This article was originally published at Advocates for Truth as “Cancel Culture and the Bible.”
In an age of social media, a phenomenon has occurred which is causing people to lose their jobs or reputations: cancel culture. In a nutshell, cancel culture is a form of social ostracizing of an individual, group, or company in order to publicly shame them by withdrawing public or financial support.
Some root cancel culture in the civil rights movement, where the boycott became a popular tool that black Americans used to bring financial and social pressure against discriminatory practices or businesses. Christians have used similar tactics to try and bring pressure against corporations which promote values contrary to the Christian worldview. But with the advent of social media, this type of public shaming and social pressure have become more frequent and more vicious depending on the situation involved. How should Christians think about this?
What Does the Bible Say?
There are pros and cons to cancel culture. Cancel culture (in its best intentions) seeks to expose and hold those in the public eye (especially those in power) accountable for wrongs that they have done, both past and present (Ephesians 5:11). The Bible tells Christians to seek justice and that we should judge both poor and great alike (Leviticus 19:15, Deuteronomy 1:17, Micah 6:8). It’s important that we differentiate genuine efforts to hold people in society accountable for the evils they have committed from many of the immoral elements of cancel culture. Nevertheless, how we go about seeking that justice is just as important. Christians should not adopt an “ends justify the means” mentality simply because someone we think is guilty is punished, ostracized, or publicly shamed and humiliated.
Even though there can be some good which comes from cancel culture, it falls short of what Christians should strive for in several ways:
- Cancel Culture is reactionary, quick to judge, and quick to anger. A short video clip (often edited), a confidential letter, or personal testimony goes viral, usually without context or hearing the other person’s side of the story. Within hours, the public will have already formed an opinion of that person or event based only on that selected evidence. Proverbs 18:17 reminds us, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Often, what appears to be a grave injustice is not so clear upon further examination. The Bible tells us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, and to not jump to conclusions (James 1:19, 4:12; Proverbs 14:29, 18:13; Matthew 7:1-2). Christians are not called to be reactionary and let their passions and desires overwhelm their good judgment. Rather, we are to exercise patience and wisdom (Proverbs 16:32, Romans 12:9-12, 1 Corinthians 13:4, James 3:17), knowing that with diligence, the truth can be found.
- Cancel Culture can be vindictive and seek to take justice and punishment into our own hands. It is a sad reality that, in a fallen world, justice is not perfect. Often, the powerful, the rich, or the well-connected can skew justice in their favor so that they are not held accountable to the extent that they should be (Ecclesiastes 3:16, 5:8). When we see this, we can rightly mourn and know that this is not how things should be (Proverbs 17:15, 24:24-25). Nevertheless, Christians are not called to be vindictive and take justice into our own hands for several reasons. First, Scripture reminds us that wickedness has its own consequences (Proverbs 11:31, 14:11; Ecclesiastes 8:12-13), even if it ultimately comes in the final judgment. Second, God has established earthly authorities to judge such matters (Deuteronomy 25:1-3, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). Though they are imperfect, we are instructed never to avenge ourselves (Romans 12:19, Leviticus 19:18, Proverbs 24:29). Lastly, we are to take comfort in the fact that justice will ultimately be satisfied in the end by God himself. The Judge of all the earth shall do what is right, and he will hold everyone accountable according to his perfect justice (Genesis 18:25, Acts 17:31, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Revelation 20:11-15).
- Cancel Culture relies on mob justice. Even though our justice system is often slow, one of the benefits of our judicial system is that it allows for passions to cool and for evidence from both sides to be heard and evaluated objectively. The type of mob justice that often happens with cancel culture over social media is based more on emotional reactions than judging based on all of the facts. Exodus 23:2 tells us that, “You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice.” While, as a society, there can be a time and place to declare something to be out-of-bounds, the Bible generally portrays the passions of mobs and crowds as resulting in unrighteousness (Genesis 19:1-11, Numbers 16:1-50, Acts 19:21-41). This is especially true when we consider the way the crowds treated our Lord and Savior (Matthew 27:15-26, Luke 23:13-25).
- Cancel Culture often has disproportionate consequences to the offense committed. Little things such as a tweet from decades ago or a minor indiscretion caught on camera result in real-world consequences: lost jobs, social ostracization, and even death threats. One mistake results in consequences completely disproportionate to the offense. Not only should punishment be proportionate to the offense (Deuteronomy 25:2, Luke 12:47-48), but the entirety of a person should not be judged by their worst mistakes.
- Cancel Culture is often unforgiving, lacking any sense of grace and mercy. Cancel culture offers very little means of forgiveness or repentance. From a Christian perspective, this is the biggest point of contention with cancel culture because it strikes at core principles of the gospel. Jesus came so that our sins could be forgiven, not eternally held over our heads (Ephesians 1:7, 1 John 1:9). If anyone’s worst offenses were displayed for all to see (especially those in our hearts), none of us could withstand public scrutiny. Colossians 3:12-13 instructs us to “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Forgiveness is not optional for a Christian (Matthew 6:14-15). If we fail to show mercy and grace towards others, that same standard will be used against us in our own faults (Matthew 7:2, Romans 2:1, James 2:13).
As a final point, Christians should keep in mind the ways in which cancel culture has been and is being used against Christian values. Celebrities like Chris Pratt received criticism merely because he attended a church that held to a biblical view of marriage. Author and cartoonist Nathan Pyle was cancelled because he tweeted in defense of the March for Life back in 2017. While Christians might be tempted to use cancel culture as a means of fighting evil and injustice, the very same tools can be used against godly values. While we certainly don’t want to overlook injustice in society, at the very least, it should raise questions as to whether such a tool is the best way to handle a situation.
While cancel culture can have good intentions and even sometimes have good results, it more frequently is beset with inadequacies and shortcomings. Cancel culture is often reactionary; vindictive; violates biblical principles of justice; and devoid of any sense of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. While we should call out the evil and injustice in the world, Christians should not operate according to the world’s ways (2 Corinthians 12:3-4). We are called to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, not conformed to the world (Romans 12:2).