, who when heeded, will skillfully guide you and us to the responses needed in times like these.
2. Women, Homelands and Empires
As a Korean, I want to speak specifically to deaths of the four Korean women. These women carried the legacy of our little peninsula; they bore, like all of us, the sorrows and joys, the struggles and triumphs of the Korean people, a people who endured foreign occupation for over 40+ years and refused to surrender our language, our dreams of independence, our Koreanness. The coldness with which they were murdered brings back the collective memory of Japanese occupation, under which Koreans were murdered by the Japanese military as standard practice — without feeling or remorse, which were systematically purged from the hearts of imperial soldiers.
These killings come at a time when Korean women have been under attack more broadly. In January, Harvard Law professor Mark Ramseyer published an article in the International Review of Law and Economics arguing that the Korean “comfort women,” young women and girls who were forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese Imperial Army, were in fact prostitutes who voluntarily followed the army seeking the business of Japanese soldiers. While Ramseyer’s article has been widely criticized for its use of faulty methodology and outright misuse of cited sources, its publication felt like a direct assault on the victims, some of whom are still alive, and brought to the surface a grief and rage that remain in the hearts of the Korean people.
Korean women have a special, special place in our hearts as a community. For us, there was for a long time no safe place. Our homeland was occupied, our language banned, even our names taken from us (many families were forced to adopt Japanese surnames). When we came to America, we did everything we could to create that safety and stability. We built strong community networks, Koreatowns, Korean Presbyterian Churches. We started restaurants, tailors, and massage parlors.
Our mothers and grandmothers were at the forefront of that work. They devoted their lives to carving out pockets of safety in worlds that were fundamentally unsafe — worlds that deemed us inferior, disposable, foreign. They conjured temporary homelands in cramped apartments, in lovingly cooked food, in fierce embraces. My father’s generation gained its strength in those little crevices, made and defended by Korean women.
The recent attacks on Korean women, both their bodies and their memory, are thus inseparable from the past. As we grieve the loss of Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, and Yong Ae Yu, we also grieve the countless Korean women raped and slaughtered by empire. We grieve the decades in which our homeland was unfree, taken by powers who saw it as a pawn in a game of imperial chess. And we remember the sacrifices of our mothers, aunties and grandmothers who, by some superhuman strength, stubbornly retained their tenderness, their hope, and their belief in a day when we would have a safe, free, abundant home in which to live, and laugh, and rest.
3. Body and Spirit
Wombs. Mothers. Homelands. Flesh. Earth. Body.
Spirit. Soul. Sky. Purity. Heaven.
This is an old, old split. For hundreds of years, likely more, we have carried in our cultures, religions and minds the understanding that these two aspects of reality are intrinsically separate. The body became dirty, polluted, inherently flawed; the spirit, good, higher, pure.
The Christian Church has been, of course, the central propagator of this message. The Crusades were justified as necessary for the saving of souls; the genocidal Indian Residential Schools deemed necessary to purify Indigenous peoples of their their intimacy with their bodies, lands, and the Earth. More recently, the rampant sexual abuse in the Catholic Church revealed again the consequences of a message that seeks to control and suppress core aspects of who we are as living, breathing human beings.
As someone who grew up in the Church — a pastor’s kid, no less — I know this body-spirit split viscerally. From the age when we first learned to speak, the suspicion of the flesh was etched into our brain stems; we were trained to watch, police, and restrain the evil desires that arose from our rapidly changing nervous and hormonal systems. The degree to which we succeeded in this suppression had implications for our moral goodness, and even our eternal destiny. Despite the Protestant Church’s doctrine of salvation by grace, when it came to our bodies, there was little grace.
In youth group, we learned how especially bad of a sin extramarital sex was. We listened to testimonies of older church members who left their lives of sexual immorality to become good, wholesome married people — which, ironically, often sounded more like wistful reminiscing than contrition. As adolescent boys, we read Every Young Man’s Battle, from which we learned how to “bounce our eyes” from the bodies of women, which were seen as temptations that could lead even the best of us astray.
