Where Is God in All of This?

The recent mass shooting in Atlanta revealed the complicated and often violent role Christianity can play in our society.

Last week, shortly after the mass shooting in Atlanta that claimed the lives of six Asian-American women, I saw a post on Instagram by my friend Carol Lim. “Are you there, God?” she wrote. When I messaged her, she told me about the intense feeling of despair that had taken ahold of her. “It’s like the knotweed in my backyard,” she said. “The roots are so deep, all I can do is chop the parts off that I can see. But I know, underneath, it’s still inching towards my house.” 

In the past weeks, we’ve seen activists flood the streets to loudly chant “Stop Asian Hate,” a rallying cry in response to the 150% uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The shooting in Atlanta—which news outlets and police first claimed did not appear racially motivated—was yet another devastating blow to a community already enveloped in fear and mourning. Six Asian-American women are dead, and the authorities and mainstream media were swift to discount race as a motivating factor. 

Carol’s question—an echo of Judy Blume’s iconic coming-of-age novel—felt so haunting to me. “Are you there, God?” is a question any one of us could ask at any given moment in our world. Where was God when there was a mass shooting in Boulder? Or another instance of police brutality? Or another attack on a Black trans woman? Or another separation of children from their families at the border? We already live in a nation that is increasingly skeptical of God’s existence: atheism and agnosticism are a rapidly growing segment of America’s population. It only makes sense that, when bombarded with tragedy, we wonder how any sort of higher power could allow such things to happen. 

As I’ve started to work on my own relationship with God, I’ve found that there’s no easy answer to where, exactly, God exists—or how, precisely, God makes themselves known. The unfortunate reality of Carol’s question was that God, at least in a manmade, institutionalized form, was indeed a motivating factor in the Atlanta killings. 

I don’t believe in naming or further humanizing mass murderers—something I learned firsthand from the limited time I spent with teenage survivors after the shootings in Parkland. Many of these men (for they are practically always men) thrive off of the idea that they will be reviled by society, yet idolized by those who dwell in the darkest corners of the internet. Naming them, placing their photos on front pages, even interviewing people who know them, in an effort to understand their “lone wolf” behavior, has the dangerous potential to perversely glorify them. So I’m going to avoid doing any of that here.

What we do know is that the shooter believed he had problems containing his sexuality. There were some accounts that he experienced sexual urges while he was in monogamous relationships, and he believed these temptations were proof that he was straying from God’s path. The New York Times reported that one of the massage parlors he targeted was located in close proximity to a treatment facility he was attending for sexual addiction. Before the shooting, he belonged to a right-wing Baptist church that, according to the religious writer Chrissy Stroop, “has sought to indoctrinate congregants with hostility to non-whites as well as other women.” The church has since revoked his membership, claiming that his actions do not reflect their community. 

But that’s not really the truth, is it? Stroop and a number of other notable “ex-vangelicals” have long been raising the alarm about evangelical Christianity’s ties to white supremacy, and thus, white supremacist violence. The evangelical support for far-right conservative views has helped birth a Republican stronghold in some parts of our electorate, making it harder to affect real change on issues like LGBTQ+ rights, gun control, police reform, reproductive justice, and more. In this very specific case, ex-evangelical writers and activists have seen this attack as the unfortunate but unsurprising result of a purity culture that demonizes people for their sexuality. When the shooter told police that he targeted these massage parlors—and these women—to eradicate his sexual temptations, he was acting on the perverse teachings he’d been fed from the so-called Bible. 

There were two elements to the reporting or portrayal of this motive that I found disturbing. The first was that this shooting was very clearly an example of fundamental Christian extremism. This was a terrorist attack motivated by religious beliefs. If the shooter was Muslim, we would be seeing the words “Muslim” or “Islam” and certainly the word “terrorist” in all of the headlines surrounding the tragedy. Because the shooter was white and Christian, he is assumed automatically by police and journalists to not be a terrorist. This is a grotesque double standard: We need to identify and condemn violent religious extremism in all its forms—even when it is homegrown on American soil. 

The second element that I found disturbing was that, precisely because the shootings appeared to have a religious motive, police and reporters were loath to call them “racially motivated.” This is a failure of understanding both religious and American history. As Stroop explains:

“His confession to police would seem to reflect a racist trope that Asian women are a compliant, submissive, seductive and highly desirable Other. In the American popular imagination, Asian women are also commonly associated with sex work. (Whether these specific women were involved in sex work is not clear.) [The shooter’s] alleged crimes illustrate the ways that white supremacy involves a complex mix of desire, loathing, obsession and hatred for the nonwhite Other.”

To assume that because the crime appears religiously motivated, it therefore must not be racially motivated, is to erase the interconnectedness of white supremacy and Christianity. (To give just one example, Christianity was practically wielded as a weapon by American colonizers, many of whom forced conversions on Indigenous people after stealing their lands.) It’s only logical that the excoriation of the “nonwhite Other” is embedded in terrorist attacks carried out by people influenced by evangelical Christianity—especially when their victims are predominantly people of color. 

This was why I was so haunted by the question Carol asked: Are you there, God? Because of course, I knew some of the familiar contours of how religion shaped this horrible story, and I know personally how religion can be wielded as a weapon of hatred and discrimination. But in this particular moment of grief and tragedy, faith can also be such a beautiful source of comfort and hope. 

I asked Carol how she was finding God, and she told me that she was watching a viral video on a loop. (I hope by now you’ve seen the video, too.) Last week, a Missouri father named Brandon Boulware testified before his state’s House of Representatives to compel lawmakers to vote against a proposed ban on transgender students from participating in school sports. Mr. Boulware’s speech was incredibly moving—an honest testimony of how he initially rejected his daughter and forced her to wear boys’ clothes, but realized the error of his ways.

“My daughter was equating being good with being someone else. I was teaching her to deny who she is. As a parent, the one thing we cannot do is silence our child’s spirit...My daughter did not choose to be a girl, she’s been a girl from day one,” he said. “God made her that way and the God I believe in does not make mistakes.”

Mr. Boulware’s words showed a very different kind of God than the one invoked in Atlanta. Not a God who fosters hate and castigation, but one who embodies radical love. His story of admitting his wrongs and becoming an ally to his daughter laid a very different kind of possibility for what God looks like in an increasingly fraught society.

“The collective pain is knitting all of us together,” Carol said, turning our conversation from despair to hope. “And in a way, I know we are becoming the force we need to pull the roots out.” 

To support ongoing efforts to prevent hate crimes against the AAPI community, please consider following and supporting Stop AAPI Hate. To specifically support the needs of Asian and migrant sex workers, please follow and support Red Canary Song.

There is an ongoing, nationwide campaign that would severely curb the rights and freedoms of transgender youth in America. To learn more about what’s at stake, please read the civil rights lawyer Chase Strangio on the topic here. Strangio and the activist/writer/editor Raquel Willis have also compiled a list of actions you can take (and share) to help stop this legislation from being enacted. To directly support the needs of trans youth, please consider a donation to the Trans Youth Equality Foundation.