The word “canceled” is now commonplace – and not in reference to canceling a streaming service or phone plan to find a cheaper or more reliable option – with an emphasis on “canceling” specific people from the public discourse.
Cancel culture undermines the work of the church’s calling to confess and proclaim God’s Kingdom . It pulls us further away from the teachings and love of Jesus.
What exactly is cancel culture?
Cancel culture entails culturally blocking people from continuing to have a prominent public platform or career. Typically it follows a pattern: a public figure does/says something offensive, the public releases a backlash and calls to cancel the person. Via boycotts or disciplinary action against the person, the person is then punished for their actions. Public shaming online is an initial part of cancellation.
Cancelation is tied to the collective demand for more accountability from social systems that have long failed marginalized people and communities.
Where did it start?
Vox reporter Aja Romano wrote two articles detailing cancel culture and its evolution. Romano notes that the phrase “cancel culture” has been circulated within Black culture for years, originating in the 1991 film New Jack City and then re-emerging years later on Black Twitter. The 2014 reemergence is credited to the show Love and Hip Hop: New York.
President Barack Obama spoke out about his concerns with cancel culture in social justice movements. In reference to being as judgmental as possible to someone else, he said “that’s not activism… if all you are doing is casting stones, you are probably not going to get that far.”
Whether it be actors, musicians, historical figures, or prominent members of society, cancel culture has infiltrated every area of social life. Former Bachelor franchise host Chris Harrison, actress Chrissy Teigen, country artist Morgan Wallen, and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling have all faced cancellation in recent years.
It has extended to other forms of entertainment like the Disney classic movies Dumbo and Peter Pan, as well as some Dr. Seuss books.
Among the most prominent arguments I have been subjected to throughout my undergraduate education are the calls to cancel the founding fathers or other prominent historical figures. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt have all been under fire for their beliefs about race and equality.
What else does it do?
Jason Thacker of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) Research Institute, wrote in an op-ed, “cancel culture will only lead to a segmented society and to a breakdown of civility and public discourse.” This leads to a more in depth discussion of whether civility and disagreement can exist at the same time.
Civility author Stephen Carter wrote that although both can exist at the same time, we must approach others with openness and not cynicism. Carter brought up the issue of racism – a common accusation against those facing cancellation – and made an interesting point on how to interact with those people. He wrote that we owe others respect because of their equal share in God’s creation. He went on to say that respect shall not turn on/off simply because of agreement or disagreement on issues that we care about.
Former Netherlands Prime Minister and Dutch Theologian Abraham Kuyper believed that societies are caught in the great error of unbelief. Kuyper argued that this error of unbelief allows us to believe that we are on our own in the world; that we are not accountable to our Maker for anything that we do.
Theology and culture author Andy Crouch writes in Strong and Weak, that “our mission in the world as Christians is to help individuals and whole communities move up and do the right thing.” Crouch proposes that this is accomplished through voluntary exposure to pain and loss – and no one wants to do it. If we continue to shut down painful dialogue, and take away a person’s ability to reconcile, we will get nowhere. John 10:10 reads “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” I believe that living life abundantly is doing all of those things.
What should the Christian response be?
Cancel culture results in the Fundamental Attribution Error, occurring when we associate goodness with our own behavior, and poor behavior with others. This forgets mercy and does not accurately reflect the Christian call to seek and imitate the mercy of our Father. Cancel culture does not accept apologies, it allows for the dismissal of one’s own sinfulness, and it forgets our future.
Every sinner has a future, Scripture shows that:
Paul was a murderer.
Noah got drunk.
Jacob was a cheater.
David had an affair.
Rahab was a prostitute.
All of these were still worthy of the same love and compassion as we are today.
Christ does not define our dignity based on one sin or one issue, and we are commanded not to condemn others on the same thing. When we call out others, and cancel them for a mistake, we lose sight of the biblical worldview God has called us to embrace.
We are more than our ideas, beliefs, and failures. One of my favorite quotes from Brian Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, reads “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” It is disheartening to watch cancel culture, especially in conjunction with social justice concerns, label people as their worst sin.
That’s why cancel culture attacks the heart of Christianity. It forgets that our sins have been paid for by the blood of Christ and that each of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). When we make it our mission to cancel someone, or something, we are not activating our Christian worldview. We are forgetting Genesis 1, that humans are created in God’s image.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preaches what it looks like to follow him and live in God’s kingdom. Jesus says: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). And “do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2).
Although Scripture commands us to do all these things, it does not mean that we cannot engage in cancel culture altogether. To Christians, cancel culture is not a new concept: it’s been happening since Jesus walked this earth. People commonly canceled in Bible times were the Samaritans, those with disabilities, women caught in sexual sin, etc.
I believe that the best way for Christians to engage with cancel culture is to follow Jesus’ model. He met people where they were, showed compassion, and did not condemn. In the book of John, Jesus sits with the woman at the well and, instead of shunning her like the others, conversed with her about personal sin.
Time and again Jesus shows us how to love others. Luke 6: 27-28 reads “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” And 1 Peter 4:8 says “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”
Jesus said that there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
To continue engaging in cancel culture would be the antithesis of laying down one’s pride and putting each other first. The challenge moving forward is walking the line between holding people accountable for their actions, while still commanding love and respect to them as our brothers and sisters in Christ.