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, for the purposes following, happens when individuals or groups deviate from a set of community rules resulting in immediate and mass redaction of community approval.
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’re 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 my first exposure to someone getting canceled by Christians. 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 her music. As a child growing up in the church, this made a huge impression on me: perfect living is necessary for community inclusion, or you get canceled.
It still resonates with me as an adult, 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. In 2018, Lauren Daigle 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 “miss[ing] the heart of God.”
She’s right, but I had to wonder, what emboldens large groups of faith to condemn with such confidence?
A while back I spoke with Darrell Smith, Minister of Education who also serves as Minister of Inclusion at Alamo Heights United Methodist Church, about his work on what he calls “the edge of the inside.” His entire objective is to strengthen faith while dismantling the walls Church builds around itself in the name of faith. His book Faith Lies: 7 Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them 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 work stood out in our conversation as culprits in sustaining 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 Darrell 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 behavior.
Lie: I am supposed to protect and defend God and my faith.
As Darrell 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 it. As a result, we’re actually protecting ourselves.
Lie: There is one right way to believe and one right way to behave.
Don’t worry, gumshoes. The Carmen Sandiego of heresy is nowhere to be found here. Jesus stays intact! What does get challenged, however, is our 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 behavior of others.
A recent tiff on YouTube over beauty product betrayal may seem trite, but 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 He does, 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.
Rachel Hewitt is an artist, seeker, and firm believer in Jesus' call to love your neighbor. Her dayjob consists of online engagement and provides an intimate and complex perspective on social media behaviors, conversations, and cultural impact. She uses this insight to wrestle with how we can reach people better through love in action over fear and control. She's ready to engage with how we find authentic relationship, faith, and dialogue in a world designed for clicks and follows.