At one time, “cancel” was something that happened to a check, a flight, or a TV show. These days, it seems, it describes a whole way of life.
In just the past few months, the term “cancel culture” has been applied to issues as diverse as Dr. Seuss Enterprises ending some titles over insensitive imagery, calls for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign over sexual assault allegations, and even Hasbro’s rebranding of Mr. Potato Head.
Some things deserve to be canceled: racism, sexism, violence, and other forms of oppression, for example. Boycotts and protests are tools that have been used by marginalized and voiceless groups for many years. Often what is deemed “cancel culture” now, however, is merely cover for anger and righteous indignation over changes we don’t like—things that bump against deeply held beliefs and assumptions. We become “the self-appointed guardians of political purity,” as professor Loretta Ross wrote in The New York Times last year. And let’s be clear, it can happen on both ends of the political and theological spectrum.
We constantly need to ask ourselves: Is what’s happening actually injustice, or is it just inconvenient to my worldview? We can debate how much change should occur, or how fast, if at all, but simply slapping a “cancel” label on something (or someone) is a convenient way to avoid the challenging conversations that come with engaging different perspectives or problematic issues.
When Jesus turns over the tables of the temple-yard moneychangers, did that constitute cancel culture? Or when he challenged the Pharisees over hypocritical behavior, or when he pushed long-time boundaries to show the absurdities of narrow legalism?
Were the first Brethren guilty of this when they left a state church in Europe they felt had lost its New Testament roots? Or when they took an early stand against the practice of slavery in this country, or in practicing conscientious objection?
Were Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony and Desmond Tutu and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and countless others proponents of this practice long before the term was coined?
History’s reformers are often today’s feather-rufflers.
As CNN writer A.J. Willingham observed in a recent analysis piece, much of what is labeled “cancel culture” is just the free market and public opinion at work as society and understandings change, and quite often it’s holding people accountable for things that are illegal, immoral, or unjust.
As followers of Christ, we always extend grace, but we also require accountability. The 2008 Annual Conference Ethics in Ministry Relations paper, for instance, says those called to ministerial leadership are “to be accountable to one another in the body of Christ,” citing Colossians 3:12-13 and 1 Peter 5:2-4. It later continues: “Through any proceedings designed to deal with unethical behavior, we must exercise compassion as well as judgment,” before adding, “Ethical misconduct requires serious response.”
On the one hand, we are called to resist jumping to conclusions and automatically questioning the motivations of others without evidence. In an email interview with Vox last year, corporate diversity and inclusion consultant Aaron Rose told reporter Aja Romano that instead of simply “blaming and shaming” on social media or elsewhere the goal should be “to create more stories of transformation rather than stories of punishment and excommunication.” We call out bad behavior, but we don’t let rage define us.
On the other hand, we are also called to act when it is clear or likely that a wrong is occurring. Preserving the status quo merely to make life more comfortable or to maintain a façade of stability is never acceptable. When engagement doesn’t bring transformation, as Jesus famously outlines in Matthew 18, then we treat those with whom we disagree as we would “a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Is that “canceling”? Perhaps. But then we remember, too, how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors and various others—always holding the door open for change.
Walt Wiltschek is pastor of the Easton Church of the Brethren and at-large editor for Messenger.