We Can’t Massage Away the Scandal of the Gospel - Word&Way

We Can’t Massage Away the Scandal of the Gospel

Last week, a 21-year-old White man walked into three massage parlors in the Atlanta, Georgia, area and killed eight people, six of them Asian women. His large Southern Baptist church quickly took down his 2018 baptism video, and then on Sunday (March 21) kicked him out just five days after the shootings.

“We can no longer affirm that he is truly a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ,” the church said in a statement explaining it had removed Robert Aaron Long, the shooter, from the church’s membership roster.

Brian Kaylor

Brian Kaylor

And with that, the church offered a nice, quick, clean break. Just like public relations and crisis communication experts teach. Don’t drag it out. Dump the scandalous person. Criticize the wrongfulness of their transgressions. Save the institution from the controversy.

If only Jesus had taken that crisis communication course. Then this whole following him thing could be so much easier.

The Jesus who dined with the then-unregenerate Zacchaeus. The Jesus who drank with the outcast Samaritan woman at the well. No wonder that guy got the bad PR reputation as one who eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners. Quick, Matthew or Luke, let’s write a nice press release and clean this story up!

Why should we leave the 99 sheep in search of the one? Can’t we just kick out the unregenerate mutton and focus on natural growth for our flock?

And why, father, must you throw such a nice party for that son of yours who wasted his inheritance with women we look down upon? Take him off the membership rolls and focus on me.

Wouldn’t that be easier? Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just declare some people as beyond the reach of grace? Then we could absolve ourselves of any blame and drive out that person as inherently godless and damned.

“He alone is responsible for his evil actions and desires,” reads the church’s statement on Sunday as the church rejects any responsibility as the discipling community. “These actions are the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind for which Aaron is completely responsible.”

Honestly, I do wonder how the shooter could be a true Christian. And yet, I, too, sin despite professing to follow Jesus and despite having submitted to the waters of the church that first shaped my faith. Should they cast me aside?

While it’s tempting to declare the shooter unregenerate, this same church just three years ago baptized him as regenerate. So, perhaps they should show some humility in their own ability to make such judgments. And perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to acquit ourselves by rejecting others.

In this March 17, 2021 photo, Jessica Lang pauses and places her hand on the door in a moment of grief after dropping off flowers with her daughter Summer at Youngs Asian Massage parlor where four people were killed in Acworth, Georgia. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)

If Jesus had physically showed up Sunday in Atlanta, where would we have found him?

I doubt that after arriving in town on a Greyhound bus or the bed of a truck that picked him on the side of the road that he’d rush over to the sprawling First Church complex to vote to cast out a lost sheep.

I suspect we’d instead find him that morning in the parking lot of the Gold Spa, one of the three sites of last week’s massacre. Multiple Korean American churches held a joint worship service across denominational lines there in the parking lot with memorial flowers lining the paved altar.

After that, I guess Jesus would probably head over to prison to visit Aaron.

I think I’d rather go to that special business meeting than follow Jesus on that route.

But what if the church’s pastors and deacons had canceled their own worship service to instead encourage members to attend or watch online the Korean one in the cracked parking lot of the massage parlor? And what if instead of leading a business meeting after the service the church’s leaders instead went to visit a member of their community who needs them now more than ever?

That sounds difficult and uncomfortable. Maybe it would be nice if that pesky Jesus would just leave town instead of pushing us toward this scandalous gospel. Of course, I suspect he’s already hitchhiking his way to Boulder, Colorado.