“Canceling” used to mean getting rid of your Netflix subscription. Before Netflix, it meant discontinuing your New York Times or Time Magazine subscription. But the word “cancel” has taken on a completely different meaning in our society now. Instead of the subscription becoming nonexistent, the person becomes nonexistent. A “canceled” person loses his or her place in society, in esteem, and even in his or her ability to make a living. We call this “cancel culture” and it sometimes leads to tragic consequences. It is a phenomenon first associated with the cultural left — but the cultural right is making use of it as well.
Expulsion from the community is a fearsome weapon. It has always been so. Exile was one punishment widely used in former times; excommunication from the church was as well, and it is still used. (Speaking of excommunication, the religious fervor behind “canceling” has been well-noted. There is a certain orthodoxy — or “correct” opinion — that undergirds canceling and, accordingly, it is done with the same religious fervor and belief in the righteousness of one’s actions as is excommunication.)
While it is tempting to take all of this in and stew over cultural phenomena over which we have little control, I think we in the church might better spend our time in circumspection. The question that arises in my mind (and I really haven’t come to a firm conclusion) is this: did the church, during the time of its ascendency, sound like today’s “cancel culture” to those outside of it?
I would like to think it did not — but I’ve seen too many depictions of the church in popular art over the years to dismiss the idea completely. You can find depictions of the church that sound a lot like today’s “cancel culture” in books and movies — from the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne to movies such as Night of the Hunter, Monty Python, and Footloose.
The differences, of course, between Christian orthodoxy and ideological orthodoxy are many. The two most important differences are the ways in which human beings are viewed and the existence of mercy and forgiveness. In Christianity, human beings are viewed as profoundly mixed in motivation. We are created in the Image of God, yet we are fallen to the extent that no part of us isn’t tainted with that fall. Also — and most importantly — the last Word of God to people in that very condition is the Gospel: the announcement of God’s gracious mercy, forgiveness, and adoption of them in Christ. “Cancel culture” does not understand the mix of good and bad in people (it places people in either good or bad categories but misses the fact that they can be — and are — in both categories) and it misses Christ’s message of grace.
That is a theological truth; but has the church actually put that truth into practice over the years? Throughout the church’s history we see it intermittently recapturing the Gospel followed by movements of the Holy Spirit — and periods when it has not. These periods of vitality interspersed into the history of the church tell me the message is there but that it is often forgotten or de-emphasized.
Perhaps “cancel culture” is, in some way, a reflection back to us. (God speaks to His people sometimes in this way). The creeds and confessions are full of responses to various, but ancient, errors – the equivalents of today’s “cancel culture”. If so, there is an opportunity here for us to understand exactly why it is we are here and what the message of the Gospel is.
— David Browder, Rogation Sunday, 2021