How Should Christians Respond to 'Cancel Culture'?
Whether you have heard the term 'cancel culture' or not, I would venture to guess you may have witnessed it both played out and its after-effects either from afar or personally. Oftentimes coined as 'call-out culture' as well, this concept manifests when either an individual or group of people withdraw support (cancel) public figures, companies, or individuals after they have subjectively done offensive or inappropriate things based upon the group that is judging. Performed primarily on social media or other news/networking mediums, the receiver of canceling is often publically shamed, deemed unworthy of support, and outside the opportunity for grace. The results of this can range from losing social media followers, loss of business, being fired from jobs, inability to work with necessary companies, and emotional humility and shame.
How has this played out? Take the book Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier. It is a well-researched, in-depth look at the long-lasting effects of gender transitioning on young teenage girls. If you don't agree with her view and conclusions, one would usually just choose not to read the book and disallow their money from going into her pocketbook. I can think of a large handful of books I would never buy, but I wouldn't deem them worthy of being removed from print either. Instead of choosing not to support Abigail's work, though, a Twitter user tagged Target in a post insisting they must remove her books from their stores; ultimately resulting in loss of potential livelihood and income for Abigail. Within just hours, Target succumbed to the pressure and removed her book. It has since been put back in their store for sale, but their knee-jerk reaction to pressure from a dissenting opinion speaks to the pressure and power that cancel culture has on society. Instead of simply disagreeing with someone, many jump to the need to offer all contrary views and lifestyles upon the table of shaming, sacrifice, and casting out of the boundaries of grace. Even more than Abigail's book being taken out of Target within hours of the request, the tweets, comments, blogs, and short captions written about her were of utter atrociousness. These were not comments from people that knew her heart as she wrote this incredibly contentious book; they were people all over the country that cast shame and hatred for a woman they had never met. What was on display was an assumption of the heart, based upon ridicule of what many had never read. It is perfectly acceptable and healthy to disagree with someone's opinion, but to call for their utter downfall and humiliation is something, we as Christians, should not partake in.
While some behaviors, actions, or words of individuals or groups are atrocious and need to be brought to the light, the quick instinctive action of calling out, shaming, and speaking ill based upon either a group ideal or subjective minority has seemed to gain increasingly prevalent traction in recent years. Whether we should agree with the action(s) of the one being 'canceled' or not is not the aim of this blog. Rather, I want us, as Christians, to consider how we should both respond to and live in opposition to the behavior that typically corresponds with that of the 'cancel culture.' We may either agree that someone is wrong in their behavior or that they are instead correct, but that is not the focal point with which we should direct our gaze. This is not an 'us vs. them' blog. For we are but sinners too.. all of us. Just as Isaiah spoke hard truths to an idolatrous and sinful Israel, he also looked back on himself saying, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)
We all are sinners in need of a Savior; a Savior that doesn't just serve as a moral example of how to have clean lips and righteous character. He [Jesus] is the only Savior of our very sinful souls that expose themselves fully through those unclean lips. Let us focus back on how we are to conduct and live in a way that exemplifies and exalts Christ in the midst of this cultural phenomenon; for it is from these Gospel truths that we gain a lens for living out the words of Christ, teaching that we are to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and abide in Him (Matthew 16:24).
Let us consider not the weeds of the canceling but the admonishment of God's Holy Scripture. Although the way in which our society sins against one another is oftentimes through a medium unknown to generations before, the familiar acts of shaming, exalting one's self above another, and casting others outside the boundaries of any grace affirms what Ecclesiastes teaches... nothing is new under the sun. The Scripture that Christians in 2nd-century culture looked to for truth and guidance in the midst of society is the same that we look to and live out of today. For God's Word is living, breathing, and more active than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). Therefore, let us be soaked in the washing of the water of God's Word so that we would not be conformed to this world, but transformed through Scripture (Romans 12:2). As we consider how to live in light of 'cancel culture', may we never consider ourselves as outside these potential actions of our flesh. For the very thing that drives others to cast words of humiliation towards another resides in us also - sin nature. For followers of Christ, we live in the tension of still sinning as we are in this world but striving through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to live holy and righteous lives. May we then humble ourselves, taking an honest look in our own hearts as to how we have been influenced by this prevalent practice of the world. God, help us to cease from ourselves and to instead live in the righteousness given to us through Christ.
In a book of the Bible riddled with exhortation on the Christian life, James' verses have much to say in opposition with that of how 'cancel culture' is often lived out. In the beginning chapter of James, he teaches us what it means to have steadfast, or unwavering faith, in Christ alone. Christians, James teaches, grow through tests and trials, not because they have an abundance of anything in this world but because they lack nothing when they have Christ.
