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These secular virtues jostled alongside my Christian worldview as I continued to make sense of American life, trying to be tolerant and inclusive, and at the same time faithful as a Christian, for whom the accepting love of Christ continues to transform and shape mind and heart. And then, only a year ago, in what feels now like another lifetime, I happened to read an account of Helen Andrews surviving what she called an online “shame storm.” The “call-out” culture had come for her almost a decade earlier. She was publicly humiliated, her life turned upside down, and in the ten years since, wherever she goes she continues to be a byword. She concludes at the end of a reflection on the experience in First Things: “Of course I deserved it, and worse; most of us poor sinners do.”1
This line has been jangling around in the back of my mind all these months as cancel culture has become, as the youngsters say, a “thing.” That is, it is almost impossible to spend any time on social media, to read any legacy media source, or opinion piece, or have a conversation with someone in real life and not come back around to the question of cancelling. It is the great cloud hovering over every cultural discourse, on almost any subject, made more wretched to write about because it changes almost every day. Indeed, I worry that this article will go up, and a few minutes later almost everything I’ve said will either be obsolete, or I myself will have been cancelled.
And yet, we must think about it, because cancelling mimics and perverts the Christian virtue of truthfulness, just as secular inclusivism borrowed and subverted the biblical acceptance and love of God for sinners who repent. Moreover, the cancel culture of today represents both the dying gasps of that old order, and the birth of something new, and I think even for Christians, something unfamiliar and perhaps unnerving. But first, what is cancel culture?
Don’t Say or Do That
In its current iteration, you can trace cancel culture’s potency to the sorry story of Justine Sacco in 2013, the day she innocently climbed aboard a plane in the US bound across the Atlantic. Before the doors shut, she tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”2 Eleven hours later she disembarked to discover that she had lost her job and her reputation. The Twitterverse made good use of those eleven hours to misunderstand her admittedly vulgar and insensitive joke, take offense, and do her in.3
It might be easy to be flippant about cancel culture, especially if you only follow the hashtag on Twitter or find yourself curious about Sacco’s fate — she was recently forgiven and welcomed back by the company that fired her 4— or habitually click on news purveyors ranging from the New York Times to Mashable who list the cancelled and “uncancellable” as predictably as the sunrise. But in the fading light of America’s founding ideals, even those who speciously claim cancel culture doesn’t exist end up admitting the phenomenon has real world consequences beyond the narrow margins of social media.5 Last week, in fact, the news enjoined upon all my social media feeds that Mike Adams, a tenured professor of criminology at the University of North Carolina, took his own life as the culmination of a two-decade battle to preserve both his right to express his views on campus and his reputation at the same time.6 And at the end of 2019, GQ wondered if cancel culture had then gone “too far,” telling the stories of two obscure individuals for whom the mob came and who subsequently committed suicide.7 It’s all fun and games when it’s Kanye, but anyone less famous than he and J. K. Rowling might struggle to cope with the experience. To be successfully cancelled, then, is to lose not only the right to participate in public discourse through the use of social media, but to lose income, reputation, and, in some cases, real life friendships and community.
Cancelling is essentially an ancient8 and very human activity — the act of publicly shaming and then shunning someone so that others will be warned and adjust their own behavior accordingly. Cancel culture is a mightier force, however, in that it marries the tried and true practice of shunning to the unprecedented power of social media. This might seem counter intuitive. How could something as impersonal as an online mob be more painful than the personal rejection of an embodied community? Shunning, after all, occurs not only in American culture, but in every human community.9 Yet the one personally ejected from a particular community, before the far-reaching grasp of social media, could go away, like Cain,10 and rebuild life in some other place. Cancel culture, by contrast, being impersonal and online, stretches anywhere there’s an internet connection, which today is most of the globe. Anyone in the world can open a Twitter account and see your transgressions. Where do you go, then, when the whole world is against you?
Inclusivity for Me but Not for Thee
Tolerance as a secular virtue spoke a certain kind of truth — that people should not be excluded from public life based on who they are, what they believe, or what they say. Every idea can come to the table, in this way of thinking, and certainly every person. Every idea can be weighed and discussed. At the end of the day, we all walk away with our humanity intact, shaking hands and sharing gluten-free, judgment-free biscuits and well-brewed coffee. No one will lose her job. No one will be irrevocably thrust out of communal life. This has been the discursive assumption of the cultural West, articulated in the ancient past of 2019 by President Obama himself, who said:
This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically “woke” and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids. And share certain things with you….The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people and that’s enough….That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.11
Earnest Owens, writing about this moment in the New York Times, took umbrage, describing President Obama as “wagging his finger.” “Millennials and Gen-Zers,” Owens rejoined, “are doing what we can to take down the Goliath many of our parents have been rightfully casting stones at for decades. We have a tool that has helped democratize public debates about these issues, and we hope it will move us to a more just world. It’s called social media. And we’re going to keep using it.”12 When the cause is just and right, in other words, it is acceptable to crush those who are wrong into the dust, intellectually and socially decapitating them in the service of the great ideals of the moment.
