By Pamela A. Lewis
Let China sleep, for when she awakens the world will tremble.
Although there has been disagreement as to whether Napoleon Bonaparte made this statement, it was often cited to describe the economic and military power that would be unleashed once that vast nation arose from its slumber. Regardless of who said those words, they described Europe’s concern in the early 19th century over what role China would play in a time of the continent’s burgeoning industrialization, particularly in Britain. While primarily centered on China, the West’s (and especially the United States’) nervousness about Asia’s rising power persists to the present day.
However, over the last year, it is not only Americans of Chinese descent, but East Asians and Pacific Islanders (now referred to collectively by the acronym AAPI) who have been trembling, and the source of that trembling is non-Asian Americans.
The accusations and racial insults that have been visited upon AAPI since the onset in 2019 and worsening in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which purportedly began in Wuhan, China, have become physically violent, with a reported increase of almost 150 percent of such attacks nationwide. Most recently, a 65-year-old woman was assaulted on a Midtown Manhattan sidewalk in broad daylight by an assailant who kicked and stomped on her head several times while making anti-Asian remarks. (The attacker has since been arrested.) Almost as chilling as the attack itself were the staff members of a building, a few feet away from the violent scene, who witnessed what occurred but did nothing.
On March 16, 2021, the steady drumbeat of anti-Asian attacks reached one of its deadliest points when Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old Georgia native, shot and killed eight people at three massage parlors in the Atlanta area. Six of the victims (who were also employees of the parlors) were women of Asian descent.
Many considered the murder of the Asian women as another occurrence fueled by anti-Asian hatred. But after his arrest Long claimed to police that he had carried out the attacks as a way to eliminate a “sexual addiction,” a problem he has struggled with and sought counseling to eradicate for several years. Having been raised in a conservative Baptist church, and worried that he was in danger of “falling out of God’s grace,” Long became obsessed with guilt and lust for succumbing again to temptation and visiting massage parlors for sex, and two of the parlors which he had visited as a customer he ultimately targeted in his murderous rampage. He is also reported to have said that he wanted to “help” other men by removing the “temptation.”
Struggling against and vanquishing sexual desire has been a potent and longstanding theme in religious thought and particularly in contemporary conservative Christianity. Proscriptions against behaviors construed as violations of God’s law and Scripture’s teaching constitute much of conservative evangelical culture, where its men and women alike must strive to exercise vigilance against their sexual urges. The overarching conviction is that temptations are everywhere and in various forms, conspiring to ensnare the innocent Christian from the righteous path that leads to God.
Yet, while men and women alike are enjoined to avoid sexual temptation within evangelical purity culture, observers of it note that a disproportionate amount of the burden falls to women. Men are warned against being tempted by women, while women are blamed for using their sexuality to entice and morally destroy men. The responsibility to prevent men from lust and other sexual sin falls squarely upon women in evangelical purity culture. Although a feature of this faith community, these attitudes are by no means limited to conservative evangelicals or even to Christians generally.
The Scriptures are filled with women who used their “feminine wiles” to seduce men and cause their downfall, beginning with Eve (although the serpent started it) and including the well-known names of Jezebel, Delilah, and Salome. And in the book of Proverbs we can find numerous cautionary verses about immoral women: “For the lips of an immoral woman are as sweet as
honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil” (5:3-4). “The mouth of an adulterous woman is a deep pit; a man who is under the Lord’s wrath falls into it” (22:14). It is biblical passages such as these that serve as the foundation of a purity culture in that they simultaneously warn against a particular type of woman and imply what constitutes the “ideal” moral woman. They suggest as well that it is the woman who is responsible for wielding and restraining her sexual power. The influence of these beliefs also reaches into the wider culture, as reflected in abstinence-only education classes and in strict school dress codes (directed mostly to girls and young women) requiring modest clothing that will not inspire lustful thoughts.
What’s missing in this contrast of either anti-AAPI bias or sexual temptation is the way these two overlap. Robert Aaron Long presented himself as a victim of his own lust, aroused by pornography and the activities in massage parlors he often patronized. In his mind, murder of the “sinful” women who worked there was the only solution to expunge that lust. But the fact that six of the women he killed were women of color and of Asian descent raises the possibility that Long was moved both by an attraction-repulsion combination of lust and anti-Asian bias. A biblical analogue to this combination of attraction and repulsion is the case of Amnon’s rape of Tamar where afterwards “Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her” (2 Sam. 13:15).
While Christ’s argument about lust and adultery in the Gospel of Saint Matthew (5:27-28) is often cited to support condemnation of pornography, pre-marital, and extra-marital sex, Christ placed responsibility squarely on the person who lusts, and said it is better to suffer bodily punishment by removing the lustful eye (or other offending appendages) than to spend eternity in hell (Matt. 5:29-30). Like anger, lust is a sin of the heart, and it is this bodily part with which God is concerned. In Christ’s view, neither a rapist, nor a murderer of women employees in a “massage parlor, who protests in an earthly court that the victims “asked for it” and “stirred his lust,” would have a defense in God’s court. The Christ who speaks to us from the gospels presents the model of fully-realized humanity and fully-realized manhood, to whom women were neither racialized nor objectified.
This country’s recent and growing reckoning with racism has turned attention to its long history of objectification and fetishization of women of color in general and of AAPI women in particular, the origins of which can be traced to the early 19th century, when China and Japan first came into contact with the West. In 1875, the Page Act barred Chinese women from entering the U.S., as they were assumed to be prostitutes or otherwise “immoral.”
Viewed by the West as the exotic and hypersexual “other,” AAPI women have struggled, we are now learning, to extricate themselves from racist and misogynist perceptions of their sexuality. The prevailing images of Asian women as a submissive lotus blossom, a temptress, or a fierce dragon-lady are reflections of our culture’s sexual fantasies, which for years have informed much of this country’s pornography industry. At the same time, however, Asians and Asian-Americans have been subjected to another, but violent, fantasy of their being responsible for the current pandemic. As this community now awakens from its figurative slumber and gives voice to its anger, America must now confront its lust and bias towards Asian women.
The AAPI community, many of whom self-identify as Christians, are appealing to their fellow Christians to examine their hearts and consciences to help bring an end to this growing scourge of hatred and violence, and various websites and organizations have sprung up in response to this problem, inviting all who wish to help to step up.
Regardless of denomination, our churches must review how they interpret scriptural content pertaining to human sexuality and to how women are presented. This can be done without compromising or abandoning important tenets and moral values. Otherwise, we risk creating fanatics rather than people of a healthy faith.
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” we are asked when renewing our baptism on Easter Day. “I will, with God’s help,” we answer. Will we, or will we continue to tremble?