Through that instruction, James continues to exhort these 1st century Christians on what it is to live out their steadfast faith in Christ. He begins in verse 9 by writing, "Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of grass he will pass away.... Blessed is the man who remains steadfast (or unwavering) under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life." (James 1:9-10, 12). Or in other words, all things of this world will pass away. Therefore, we are not to boast in what is ours but who has saved us. We, as Christians, are not blessed for what we have in this world as earthly possessions, but rather we are blessed because of the steadfast faith given to us in Christ, and through that gift of immeasurable love from the Father, we have the ultimate gift - the crown of life and forgiveness of sins. In my study Bible, they describe the crown of life as "alluding not to the jewel-encrusted ruler's crown but to the laurel wreath given to winners in athletic games. The reward for faithful perseverance is eternal life, with all its abundant blessings." The crown of life, then, is not awarded to those who persevere perfectly but to those, who by God's grace, recognize their sinful depravity, and confess and believe Christ is both Lord and the perfect and only propitiation for their sins.
What does this have to do with living in opposition to the actions of cancel culture? We, as followers of Christ, do not look first to the things of this world for hope or exhortation as we interact with those around us. Instead, we find both hope and true life in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. According to the Christian worldview, life is found not in the successes or ability to be in power, but it is found in our former sinful lives being crucified with Christ and transferred into His kingdom forever (Galatians 2:20, Colossians 1:13). It is through this lens of the Gospel that we can and do live out the rest of James' teachings on the Christian conduct. For it is only as a result of this reality for believers in Christ that we are able to, as James instructs, tame our tongue and be slow in speech and anger (James 1:19, 3:1-12).
Oftentimes, the 'canceling' of companies or individuals is done through the written and sometimes verbal words of individuals or groups. Accompanied not just with a demand for removal of support or employment are words at some points too atrocious to write here. The aim seems to be centered not just at "holding others accountable" but at bringing the person or company to the altar of sacrifice so that they can bear shame, humiliation, and never be met with much grace. If there is grace, it seems to take place only after much time has passed and excessive apologies and 'proof' display an adequate change of character (adequate according to the dissenting voices).
James teaches us in the first chapter of his book that we, as followers of Christ, are to be slow to speak and to anger, and quick to hear instead. What did he mean by this? Do we never speak up against that which is wrong? Of course not. Quick to speak, in this passage, is accompanied by a heart posture bent towards anger. Similarly, we read in Paul's letter to the Colossians, that Christians are to "let their speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person." (Colossians 4:6). We are to be slow to anger because, unlike the fruit that we bear as we abide in Christ, it does not produce the righteousness of God. Being quick to speak out of a place of anger, James teaches, is in accordance to filthiness and rampant wickedness (vs 21a). Instead, we are to receive the implanted word (through the Holy Spirit) with meekness - the very Word of God (Christ), that is able to save our souls and transform our speech (vs 21b).
If you're anything like me, the idea of being slow to speak and quick to hear is not instinctive. Rather, I find myself constructing an answer before I have even heard a full sentence of whoever is talking to me. Even if my heart is not angry as I respond, there is a lesson to be learned in bridling our tongues so that we can hear and not assume the heart or motives of the person or group we are talking to or hearing from. God alone knows the secrets of a man's heart (Psalm 44:21b). So, let us not be quick to presume we ever have the same knowledge of God. Rather, let us guard our tongues from leading us to the shame and humiliation of another made in the likeness of God.
It is by no coincidence that the pain inflicted on others in 'cancel culture' is most often done through our words. Our words do not possess any power within themselves as if to manifest or bring things into existence. Rather, the words that escape our mouths reveal the root of the stature of our hearts. If our hearts' posture is that of anger, pride, self-centeredness, strife, bitterness, resentment, etc. the words that come out of our mouths or fingers (through typing/writing/texting) will reflect the sinful nature that has already been brewing below the surface of what we utter. Before sin ever manifests through action or word, James teaches us, temptation derives from our own desire, and when that desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin. When that sin is fully grown or on display outwardly in our lives, it brings forth death. (James 1:13). It is not the fact that our words have the same powerful capabilities as to bring forth physical life or death like God, but rather our words and actions simply reveal the evil desire in our heart that we let conceive and grow, revealing the sin that has now given birth into action.
Our tongues, James teaches, lead us to the well of either righteousness or evil. Although our tongues (or in many cases our fingers that type) are small, yet they are capable of incredibly ungodly things (James 3:5). We see how the words of others ignite a large flame of destruction, pain, and suffering for whom they are directed. James says an evil tongue is set on fire by hell and is capable of blessing God in one breath and cursing others made in His image (v 9) in another. Let that sink in. How often do we, in a course of a conversation, exalt God and all that He is doing and then quickly tear down or slander a brother or sister in Christ? I know I have been guilty of such sin throughout my life. A tongue that is aflame by hell is, as James teaches, often accompanied with bitterness, jealousy, and selfish ambition. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic (3:15).
