The Atlanta Attack and the Power of Naming

Shaunesse' is a PhD student at Boston University studying ethics and theology, and is an Interfaith America Racial Equity Media Fellow.

 

Earlier this week, tragedy struck in Georgia. Robert Aaron Long, a twenty-one-year-old white male from Woodstock, GA, shot eight innocent people—six of whom were Asian women—in three different massage spas across the state. I learned of the developing story Tuesday night before bed and I slept in worry. I awoke Wednesday morning reaching for my phone to check for any available updates. I sat in anguish the remainder of the day feeling the grief and suffering of my Asian siblings as my mind added this attack to the long list of senseless attacks by white men who have wreaked destruction on communities of color: Dylan Roof’s attack on Black worshippers at Mother Emmanuel in 2015, Patrick Crusius’s attack on Latinx shoppers in Walmart in 2019, and the continued underreported attacks against Indigenous women each year. What pains we bear.

Over the past year, anti-Asian violence has been at an all-time high. While this phenomenon is not new, the past year has exposed these threatening living conditions to the wider public. These attacks have come in the form of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans being blamed for the pandemic, public and physical assaults, and racist jokes and verbal attacks under the previous administration. And now, just a few weeks past the anniversary of COVID-19’s entrance to the United States, a white man goes on a murder spree targeting Asian-owned massage spas.

Investigations are underway and the suspect has been captured, but officers state it is too early to name the attacks as racially motivated hate crimes or terrorist attacks. According to officers, the suspect took responsibility for his actions after sharing that he had a sex addiction which he wanted to eliminate. Members of his family were even cooperative in helping officers locate Long. Peers have shared about his deep faith and grief with his own addictions. And he was emotionally distraught after being kicked out of his parents’ home just the night before leading to a bad day the next morning. Instead of ending his own life, Long felt he would do others struggling with sex addiction a favor by targeting the spas. Similar to the 6 January 2021 insurrection, we are witnessing a similar pattern of narrative reorientation when white men are prime suspects.

As I have scrolled Twitter and engaged in various conversations, I have become aware of one of the reasons for our communal pain. There is the absence of naming. Long’s actions have not been appropriately named to open us to future healing. I personally believe names are magical. Letters come together to form an identity, a concept, a person; and that string of letters gives definition and character to experience. In my disciplines, bioethics and theological studies, both names and the act of naming are profound because they often relieve people of distress. People are given diagnoses after years of feeling isolated in their bodies; space is established for the creation of communities who help carry suffering; and invisible mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual pains are finally made visible. All of this comes from names, simple letters connected in unique ways.

Naming is also a liberative act of justice. Naming oppressive acts, conditions, and systems brings to light the existing communal suffering. This naming makes the unseen seen and demands restorative responses from the majority because “the other” can no longer be ignored. As we continue into the tumultuous start of this decade and cross over the one-year mark of a global pandemic, I believe naming is more imperative now than ever. I continue to name that black lives do matter, that anti-Asian violence is real, and that the persecution of Indigenous, Black, Asian, and Latinx communities is the history of the United States. I name that white supremacist structures and systems must be dismantled to achieve equity for all and that neoliberalism demands religious resistance. I say the names of our trans and non-binary siblings whose unjust murders are rarely widely reported. And I name the gender-based violence that disproportionately impacts all women.

When we live in a world that seeks to rename suffering in a way that turns a blind eye to oppression and eliminates the voices of marginalized and oppressed communities, we turn towards injustice and rest in hate. Howard Thurman, in Jesus and the Disinherited, described a four-pronged breakdown of hate:

“In the first place, hatred often begins in a situation in which there is contact without fellowship, contact that is devoid of any of the primary overtures of warmth and fellow-feeling and genuineness…In the second place, contacts without fellowship tend to express themselves in the kind of understanding that is strikingly unsympathetic…In the third place, an unsympathetic understanding tends to express itself in the active functioning of ill will…In the fourth place, ill will, when dramatized in a human being, becomes hatred walking on the earth” (75-8).