At the evangelical college I attended, it was assumed that the ideal wife-to-be was a virgin — pure, unpolluted. Classmates known to be messing around sexually were understood as spiritually deficient, and were implicitly barred from positions such as worship director or Bible study leader. Men formed “accountability groups” to support each other in the fight against pornography and sex, and for the righteousness of our souls. It was endless, exhausting, confusing.
Writing this here, my throat contracts; my eyes blur with tears; my chest feels as though in a vice. The grief is overwhelming. Though we did not build this wall between spirit and flesh ourselves, we maintained it. We fortified it. We surveilled it, ensuring transgressions — both our own and others’ — would be caught, punished, shamed. We made war against ourselves, against each other, against the flesh, the feminine, the embodied — all in the name of the soul. I cannot grasp the full breadth and depth of the destruction caused by this war; it seems to stretch out beyond the horizon. But in my heart, I feel a river of tears, dammed for centuries, beginning to break forth.
And so while I am horrified by his actions, I also know intimately the battle that raged within Robert Long, the Atlanta killer who was a devout member of the evangelical church, and who had previously checked himself into a Christian rehab clinic to deal with his “sexual addiction.” I too learned to hate the flesh, to forcefully repress my desires. I too learned how to resist, and eradicate from my life “temptation.”
These were violent acts. And while they did not manifest in external violence towards others, we must recognize that these acts find their roots in the same body-spirit split that drove Robert Long to kill eight living, breathing human beings in an attempt to “eliminate temptation.” We as the Church cannot separate ourselves from the killer under the guise of him being mentally disturbed, or sinful in a way the rest of us are not. We cannot wash our hands of the blood of the victims. As Asian American Christians, we cannot use Long’s blatant racism as an excuse to avoid the damning implications that Atlanta has for our role in perpetuating a philosophy of the body that violently separates spirit and flesh, desecrates the feminine, and radically lacks good news about the embodied fullness of being human in this life, on this Earth.
We in this moment face a choice: to look, or to turn away. To distance ourselves from Robert Long, or to open ourselves to the uncomfortable truths that his actions and words reveal. To enter in to the messy, sticky, gross reality of flesh and blood and body to examine honestly the harms done by Christian teachings, or to remain locked behind the doors of doctrine, spiritual purity, and condescension.
It is a choice that ironically echoes the core of the story of Christ: the divine’s wild, radical decision to come and be here, on this Earth, Word made flesh.
*What I am going to write here will be challenging for some readers. I acknowledge that, and I want to be sensitive and gentle while exploring an angle that goes against what is commonly accepted (at least in progressive circles) as “correct,” or “woke.”
Race clearly played a role here. Seven of the eight victims were Asian. One eyewitness heard Long say, “I am going to kill all Asians.” There is a long legacy of anti-Asian hatred in America, and recent statistics show a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. It is natural that much of the outcry would center around the still unresolved problem of racism against Asians in our nation.
And yet like with any word, the way we use the term “racism” changes its meaning, and thus the way in which we relate to the world around us.
In much of mainstream culture, and especially on Twitter and Instagram, we commonly say that the killer was “a racist.” In doing so, we reduce him to an idea that is defined, fixed and limited. Our hearts and minds stop seeking to understand; we believe that we already know him. The totality of the situation — who this person was, how he was raised, what traumas might have shaped his descent into violence, and so on — becomes obscured by the predetermined designation: “He was a racist.”
Here, we find our hearts closed tight, our bodies contracted, our thought patterns hardened. Good and evil become polarized, ambiguity unwelcome. Solutions become more retributive; following the logic of incarceration and allopathic surgery, Robert Long must be locked away, cut out of our collective body. For “a racist,” there is hardly a possibility of restoration or healing; more likely, like a cancerous tumor, he (and all of the other racists) must be eliminated.
