The cancellation – or public ostracism – of people, ideas, products and services is an almost daily occurrence now, and no one is immune.
In the past month there have been several examples of celebrities facing online debate about whether they should be “cancelled”, such as singer-songwriter Billie Eilish and TV host Chrissy Teigen. Even the popularity of the Harry Potter franchise could not prevent controversy surrounding author J.K. Rowling, due to public comments she has made about gender identity.
The Rev Jo Gibbs, CEO of Anglican Deaconess Ministries, believes cancel culture is having an impact on how Christians speak, act and navigate situations of conflict. She defines cancel culture as the removal of support from a celebrity, person or organisation in response to an action or words that people find questionable or unacceptable.
“The motive behind cancel culture can also be positive"
“It can make us question whether we have the freedom to express our opinions,” she says. “We do an amount of self-censorship because we worry about public response. The other thing [cancel culture] can do is take issues that are nuanced and complex and can turn them into something simplistic and black and white.”
According to research done by Mark McCrindle and Mainstreet Insights, three-quarters of Australians believe cancel culture has affected how they share opinions – with more than half now hiding their perspectives on political and social issues, including issues of faith.
“Because of the fear of judgement and self-censorship, the temptation is to reduce what you say and compromise the gospel,” Ms Gibbs says. “I don’t think it is anything new. God has told us in Scripture that persecution will happen. This can simply be another type of persecution.
“The motive behind cancel culture can also be positive, when we use our buying power to choose products that are ethical, and remove support for companies or products that are not... so we’d want to consider how we can reflect God’s character in what we do and similarly be people of justice and mercy.”
The God who cancels sin
The first step to navigating cancel culture as a Christian is to reflect on how God deals with people. “If anyone has the right to cancel us, it’s God – but he doesn’t,” Ms Gibbs says. “In fact, he doesn’t just bear with us, he’s so generous in Jesus and beautifully loving. In Colossians 2:14, God doesn’t cancel us but he cancels our sin. He cancels what stands in the way of us knowing him.”
God’s example of cancelling sin, but not people, provides a model of grace and love to follow. “The early church had people who disagreed on secondary issues, but Romans 14 is rich with practical ways to welcome each other warmly even when you disagree – bearing with one another and not passing judgment, but making every effort to be at peace and accept others as Christ has accepted us.
“But Scripture is also clear that we should never compromise on the gospel and that this is a point at which we should be clear and unwavering. And we should take a stand against evil and injustice in the world. But other secondary issues that don’t impact on our salvation – that’s where we want to focus on unity in Christ and not judging others.”
While cancel culture shuns a person, providing no means of repentance, as Christians we operate with a heart of discipleship and seek the spiritual growth of others.
“If we look at every person in life and think, ‘How can I help you grow in Jesus?’ then when we disagree, I will draw close to them rather than stepping away,” Ms Gibbs says. “I’ll want to open up Scripture in a loving way. We want our churches to be safe places, so people can be themselves. Churches need to be places where people can honestly say, ‘This is what’s happening’, or ‘I disagree’.”
When the godly get cancelled
When Christians face cancel culture, Ms Gibbs says the first place we should turn is Scripture. “While cancel culture is a relatively new social phenomenon and is multifaceted, the Bible is very helpful as we consider how to respond as Christians,” she says.
“We firstly shouldn’t be surprised that it happens. 2 Timothy tells us there will come a time when people won’t put up with sound doctrine and that they will turn away from the truth. At those times we need to keep being consistent in doing what God wants us to do. It’s also encouraging to remember that we’re united with Christ in his sufferings, as well as his death and resurrection.
“It’s helpful to think about the cross as an example of cancel culture, where Jesus’ opponents sought to cancel him. The encouragement from the cross is seeing that God’s voice was not silenced by Jesus’ opponents – and to remember that God’s truth is bigger than the response we get from people, so don’t change the gospel based on how people respond. But we also want to present the gospel relevantly and sensitively.”
"But we also want to present the gospel relevantly and sensitively.”
When it’s a person being cancelled, the biblical response is to extend love and grace. Ms Gibbs notes that Scripture tells us to continue loving people, even if we are the ones being cancelled.
“The most incredible thing we can do is keep loving someone. Love and care for those who have been cancelled and let them know they’re not alone; and love the person who cancels us. Our temptation is to give an eye for an eye, but that doesn’t change hearts and minds.”
We also need to watch ourselves and notice when we are tempted to lean towards cancellation rather than love in our own circumstances, or notice how cancel culture may be influencing how we live as Christians.
“When you notice yourself being angry, or disagreeing in your mind, think about what’s happening for you and how you’re responding,” Ms Gibbs says. “Think about leaning close [to the other person] rather than stepping back. Think through the primary and secondary issues and ask, ‘Is this a salvation issue?’
“We also want to make sure we’re spending time with people we disagree with, developing the ability to listen well and learning the art of persuasion rather than silencing people. Let’s get better at speaking the truth in love.
“We want to work hard at honesty and trust, creating a culture where people can be real about what’s happening for them and not be afraid of the response they will receive. So, people know they are accepted and loved even when we disagree.”