It is hard to read this sort of exchange without taking a sideways glance at the much maligned “purity culture” of the Christian right,13 and further back from that at the various iconoclastic “purifying” moments over the past four hundred years. The Puritans’ exhausting journey to the New World in search of freedom to worship, the very foundational moment of this country’s psychic self-awareness, brought the dying gasps of an old order to the New World and saw them transformed.14 In turn, American ideals went back across to Europe, which continued to suffer its own purifying “moments.” The French Revolution is often invoked on Twitter, where people are continually blocked and banned with zealous fervor.15
“Civilized” discourse swings one way and then another between two truths, unable, in human intellectual terms, to hold the two together. On one side of the pendulum, we are encouraged to accept the human reality of other frail people — of kindness and compassion not just for the weak but for the wrong. The virtue of tolerance is a good one, especially when recast as grace, or better yet mercy. On the other side is the question of pure truth, especially when considered in objective terms. To be passionately enjoined to a righteous love of what is good, beautiful, and true is one of the characteristics that separates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom. Indeed, the thirst for righteousness is the foundation of human civilization, and the reason why shame plays such a critical role in both intimate and communal relationships. Unmoored from divine revelation or even from objectively verified scientific study, however, the pursuit of purity under the guise of righteousness is dangerous, a troubling fact to which the past may be called as witness.
The only way back from the brink is to hold tolerance (though I would rather call it love) together with purity (though I would rather call it truth).
Should Christians “Do” Cancel Culture?
In a word, no. The Bible provides a remedy for coping with people who don’t behave or believe as they ought, one I think that will be helpful for considering how to act when you see someone else cancelled, or if you find that you, yourself, are cancelled. In Scripture there are two categories of people — the believer and the unbeliever.16 The believer is being renewed by the work of the Holy Spirit, drawn out of the kingdom of the world into the kingdom of God. This work is slow and painful, and many Christians, as the work of sanctification goes on, do not behave as they ought.17 They believe wrong things and certainly do them. When they say and do egregious things, the church must sometimes rebuke and correct them.18 Suffering under this correction, the offender has a choice. He may repent and return to the warmth of the church’s fellowship. Or he may dig in and be put out of the Body.19
Crucially, the only reason ever to be put out of the church is unrepentance. Anyone who is sorry, no matter the sin, can always stay and keep on trying. In this way purity is something that happens very slowly, is hard to see, and is never fully accomplished until Christ returns. The church must cooperate in obedience with the purifying work of the Holy Spirit, and when she fails, the blood of Christ cleanses her of sin. For the person who is unrepentant, who sins and doesn’t care, who embraces heresy and doesn’t care, that person comes under the category of unbeliever. At first glance this is a dreadful and terrible categorization. These are the “goats,”20 the “vessels of wrath,”21 the “ungodly.”22 No one should ever desire to be counted among this group. And yet how is the believer meant to behave toward the unbeliever? The answer to that question is simple, unequivocal, and immutable: with love. The Christian acts in self-sacrificial love toward everyone, neighbor and enemy alike.23
This love, however, does not resemble modern conceptions of “love.” This love insists on telling the truth. This love makes right judgments. This love enacts church discipline, preaches faithfully, guards the table, and calls all sinners to repent and turn to Christ. Nevertheless, it is an all-encompassing love, stretching to include everyone in the world. Shunning, then, is not a Christian virtue, and neither is cancelling.
Every age has its outcast. In the first century, undesirable babies were abandoned by the road and left to die. Christians picked them up and pitied them, welcoming them into the church.24 In times of plague, it was Christians who rushed into the fray to help the sick and dying.25 In our own more recent past, true Christians called out against the grievous sin of racial partiality.26 In yet nearer times, it is Christians of every denominational stripe who stand outside of abortion clinics and reach out to the hopeless and helpless.27 Similarly today, the way that Christians love each other, their enemies, and those suffering the shame of cancellation will be a powerful picture of Christ’s acceptance of the sinner to a fractured, intolerant world — greater even than that of cancel culture itself.
Do Not Be Afraid
“Of course I deserved it,” admitted Helen Andrews contemplating her years-long journey into the wilderness, “most of us poor sinners do.” This must ultimately be the truth proclaimed by anyone who claims the name of Christ. It is the very first stone laid in the foundation of inclusion and acceptance that has ordered and shaped Western thought and society for the last many hundred years. It is opposed to a world in which every person works out their own subjective, deconstructed reality, where purity is measured by passing feelings and fads, where the worth of the person can be erased by sins long past, some that were not even sins when first committed.
