Opinion | I’m a Scholar of Religion. Here’s What I See in the Atlanta Shootings.

When news about the Atlanta killings broke, I saw in Korean sources first that six of the dead were Asian women, four of Korean descent. I didn’t yet know their names; I mourned them as Daughter, Big Sister, Mother, Aunt.

In Korean, we don’t often call each other by given names. As I’m the eldest child in the family, for as long as I can remember, my mother and father have called each other “mi-omma” (“Mihee’s mother”) and “mi-appa” (“Mihee’s father”). As a child I asked my parents why we did this. They explained that who we are is inseparable from who loves us and whom we love.

But the world demands more of us: Who are you? Where are you from? What do you believe? To move through this world as an Asian who is American is to exist under the gaze of white supremacy. In other words, we have to constantly give an accounting of ourselves to to justify and explain why we are here.

So we learned early on the name of the alleged murderer. We learned that he is white. We learned that he is a Southern Baptist, but not his motivation. Was it racism? Was it deep-rooted misogyny? Was it a fetishization of Asian women in particular? Was it toxic theology — an extreme fear of God and an equally extreme self-loathing?

As a Korean-born woman, a Presbyterian minister, a scholar of religion and a child of both church culture and American culture, I have asked the same questions and can only conclude: It is all of the above. Race, gender, religion and culture are all implicated.

The Asian who is American is an accessory — the one you want for your group projects, or the one who makes your farms yield more. And the Asian woman who is American is simultaneously translucent, a mirror and a looking glass; she is a ghost, invisible, unknowable, stripped of her identity, making her both desirable and expendable. How else to explain how easily she is attacked?

The days after the shooting, I walked through the world in a kind of haze of anger and despair. All the moments I’d kept hidden for years suddenly rushed to the surface: the attacks, the looks, the vandalism, the endless stream of questions: Who are you? Where are you from? What do you believe? Why are you here?

The long history of anti-Asian racism is rooted in the history of U.S. American expansionism amid wide-ranging legal, cultural and military projects across the Pacific. These colonial projects hypersexualized Asian women, through forced sex and sex work, casting them as docile creatures that brought comfort. They also shaped Asian men as submissive and feminine, objects to be conquered, dominated and consumed. Even the humanitarian interventions and the religious outreach that helped to shape much of white imagination about Asian women’s bodies overseas were then continuously reproduced here in America.

I grew up in the Korean diaspora, where the immigrant church became a safe place to land. Here, “Have you eaten?” is the only question we’re asked before we sit down. It was a place for my parents to breathe; to be seen, heard and understood easily. To know what it means to be children of God, bearers of the divine and hope embodied.

But churches are imperfect, man-made institutions, burdened by ego and fears, too. Toxic theologies about sex and views on gender and sexuality were also present in the Korean church, mixed with Confucianist traditions that delineated gender roles and white Christian communities’ views about sex. My parents’ generation loved Billy Graham, the telegenic American evangelist who would chart direct lines between homosexuality, extramarital sex and Christian morality. I grew up never seeing a woman preach from the pulpit.

Later I discovered stories that centered on people on the margins — Black, queer, women and others. These theologies radicalized my faith; I saw myriad possibilities of God in the world. When I looked in the mirror, I saw the divine in myself and in the faces of those around me. This changed everything. The God of grace I proclaim from the pulpit lives in us, loves every single one of us, and this was liberation.

But fear is not so easily uprooted, and shame is not limited to one culture or religion. The fear of temptation the killer is reported to have had was born decades before his birth. Absolute moral ideals of virginity or marital sex have long been linked to conservative white Christian attempts at what is sometimes called “sexual containment” or more popularly known as purity culture. This contributed to a theology that taught the salvific power of marital sex (as well as a critique of extramarital sex). Though more and more people of faith have questioned the psychological impact of purity culture, shame around sex persists. The Asian women murdered in Atlanta were an explicit threat to the purported ideal; their perceived entanglement with sex work justified this violence.

According to Stop AAPI Hate, an organization that has been tracking anti-Asian hate crimes, there have been at least 3,800 reported incidents of anti-Asian violence since March 2020. Still I hear over and over: “I just don’t see you as Asian.” Proximity to whiteness is seen as our saving grace, but we are still dying.

Remembering is one way to resist erasure. Even if it feels otherwise, we have the power to see and we have the voice to speak, even if we struggle with the words. There are other ways we show our love, and that’s by our names. Those we lost: Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, Daoyou Feng, Paul Andre Michels, Soon Chung Park, Hyun-Jung Grant, Yong Ae Yue, Suncha Kim. All our names. Sister, daughter, mother, cousin, aunt, grandmother, child of God.

Mihee Kim-Kort (@Miheekimkort) is a co-minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Annapolis in Maryland and a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Indiana University.

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