ATLANTA (AP) – The church attended by the white man charged with killing eight people at three Atlanta-area massage businesses, most of them women of Asian descent, condemned the shootings Friday and said they run contrary to the gospel and the church’s teachings.
Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Georgia, also announced in a statement that it plans to remove 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long from its membership because it “can no longer affirm that he is truly a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ.”
Previously the church had only issued a brief statement expressing condolences, without mentioning Long. It also shut down its social media accounts and made its website private.
On Friday it said those measures were taken to protect the safety of its congregants.
Congregants were “distraught” when they learned the alleged shooter was a member of the community, the statement said. His family has belonged to the church for many years.
“We watched Aaron grow up and accepted him into church membership when he made his own profession of faith in Jesus Christ,” it said.
“These unthinkable and egregious murders directly contradict his own confession of faith in Jesus and the gospel.”
Investigators are still trying to discover what compelled Long to commit the worst mass killing in the United States in almost two years.
Police say he told them he was not racially motivated and claimed to have a “sex addiction,” and he apparently lashed out at what he saw as sources of temptation.
Crabapple First Baptist said it would continue to grieve, mourn and pray for the families of the victims and that it deeply regrets, “the fear and pain Asian-Americans are experiencing as a result of Aaron’s inexcusable actions.”
“No blame can be placed upon the victims,” Crabapple First Baptist said. “He alone is responsible for his evil actions and desires.”
The church also said it does not teach that acts of violence are acceptable against “certain ethnicities or against women” or that women are responsible for men’s sexual sin against them.
“Murder, especially, is a heinous evil and grievous sin. We also explicitly denounce any and all forms of hatred or violence against Asians or Asian-Americans.”
Assaults against Asian Americans have risen across the country during the coronavirus pandemic. The virus was first identified in China, and former President Donald Trump and others have used racially charged terms to describe it.
The church said it is cooperating with law enforcement and praying for “both earthly justice and divine justice.”
Tyler Bayless, who lived along with Long at an addiction recovery facility in Roswell, Georgia, for at least six months through early 2020, described him as “a little bit socially awkward but not standoffish or quiet.” Long asked that he pray for him at least a couple of times, Bayless said, but never imposed his beliefs on others.
“He had some interesting religious beliefs, I’m sure, but he was never very overtly pushy about that sort of thing. Like he was never like, ‘I’ve got to save your soul,'” Bayless said.
Bayless recalled several occasions when Long said he lapsed and went to a massage business, prompting extreme self-loathing, guilt and public confession that he feared he might harm himself. Long once asked him to hold on to a hunting knife, Bayless added.
“He said, ‘You know, I went to one of these places. I feel like I’m falling out of God’s grace,'” Bayless said.
“I mean, this was the kind of pain that he was in because of what his religious beliefs led him to think about the acts that he was engaging in.”
Bayless also said Long tried to limit his social media use to avoid what he saw as sources of temptation to sin.
Joshua Grubbs, a professor of clinical psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who has researched the intersection of sexual behaviors, religion and morality, said that especially in the United States, men from conservative religious backgrounds may be prone to interpreting “just a little bit of sexual behavior that violates their morals as an addiction.”
But there’s no evidence that those sexual behaviors would predispose someone to violence against others, he said.
“The notion that ‘I have a sex addiction, I feel so bad about it, I am going to go out and kill eight people,’ I just don’t buy it,” said Grubbs, who has also treated people with the problem. “It’s not true to my experience as a researcher or a clinical psychologist.”
Grubbs counsels religious leaders on how to discuss sex, pornography and “out-of-control sexual behaviors” and advises against using language that can cause or worsen feelings of depression and shame.
“I have never once encountered a religious leader that suggested” that a cure for the behavior is to “go murder the people” who make it possible. “I have never heard that. It’s an absurd premise.”