 

When we intentionally reduce others to nonhuman objects, e.g., agents satisfying sexual addictions, we eliminate the possibility of the type of contact that produces warmth, fellowship, and sympathy. We feel entitled to blame the other for our individual character flaws, justifying our actions of ill will, e.g., murdering massage spa staff persons because they are “a temptation…to eliminate.” We then become the embodiment of hatred, blind to the trauma we have caused, e.g., fleeing several scenes after committing murder and traveling to more locations to replicate that same violence and ill will.

In our absence to name hate, anti-[insert racial/ethnic group] violence, and most importantly white supremacy, we become complicit in the deaths and suffering of the innocent. Naming leads to actions, and actions lead to change. Stories like Long’s murder spree can no longer be a headline for a few days that drift into an annual remembrance story reported by NPR. Communities across the country must collectively engage, using all the tools we have, to effect change. Anti-racism reading lists are no longer enough. When we see hate, will we name it as such? Or will we create stories that paint people of color as villains and white men as misguided victims? Will we intervene and demand justice for the oppressed? Or will we make excuses for why we can’t get involved in the fight for the kind of equity that provides our children with the world we all deserved centuries ago?

Robert Aaron Long violently attacked and murdered eight people. We must name his actions as hate and violence. We must hold our society accountable for allowing this story to be replicated over and over again. We must demand justice in word and in deed.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

In order to keep this newfound sense of faith alive and to learn from the wisdom of others, I created a spiritual exercise out of interviewing people around the world about the role of faith changing their lives.
Imam Sultan was greatly revered for his compassionate outlook on life inspired by his faith. He was known for his interfaith leadership in the higher education field and as an active bridge builder.
The site was reported as having a significant number of Sikh employees, and the massacre has left the community shaken and in grief.
This is a sampling of sacred texts and statements, listed in alphabetical order by religion, that religious communities have used to engage in the work of public health amidst this global pandemic.
Ms. Moore discusses what an Office of Equity and Racial Justice does, how she and her team adapted amid the pandemic, and how religious communities are crucial partners for social change, connection, and healing.  
"We know that people of all faiths and philosophical traditions hold shared values that can serve as a foundation for a common life together."
How do we fight the evil and darkness during this time? No matter how small or how far we might be from the situation, we could use our voices to speak up, come to stand together as one human kind.
Musa writes an insightful analysis of data at the intersection of race and religion. He writes: "non-Black Americans seem to be fleeing religion because it’s become too political. Blacks seem to be leaving because it’s not political enough."
And as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins, the currently closed museum is highlighting these artifacts tied to Islam on its website's blog.
In light of the urgent need for care within our families, communities, and movements, where can and should interfaith leaders fit in?
In the United States, our laws assure the separation of Church and State. So Sikh and Muslim kids growing up in public schools will never be taught that Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem.
Vaisakhi, which falls April 13 or 14 depending on which of two dueling calendars one follows, marks the day in 1699 when Sikhism took its current form.
The presentation focused on how chaplains and spiritual life professionals can discover and utilize meaningful data to demonstrate the value of their work in higher education.
Still, there were glimmers that Ramadan 2021 could feel less restricted than last year, when Islam’s holiest period coincided with the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar commemorating Muhammad’s reception of the Qur’an, begins on Monday.
"Ramadan can be an opportunity for Muslims in interfaith relationships to introduce their partners to the core beliefs and teachings of Islam, as well as to the ways different Muslim cultures share what is a deeply communal experience."
This year, Ramadan will begin on Monday or Tuesday (April 12 or 13), depending on when Muslims around the world sight the new moon that signals the beginning of the lunar month.
"In the Qur’an, God – Exalted Be He – proclaims that we should ask the people endowed with knowledge…All the experts are saying the same thing: please get vaccinated and do it now."
"Among the topics educators must address to reduce bullying and to ensure representation in the classroom are religion and religious identity."
Whether I am based in Los Angeles, Washington DC, or Kansas City, I remain committed to building bridges of mutual respect and understanding among people of different backgrounds.
Biden said the partnership between the seminary and a community health center is one of many that are happening between religious and medical organizations across the nation.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.