Cancel culture can reek of moral superiority, revel in violence, lack in grace, and eschew redemption, but I believe it can also do some good. When racism is squelched, abuse is punished, victims are protected, the corrupt are exposed, and moral progress is made, Jesus is glad. Even when the fire burns within the church—that is, when church leaders are guilty and held accountable—we should be hopeful God will resurrect from the ashes something sanctified in the furnace of repentance!
Maybe we should thank God for cancel culture. As Christians, we have the best theological resources to shine in a cancel culture, but only if we are distinct from it rather than representative of it.
CANCEL CULTURE ISN’T NEW
We don’t actually hate cancel culture; we hate being canceled. We say that cancel culture is un-Christian and un-American, yet I’ve seen many indulge. When we’re the target, it’s censorship, unfair, and lacking in grace. But when we’re targeting others, it’s justice, accountability, and speaking truth. Funny how our tune changes.
The victim narrative decries the Activist Left for weaponizing cancellations today with an energy unlike anything the Evangelical Right has ever experienced. I believe that’s true. But perhaps it’s being on the receiving end that makes it feel new.
Canceling those with whom we disagree is not new. Christians deployed it long before this cultural moment. Catholics performed excommunications. Pilgrim Puritans chased folks out of town (type “Anne Hutchinson” into your favorite search engine). In 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention called for a boycott of Disney because they were too gay-friendly. Jerry Falwell later called for a boycott of Teletubbies because Tinky Winky was covertly gay (he’s the purple one for those wondering). And let’s not get into Starbucks holiday cups.
If cancel culture isn’t new, why does it feel new? Two words help here:
- Publicity—we see more of it more often. Thanks to social media and smartphones flattening our world, momentary mistakes can be broadcast globally in real time. But the mob mentality that is so pervasive online can make this especially dangerous. The bigger the mob, the more irrational and violent it can be. Before you know it, thinking people become trigger-happy and you can’t put the bullet back into the gun (search “Emmanuel Cafferty” on Google).
- Ferocity —the cancellations feel more violent and vindictive. People are out for blood. Tribes today form around common enemies rather than common loves. It’s called negative polarization. You earn currency in this tribal economy by humiliating your adversaries. Censor them. Boycott them. Deplatform them. Lock them up. Whatever it takes. The zeal feels like religious fundamentalism. There are doctrines, sins, and speech patterns that must remain unviolated. If you cross these lines, we completely ignore anything good you’ve ever said or done. Cancel culture has been granted omnipresence as folks exhume your past decades later and expose things you did long before your prefrontal cortex fully developed.
CHURCH LEADERS ARE AFRAID
All of this has shaken church leaders. No one wants to get canceled, so in self-preservation we bend. Fear always provokes an extreme response rather than a faithful response. I’ve watched friends cave left and adjust our time-tested faith to curry favor from a younger, progressive crowd. Others cave right and go silent on issues like race, nationalism, or political corruption to keep offerings and attendance stable.
I sympathize with the situation in which we find ourselves. It feels impossible. But where has our courage gone? C.S. Lewis famously said that courage is any virtue at its testing point. It’s been unsettling to see many sacrifice Scripture at the altar of cultural approval or conscience at the altar of church attendance. It seems like the sheep are leading the shepherds.
PRACTICAL PERSPECTIVES ARE NEEDED
Here are several common situations in our culture and the perspectives we as Christians can apply to them.
When someone should be canceled: Sometimes cancel culture is healthy accountability. It’s a victory for justice. Justice should never be mistaken as a failure to forgive. Both justice and forgiveness fall on the larger spectrum of what cross-shaped love can look like. When perpetrators face the just consequences of their actions, the world is being renewed. There are some things we as Christians should seek to “cancel.” We pray, “On earth as it is in heaven.” If it won’t be in heaven, why tolerate it on earth?
That said, the restitution we require should also be just . . . not cruel and unusual. We can be glad when evil faces justice, but our gladness should be wrapped in a prayerful hope for repentance. I’ll never forget former gymnast Rachel Denhollander’s victim impact statement when she addressed Larry Nassar, former team doctor for USA Gymnastics. Nassar abused her and hundreds of other young women. She said,
You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance, which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen in this courtroom today. . . . [The Bible] carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you. I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.
When the mob goes too far: Too often the cancel card is played too soon or too harshly. When we are the victims, Christians should be known for a supernatural ability to forgive. There are cases (as with abuse) when strong boundaries must be established. Otherwise, our goal should be to convert enemy to friend, not block, mute, or cancel them outright. As the forgiven, we understand forgiveness’s evangelistic potential when we give our enemies a taste.
When evil goes unpunished: We are empowered to see the image of God in our enemies. I take inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr. He had this idea I call the victimization of the enemy. On November 6, 1956, King preached in Montgomery, Alabama, one week before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against segregated bus laws. In a sermon called “The Most Durable Power” he taught,
In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped on you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself. Let him know that the festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the [black man]. With this attitude you will be able to keep your struggle on high Christian standards.
King recognized oppressed black people were victims. He also recognized their oppressors were victims of Satan, the chief oppressor. He was deeply motivated to see them freed.
Yet, even if they remain unpunished, God’s judgment gives us solace. He sees all, he is good, history is on his side, and he eventually will render justice in a way we will find satisfying. Paul wrote, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19, New American Standard Bible). I remember not long ago there was a movement to erase judgment from Scripture. Come to find out, that’s not “good news” to the oppressed.
When I’m canceled and deserve it: Christians should be the best at confession and restitution. Christianity is the only major religion that recognizes continuous repentance as not only good but necessary. We are called to humble sanctification. You will fail. You will sin. You will discover shortcomings again and again. In those inevitable moments, a Christian will own it and make amends.
When I am canceled but I don’t deserve it: If that is you, congratulations! You’ve got a “woe” off your back. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when the people hate you, and when they exclude you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man. . . . Woe to you when all the people speak well of you; for their fathers used to treat the false prophets the same way” (Luke 6:22, 26, NASB). I don’t want to trivialize your pain, but take heart! Jesus guarantees we will be unfairly scorned and in that very moment, as we turn to him, we will also be blessed.