What do Amy Grant, Taylor Swift, Lauren Daigle, and Dr. Seuss have in common? They have all been “canceled.” In the 1990s, Christian bookstores pulled Grant’s music from their shelves after her divorce. Swift was publicly shamed when the hashtag #taylorswiftpartyisover went viral on Twitter. Daigle was raked over the coals by evangelicals for performing on a primetime show with an openly gay host. And, most recently, a number of Seuss’s books were pulled from circulation for their inappropriate depictions of race. Whether it’s shaming a movie star for a 10-year-old Tweet, withdrawing support from a company deemed insufficiently woke, or calling on leaders to step down for supporting the “wrong” cause, the cancel culture is something we are being drawn into—whether we like it or not. In fact, a recent survey shows that, while 46% of Americans agree that cancel culture has gone too far, 40% also say they have participated in it.1
Multiple views complicate the topic: Some deny the very existence of cancel culture. Others characterize it as a modern byproduct of an over-fragilized society that lamentably lacks resilience. Some advocate canceling cancel culture, saying it infringes on freedom of speech. Still others champion its importance, pointing to cancel culture’s unique ability to reveal and spotlight otherwise marginalized issues.
How should Christians respond?
The primary goal here is not to address cancel culture per se, nor to weigh its pros and cons. The issue isn’t which celebrity we approve of or where we line up with the latest cause. The real issue is the level of importance we ascribe to such discussions. The vehemence of our rhetoric reveals how much we believe is at stake. The amount of spiritual and verbal capital we’re willing to invest in the cancel culture wars exposes the transcendent value we assign to them.
As we become entangled in these fights, the Apostle Paul’s warning to “use the things of this world as if not engrossed in them” (1 Corinthians 7:31, emphasis mine) increasingly falls by the wayside. In short, taking up arms as a foot soldier in the cancel culture wars distracts us from our primary identity as disciples of Jesus Christ. Here are a few of the dangers we face in the cancel culture war:
1. It perpetuates an US vs. THEM mentality. For a battle to occur there must be two opposing sides, and usually these two sides are painted in very stark contrast: GOOD guys vs. BAD guys. HEROES vs. VILLAINS. Those on the RIGHT side of history vs. those on the WRONG side of history. The RIGHTEOUS vs. the UNRIGHTEOUS. The OPPRESSORS vs. the OPPRESSED. Each side is certain it holds the moral high ground. Only they can see fully and clearly, as they are free from the blind spots that plague the other side.
This mindset, however, ignores the reality of the human condition: “All have fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). All “see through a glass darkly” and “know [only] in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV). Because “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin… there is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:9-10). We like to draw the righteous/unrighteous line between different groups of people. But the Bible paints a different picture. As one author summarizes: “If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”2
To put it another way, we all deserve to be canceled, and that means we are all equally in need of Jesus. So rather than vilifying someone who disagrees with us and labeling them an enemy, God invites us to see them as someone for whom he died. When I see myself as the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), there’s much more room for compassion toward others caught in the same predicament.
2. We are driven by fear. It may be difficult to see, but the taproot of cancel culture is fear. At face value, this may seem inaccurate. Enter any Facebook comments section or listen to the pundits analyze a public apology video and the language you’ll hear is likely infused with anger rather than fear. But anger is not a primary emotion. It’s just a smokescreen for something deeper. The angriest person in the room is usually the most fearful. They feel threatened. They fear losing control. They fear their person, or political party, or beloved celebrity may lose power or status. They fear the culture will no longer endorse the values they hold most dear.
Such a spirit of fear never comes from God: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7, ESV). God’s love for us in Jesus Christ gives us all the security we need. We need not ride the same white-knuckle roller coaster as the rest of society, waiting with bated breath for the verdict on the latest person or cause. We need not live and die by the cultural narrative anymore, because the gospel gives us a new narrative: We are loved, forgiven, baptized, and freed by a self-sacrificing Shepherd who goes after all of his lost sheep. All the living and dying has already been accomplished, not by us, but by him.
3. Forgiveness is eliminated from the equation. Cancel culture warriors employ a vocabulary of vengeance and retribution—eye for eye, tooth for tooth—in their ruthless quest for earthly justice. In this system, forgiveness has no place. It is perceived as a weakness. To forgive, after all, is to let someone off the hook and not hold them accountable for their actions. This is utterly unthinkable in a world that demands a pound of flesh.
Christians, however, speak a different language. While sin always has disastrous consequences (Romans 6:23), and repentance and accountability are essential parts of the believer’s life, our spiritual lexicon doesn’t end there. Unconditional love, grace, and forgiveness are words the rest of the world has little use for. What single word could summarize the effect of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? Forgiveness! At the cross, he casts our sin “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12), pounding down the gavel and rendering this final verdict: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
In a world that mercilessly seeks to cancel and tells us we are nothing more than our past mistakes, Jesus has a different message. The only canceling he does is against the record of debt that stood against us (Colossians 2:13-14), nailing it to the cross once and for all. He cancels sin, not people, blotting it out with his own precious blood. Unlike the world, Jesus stubbornly refuses to identify us with our past mistakes. He takes all the skeletons in our closet and gives them a final burial deep in the heart of the sea.
Whatever the culture may say about Dr. Seuss—or about us—Jesus Christ has the final word. He is the first and the last, the Alpha and Omega, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. It is in him alone—the Way, the Truth, and the Life—that our security lies.
Rev. Lukas Kjolhaug is a 2016 graduate of Lutheran Brethren Seminary and the host of Foxhole Theology.
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago. New York: Harper & Row, 1976, Vol. 1: 168.