Every political, social and spiritual persuasion faces almost daily reports from the front lines of ‘cancel culture.’ Cancel culture, to be clear, is not when those who abuse power are removed from their platforms of power. Cancel culture is a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – whether it be online, on social media, or in person. It can even be done posthumously as we have seen statues fall across the world. Those who are subject to this ostracism are said to have been ‘cancelled’. The expression ‘cancel culture’ has mostly negative connotations and is commonly used in debates on free speech and censorship. Platforms like Twitter and YouTube provide near-instant access to the most recent blacklisted, rejected member of its own group – and it’s not just YouTube stars who participate. The Christian Church at large, if we are honest, has long participated in cancel culture via excommunication, community rejection and shunning of entire people groups for its entire history.
I’ll never forget one of my earliest exposures to someone getting ‘canceled’ by Christians. Over 20 years ago, well before the internet became the sensation we now understand, Christian singer Amy Grant got a divorce, and many in the Church community responded in an uproar. Over radio, print and various media, Christian voices everywhere began calling for a boycott of all her music. As a fellow Christian and big fan of Amy Grant and her contribution to the spiritual journey of a generation, this backlash from within the Church made a huge impression on me as the message rang out loud and clear: perfect living is necessary for community inclusion, or you get canceled.
It still resonates with me today as I think about how Amy was treated and it takes a conscious effort to let go of the fear that mistakes lead to abandonment. It’s a devious but effective practice, to be sure. I remember the treatment Geoff Bullock, one of our nation’s finest Christian song-writers, received at the hands of his closest colleagues when his marriage failed around the same time. I was able to offer personal support to Geoff at this time and I was devastated to see the magnitude of the attack he endured for many years. Even to this day there are Churches which refuse to sing his songs because he is not perfect and went through a really rough time decades ago!
Only a couple of years ago, Lauren Daigle, another fine Christian singer/song-writer, came under fire for performing on The Ellen Show because its host is openly gay. What horrified many was not only Lauren’s willingness to go on the show but also her seeming lack of condemnation or, some would say, presence of love and acceptance – for the host and show itself. Lauren addressed those calling her to “draw a line in the sand” by publicly rejecting their prescribed code of conduct, defining their indignation as “missing the heart of God.” Lauren’s presence on the Ellen Show and her grace and kindness to Ellen was in no way a statement of support for Ellen’s beliefs or lifestyle choices. However, the ‘cancel culture’ army felt differently and showed no mercy in piling on one of their own. All this makes me wonder, what emboldens large groups of Christians to condemn with such confidence?
Darrell Smith, who serves as a Minister at Alamo Heights United Methodist Church in the USA, has tried to answer that question in his recent book:, ‘Faith Lies: 7 Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them.’ Smith engages with some of the philosophies that Christians use in order to cancel each other out and invites us to question if these principles come from Christ or from our own deviations. If we could confront the lies that we cling to out of fear, we could come into a new understanding of our faith that not only better reflects Christ but also reaches culture with the truth of His message. Three of the lies highlighted in Darrell’s book speak to this issue of a cancel culture in the Church:
Lie: God is angry and doesn’t like me – especially when I sin.
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but I know I’m not the only church-goer who grew up believing that Christian culture-defined love is conditional. This culture stems directly from the internalized lie that Smith describes as a false attribution of “transactional relationship” to the character of God. As a result of believing that God requires good behavior in exchange for love, we put that same expectation on others: earn our love with good behaviour. So we find it easy to reject or ‘cancel’ people who don’t perform to a standard.
Lie: I am supposed to protect and defend God and my faith.
As Smith puts it, “God will not falter or disappear if I do not argue correctly, fight for, or stand up in the name of God — and that is a good thing because if God could falter or disappear, God wouldn’t be much of a God.” Essentially, we reject others in the name of protecting God – but God doesn’t need our protection or defense! As a result, we are actually protecting ourselves but don’t want to admit it.
Lie: There is one right way to believe and one right way to behave.
We seem to have this need, as a Christian culture, to create an arbitrary measurement for perfect faith. We are afraid of being wrong about God, so we control our own thoughts and behaviors surrounding faith. As a result, the fear of being wrong ourselves compels us to micromanage the faith and behaviour of others. The cancel culture behavior itself permeates every facet of our lives. It is insidious, effective and damaging – especially when connected to the name of Christ. Our diminishing Church numbers testify to how effective this Christian cancel culture is: young people are leaving, the elderly feel isolated and new believers are afraid.
How do we find a way out of cancel culture? It starts with our own faith walks. Knowing the truth of who Christ is and how – and who – He’s called us to love. When we love like Jesus loves, we can let go of the lies that hijack our faith and release fear from our own understanding, without letting go of God, in order to become the people of God who are unafraid to embrace our surrounding culture in love – instead of just canceling it. The bottom line is as simple as it is confronting – either we can engage with people as creations of God for whom Christ died, or we can engage with people’s behaviour and performance. If we are indeed ministering in Christ, through Christ and for Christ, the choice is very clear.