It is easy to look at the world around us and recognize all of what James is teaching about a tongue full of deadly poison. That is not the point of this, though. Rather than casting judgment on those that may be acting in such a way, let us look at our own hearts and actions. James was not writing to a group of unbelievers primarily. He was writing to Jewish Christians, admonishing them on conflicts within the church, worldly lifestyles, and failing to put their faith in practice. This, then, cannot just be an exhortation to those we observe to be within the cancel mobs. Rather, if we are honest, it is easy to recognize it within ourselves. Even if we are not outwardly canceling someone made in the image of God, how often are we in our hearts presuming them outside the grace of God?
In 3:2, James writes, "For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man." James cannot mean that perfecting the taming of our tongue can be achieved by anyone but Christ. Perfection is unattainable on this side of heaven, but it does not mean we throw our hands up as if to surrender to the natural evil inclination of our speech. Sinclair Ferguson explains this verse and those surrounding it this way.
"The one who learns to master his tongue is a mature man. People will take notice of him. In a sense, James is saying the thing that will make most of an impression on your fellow Christians and the people with whom you work or those in your home and family, is not the great big things that you do, not how you appear as it were on the public stage or arena, but the very simple question of whether or not you have mastered your tongue. The mature Christian then is one who can bridle his tongue so that he can bridle his body."
A friendship with the world, exalting it above your relationship with God, puts you at enmity with God. Bridling the tongue is to live not in accordance with the world but in accordance with the pure wisdom and Word of God. It is not something we do perfectly, but rather minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day we submit our fleshly desires to be subject to the guidance of God's Word and His Holy Spirit knowing that His will alone is what is perfect and good. Moreover, the ability to ever bridle our tongue is not something we can do in our own accord apart from the Holy Spirit. For it is because of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us that we are able to discern what God's Word says and teaches us on such things.
Not only do we bridle our tongues, but by the Holy Spirit we can also live out the following verses in the midst of the world that lives so often in opposition to His Word:
Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-6)
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
We are a new creation in Christ. The old has passed away and the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices. (Colossians 3:5-10)
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16). He will equip us for every good work. He completes every good work that He starts in us at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6). Let us, through our desire to glorify Him, pursue a righteous life of a bridled tongue that is slow to speak, and when it does speak, it speaks of Heavenly wisdom and kindness.
Although cancel culture can feel like a new phenomenon that is gaining increasing traction in the world around us, the sinful actions that accompany it are not foreign to our sinful natures. So often, those doing the canceling deem truth to be whatever is in accordance with their "law" and standard. That law, then, has to have consistent atonements through the finding of someone or something else to cancel or shame because it doesn't adhere to their subjective ideas. In order to continue to bring light to the new wave of 'truth' that the culture or group adheres to, they must keep sacrificing person after person in hopes that they will somehow cleanse society of what they deem is wrong with it; not recognizing what's wrong with all society is sin. This canceling, though, will never end. Instead of reaching this utopian state where everyone thinks and acts the same, it will be an endless cycle where they too may become canceled - for we are all just one mistake or sin away from doing or saying the 'wrong' thing. This type of behavior breeds more groups and individuals that are not quick to forgive or extend grace like Scripture teaches us but rather, without a second thought, pull the trigger of shame and destruction on their 'enemies'.
The Christian worldview is so opposite of that. We are called to not only pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44) but to love our enemies, seeing that we were once far away from Christ just like them. It was the blood of Christ alone that brought us near (Ephesians 2:13). Instead of shaming and casting out those that have differing views from us, we are called to draw them near not to ourselves but to the cross of Christ; showing them their forever changing ideas on truth and morality will never satisfy the longing in their hearts. The once and perfect atonement of Christ is the only place we find the unity among all tribes and tongues they so desperately are trying to achieve outside of Him. This Kingdom is one where God alone is the one who elects and predestines those for adoption. We are just called to be a vessel for His glory, inviting others into the royal priesthood and adopted family of God - boldly proclaiming and living out of Gospel truth.
So, Lord, help us not to stifle our speech as if to never mention the words of Christ to others. Instead, help our words to be so laced with Scripture and guided by the Holy Spirit, that when someone disagrees with us, they are merely disagreeing with your Holy Words in Scripture. Let us not be conformed to this world, but to be the salt and light of Christ in it. We are only new creations because of Him. May we never forget that He who never knew sin became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Bridle our tongues, Father, so that when we do speak it is of Christ crucified and Your Holy name exalted.
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