Long reduced his victims — Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yu, Daoyou Feng, Xiaojie Tan, Paul Andre Michels, and Delaina Ashley Yaun — to “temptations,” soulless conglomerations of flesh that needed to be destroyed in order to defend his spiritual purity. While certainly not the same, when we identify someone as solely “a racist,” we participate in a similar reduction. We take the wholeness, the complexity of a human being, and confine it within the boundaries of a word.
When we do this, we lose the heart of the matter, which is complicated and rife with uncomfortable contradictions, some of which, as I explored in the section on the Church above, implicate the rest of us. Instead, we try desperately to locate ourselves on the “good” side of history. We devote tons of energy (particularly white people do this, but everyone too) to proving that we are distinctly not racist. And, perhaps most critically, we carefully distance ourselves from the disturbing possibility that racism and violence might live in us, too.
This has consequences. For one, our social cohesion suffers. We police each other and ourselves, watching for the racists in our midst, monitoring our own behavior to intercept anything that might be perceived as racist. We cut off friendships with those who have been called out — usually on social media — as racist. We fear that we are not woke enough, not protesting enough, not “down” enough. In a world where being a racist is irredeemable, all darkness is irredeemable; and so we hide away our shadows, and try to be only light — yet another reduction of the fullness of our being.
I lived in this tight, contracted state for years. During college, having been awakened to the rampant racism and sexism on campus and personally experienced several incidents of racism from my peers, I became deeply resentful and dogmatic. Everyone became an enemy; I started to see white students and faculty as nothing more than a homogenous blob of racists. Yes, it was good to call out White Supremacy. But as I did so, my relational life deteriorated, and I avoided my own demons, my own darkness, my own fear.
This started to take a toll. Inside, I was hurting. My guts wound themselves into knots; my heart closed in on itself; joy became scarce. Interestingly, the way I engaged with solutions to the problem of racism — and social issues in general — became increasingly formulaic, lacking inspiration and creativity.
This is a second critical repercussion of this narrow, reductionist way of seeing: our responses are drained of innovation. To innovate is to usher something new into the world; it transcends boundaries, expands perspective, explodes conventions. It invokes images of vast fields, fresh, crisp air, baby chicks bursting forth from their shells; it is anything but contracted, narrow, predetermined.
If we are to transform this world, we cannot stay in our narrowness. This, as we see so frequently on TV and Twitter, leads us only to re-act — that is, repeat the same action, again. To truly respond to the ill of racism, we need fresh winds, new ways of seeing, hearts so big they can hold the terror and still embrace the darkness.
The way to this responsiveness is through the integration of our frozen, fragmented Past. The narrowness I have described here serves a function: in times of trauma, whether from childhood or the lives of our ancestors, our nervous systems contracted in order to keep us safe. If we are to increase our capacity to respond to racism and other problems, healing these wounds of history, both individually and collectively, is essential.
This will take time, courage, and attention. In my own journey, I needed years of internal reflection, meditation and support from wonderful healers and mentors to integrate some of the major traumas of my childhood and family history. To revisit these old wounds has been grueling, agonizing at times. It has been one of the greatest challenges in my life.
Yet it has also been a source of great joy and wonder. As we walk this path of healing, we encounter new gifts. A newness starts to flow. We see things that weren’t there before; we notice subtleties, details in what was previously mundane. More and more space opens within, and we can host more of the world around us — both its beauty and its suffering. We receive words, ideas, imagination that were held back by the walls trauma built, which while protective, dam the river that is our life force.
As we heal, we might also come to see that racism is not fixed or determined. We might find the space in ourselves to recognize that Robert Long was racist, but is not just that; that though he so brutally took the lives of eight human beings, he is also a man, flesh and blood, with his own story, gifts, fears and struggles. Even as we sit with our rage, we might gain the audacity to believe that his restoration to goodness and life is possible. And lastly, we might muster the courage to examine honestly the hatred, racism, violence, and darkness that exist in each one of us.