Of Bans, Sin, and Reconciliation
M. Christian Green
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Following the murder of eight people in Atlanta, six of them Asian-American women, news broke that the killer Robert Aaron Long had been expelled from his church. At first, speculation about the killer’s motives had focused on the Asian-American identity of the majority of his victims. Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community have experienced shockingly high rates of violence and hate crimes, driven by the virus’s geographical origins in China and intersecting with longstanding, but at times latent, anti-Asian sentiment in the United States. But news also quickly emerged of another possible motive to do with the perpetrator’s sexuality, specifically Long’s issues with experiences of “sex addiction.” The designation, while controversial as a medical or psychological diagnosis, is said to have become a focus of today’s conservative Christians, particularly the evangelical Protestant Christian community.
Long and his family had been long-time, active members of the church in question. Long had been a full member since his baptism as a teenager, and the church had reportedly played a strong role in his moral formation. At the same time, Long reportedly experienced many concerns around his sexuality and inclinations that had prompted him to seek not only spiritual counseling in an evangelical treatment center, but also services of the Asian massage establishment that he frequented and where he would eventually go on his deadly rampage, described by a law enforcement officer as the result of his having a bad day.
Long may have had a “bad day,” but he also cast his church in a very bad light. The church felt compelled to take down its website, later reloaded, to protect its members. Commentary in the news and on social media speculated that Long was “radicalized” by streams of misogyny and white supremacy in his conservative religion, or that he was “made into a murderer” by his faith. Countless discussions circulated in the media about the treatment of sexuality in conservative religions, again with particular focus on evangelical Christians. Interestingly, a Washington Post article, one of the first to report that Long had been expelled from his church, drew many comments highly critical of the church. Concerns swirled not only around the church’s problematic treatment of sexuality, but also for its being so quick to cast off a member who represented it poorly but for whom it might be expected to have some pastoral responsibility, even in the instance of the ultimate sin of murder.
In fact, most, if not all, Christian denominations have some form of ban, excommunication, disfellowship, or other means with which to exercise church discipline. One of the classic statements comes from the Anabaptist tradition: the Schleitheim Confession, authored by Swiss Brethren leader Michael Sattler. There, Sattler writes, “The ban shall be employed with all those who have given themselves to the Lord, to walk in His commandments, and with all those who are baptized into the one body of Christ and who are called brethren or sisters, and yet who slip sometimes and fall into error and sin, being inadvertently overtaken.” The Scheitheim statement recommended that church leaders confer with the sinner twice in secret before subjecting them to a public ban in accordance with Matthew 18. Pastors were charged with the duty “to admonish and teach, to warn, to discipline, to ban in the church.” The civil sword of punishment to be exercised by the state was clearly distinct from the spiritual sword of the church to ban. As the Schleitheim confession states: “In the perfection of Christ, however, only the ban is used for a warning and for the excommunication of the one who has sinned, without putting the flesh to death – simply the warning and the command to sin no more.”
Elements of this understanding of the purpose of the ban can be found in the statement issued by Long’s former church on its website’s homepage, which reads:
The Long family have been members of our 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. These unthinkable and egregious murders directly contradict his own confession of faith in Jesus and the gospel.
We want to be clear that this extreme and wicked act is nothing less than rebellion against our Holy God and His Word. Aaron’s actions are antithetical to everything that we believe and teach as a church. In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the actions of Aaron Long as well as his stated reasons for carrying out this wicked plan. The shootings were a total repudiation of our faith and practice, and such actions are completely unacceptable and contrary to the gospel.
In this part of the statement, the church acknowledges, almost poignantly, Long’s life and moral formation in its fold, while at the same time clearly condemns his actions. But the church makes a statement even beyond this when it maintains:
These actions do not in any way reflect the biblical character of a true follower of Jesus Christ and member of His Church. In accordance with the biblical pattern and our church bylaws, Crabapple First Baptist Church has completed the process of church discipline to remove Robert Aaron Long from membership since we can no longer affirm that he is truly a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 5).
He alone is responsible for his evil actions and desires. The women that he solicited for sexual acts are not responsible for his perverse sexual desires nor do they bear any blame in these murders. These actions are the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind for which Aaron is completely responsible.
In a set of responses to public questions, the church reiterates: “Each person is responsible for his or her own sin. In this case, the shooter is solely responsible for his heinous actions, not the victims who were targeted.
“I alone.” “He alone.” Such words are individualistic in their emphasis. One assumes responsibility, or at least claims to. The other rejects responsibility, attributing the sin solely to the sinner and clearly separating the sinner from the surrounding community. Sin separates individuals from God, but it also separates individuals from community. And the ban gives ultimate effect to separation from community, at least as a matter of ecclesial discipline. But what if a church chooses not to separate itself from sin? What if it chooses instead to address the sin head-on while also embracing the sinner within rather than expelling the sin from its community?
I was an indirect and after-the-fact witness to such an embracing two decades ago, while working with a Roman Catholic congregation in Evanston, Illinois, in a research project on how religious congregations achieve health and healing, with a particular focus on human violence. That congregation, St. Nicholas Parish, then led by now pastor emeritus Fr. Robert Oldershaw, had recently absorbed a predominantly Latin American congregation that had been closed by the diocese. The English-speaking and Spanish-speaking communities had a carefully worked out schedule for their services and seemed still to be struggling to integrate. But when faced with tragedy, the congregation became a remarkable site of health, healing, and reconciliation in the midst of a murder.
Tragedy can be an overused word these days, particularly when it comes to deliberate acts of murder. But in this case, the tragedy came from a murder committed by the teenage son of one of the Latin American families against the teenage son of one of the white families. It was a gang-driven, drive-by shooting, not driven by any animus between the two young men. The killer may not have even known who was in the direction he was shooting. But it was an event that ended up bringing the families of the killer and of the perpetrator, and indeed many members of the congregation and its priest together, around an ultimate act of separation that took the life of a young man.
The process began when a group of members of the church, including Fr. Bob and a public defense lawyer who was also a member of the congregation, began to visit the killer in prison. The killer’s parents, particularly his mother, attended the church’s Spanish services regularly, though this became more difficult after the shooting. The parents of the victim were Catholic but reported having drifted away from the Church in the years before the killing. But through a remarkable program of prison visitation, the congregation managed to achieve an extraordinary reconciliation – across language, culture, and grief – between the families of the murderer and his victim. The mothers of the killer and victim met, and the mother of the victim joined members of the church in what would turn out to be a very momentous meeting with the murderer of her child.
Theologies of the ban, of sin, and of reconciliation differ across Christian denominations. But the St. Nick’s story, chronicled in a documentary film that was nationally broadcast across two nights of a national news network’s evening programming, was an amazing, perhaps even miraculous, instance of a church that did not turn away from a sinner. Rather, it leaned into the tragedy, embraced the sinner in its midst, and involved many members of its church community in the process – it was a theology not of casting out sin, but building a community of reconciliation. At the film’s climax, illustrating the paradoxical way in which violence both divides and connects, the victim’s mother says to her son’s murderer, “You’re a member of this family, whether you wanted to be or not, you are. You’re like my own son.” And, today, two decades later, the church’s website proclaims it to be both St. Nicholas Parish and Parroquia de San Nicolás. ♦
M. Christian Green is a senior editor and senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. Her areas of scholarly expertise are law, religion, human rights, and global ethics.
Green, M. Christian. “Of Bans, Sin, and Reconciliation.” Canopy Forum, April 15, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/04/15/of-bans-sin-and-reconciliation/