The old, familiar, kindly ideal of inclusive, radical forgiveness is fast fading away, and in its place a tumultuous tribalism is being hastily constructed on the internet — the very place so many go to find their identity and purpose. This discomfiting reality makes people like me want to run away and hide, or go bashing onto social media, ready to join in with my own cancellation efforts. Neither temptation should be countenanced, however. The redemptive love of Christ is for every age with its transforming power. The first step is to admit — individually and corporately — that we need it.
- Helen Andrews, “Shame Storm,” First Things, January 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2019/01/shame-storm.
- Kami Dimitrova, Shahriar Rahmanzadeh, and Jane Lipman, “Justine Sacco, Fired After Tweet on AIDS in Africa, Issues Apology,” ABC News, December 22, 2013, https://abcnews.go.com/International/justine-sacco-fired-tweet-aids-africa-issues-apology/story?id=21301833.
- Jon Ronson, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life,” New York Times Magazine, February 12, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html.
- Kurt Wagner, “Justine Sacco, the PR Exec Who Was Fired from IAC for Her Tweets, Has Landed Back at IAC’s Match Group,” Vox, January 19, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/1/19/16911074/justine-sacco-iac-match-group-return-tweet.
- David Brooks believes “cancel culture” is not the proper name for this current phenomenon, though he does not say why in his article, “The Future of Nonconformity,” New York Times, July 23, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/23/opinion/substack-newsletters-writers.html.
- David French, “A Eulogy for a Friend, a Lament for our Nation,” The Dispatch, July 26, 2020, https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/a-eulogy-for-a-friend-a-lament-for.
- Jess Campbell, “Have We Taken Cancel Culture Too Far In 2020?” GQ, January 15, 2020, https://www.gq.com.au/success/opinions/have-we-taken-cancel-culture-too-far-in-2020/news-story/0f12503dbf60071a63d7ffd5e29bcce7.
- For an interesting discussion of ostracism in ancient Athens, see Sara Forsdyke, “Exile, Ostracism and the Athenian Democracy,” Classical Antiquity 19, no. 2 (2000): 232–263, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25011121?seq=1.
- Robert Detweiler gives a fresh look at the Salem Witch Trials and how anthropologists have studied that phenomenon around the world in his article, “Shifting Perspectives on the Salem Witches,” The History Teacher 8, no. 4, (1975): 596–610, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/492670.
- Genesis 4:16–17.
- President Obama speaking at an Obama Foundation Event, Twitter, October 29, 2019, https://twitter.com/attn/status/1189349299118727168.
- Earnest Owens, “Obama’s Very Boomer View of ‘Cancel Culture,’” New York Times, November 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/01/opinion/obama-cancel-culture.html.
- Matthew Lee Anderson lays out those thorny issues in his article, “Sex Ethics After Purity Culture: What Do the Critics Want?” Mere Orthodoxy, August 2, 2019, https://mereorthodoxy.com/sex-ethics-purity-culture/.
- David C. Brown provides a comprehensive and lucid, though secularist, view of the Puritan teaching and practice of excommunication and it’s Roman Catholic and Anglican roots in his article, “The Keys of the Kingdom: Excommunication in Colonial Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly 67, no. 4 (1994): 531–566, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/366434.
- James Marriott successfully likens Robespierre to a social media addicted narcissist in his article, “Twitter Purists Are Robespierre’s Children,” making a useful distinction between purity and goodness, hinted at by President Obama (The Times, July 17, 2020, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/twitter-purists-are-robespierre-s-children-sbjszmphl).
- Paul often works with this category, especially in his letters to the Corinthians. See 2 Corinthians 6:14–16 for the two terms in opposition to each other.
- Romans 7:21-25.
- Matthew 18:15–18.
- 1 Corinthians 5:1–5.
- Matthew 25:31–46.
- Romans 9:22.
- 1 Timothy 1:9.
- Matthew 5:43–48.
- “Infanticide in the Ancient World,” Early Church History, https://earlychurchhistory.org/medicine/infanticide-in-the-ancient-world/.
- Kenneth Berding, “How Did Early Christians Respond to Plagues? Historical Reflections as the Coronavirus Spreads,” The Good Book Blog, March 16, 2020, https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2020/how-did-early-christians-respond-to-plagues.
- Tim Stafford offers an excellent history of Christian Abolitionist efforts in his article, “The Abolitionists,” Christianity Today, July/August, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-33/abolitionists.html.
- Justin Taylor, “How the Christian Right Became Prolife on Abortion and Transformed the Culture Wars,” The Gospel Coalition, May 9, 2018, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/christian-right-discovered-abortion-rights-transformed-culture-wars/.