At the start of 2022 will cancel culture continue to shape our common life?
The former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu held his post during the apartheid era in South Africa and won a Nobel Peace prize in 1984 for opposition to the brutal regime. He led the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the election of Mandela in 1994 and was frequently seen crying during the hearings as victims faced and challenged their torturers, telling their stories and reliving the atrocities. Tutu wrote: “Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering--remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.”
But we seem to have lost the art of forgiveness in 21st century Britain. Instead, cancel culture is all around us. From the impetus to punish a person whose ideas or behaviour we disagree with by shunning the transgressor, to lobbying to get a person fired, or black-listed from speaking, publishing or lecturing, cancel culture thrives. High profile individuals like JK Rowling, Jenni Murray, Richard Dawkins and Jordan Peterson have had to endure campaigns of harassment and intimidation. But they are not alone in this experience as ordinary people including many school children and teenagers are now fearful to express their thoughts lest they find themselves cancelled. Once cancelled, there is no hope for public forgiveness and much less for redemption. Public floggings are back in the form of group shaming and boycotting, but it seems, forgiveness is gone, a lost art from a bygone age. Accountability is everything, redemption is impossible.
Whilst free speech advocates and intellectuals wring their hands in despair, I think it worth noting that something profound is bubbling under the surface of cancel culture. There is a passion for justice driving this. It is a rejection of nihilism and the unqualified relativism of postmodernism. Afterall something matters in absolute terms if injustice matters. Cancel culture also strikes at the individualism of consumerism and materialism, affirming that we humans are communal beings – we are more than individuals, and so culture matters, society matters. Moreover, it addresses the sense that for so long, people in positions of power have been to act with impunity. Cancel culture is manifesting a desire (albeit imperfectly) to finally hold powerful figures to account in some way.
I believe that the Christian faith has something profound to say in this cultural moment as well as some important questions to pose.
Firstly, it is worth considering why we might feel outrage at the suffering in the world or at perceived injustices at all? If this material world of biology, physics and chemistry is all there is why should we experience disgust and fury at the unjust exploitation of human beings who are merely the product of a random process of chance followed by the brutal outcome of a contest for the survival of the fittest? Why should any of it matter if we are just slime, here by chance, a confluence of biochemical reactions?
Of course, materialists and agnostics, as well as Christians, will experience anger and outrage in the face of injustice and the suffering of others. But my question is: what can account for that anger? If human beings are created in the image of God, as Christians believe, it would apply whether an individual happens to believe it or not. If life is in some way sacred, we will have different ways of seeing this and knowing it to be true. One Hebrew poet in the Old Testament claims that God “has set eternity in the hearts of people.” Our rage at injustice points beyond itself to the sacredness of life and that possibility of eternity in our hearts.
Secondly, cancel culture notably holds out no possibility of redemption or forgiveness. But these are grand themes in the literature and art of many civilisations and they matter deeply to us as human beings. Forgiveness and redemption are being lost to a cold cruelty in cancel culture that is resonant of “denouncements” of authoritarian regimes in the past. Perhaps some in our generation have lost personal contact with such systems in the past? At 46 I am old enough to remember conversations with my Grandparents who escaped from East Germany in order to avoid being taken by the Soviets to Siberia. They observed the cruelty of totalitarian political systems whether right wing or left.
Does faith have anything to offer to our current cultural iterations of cancel culture?
I have seen it argued that American evangelicals and even the Mary Whitehouse style campaigns here in the UK were cancelling people, films, books and public intellectuals for a long time before activists on social media were. And there is some truth in that. Hierarchical or puritanical religion can be just as authoritarian and dangerous as any other movement.
But I want to suggest that genuine faith that is shaped by the historic personality of Jesus Christ has something truly profound to offer us. The instinct in cancel culture that someone must pay and even die some kind of death for their transgression, points beyond itself to the echo of a story that has given meaning to millions around the world for over 2000 years. Jesus of Nazareth, as God incarnate, God in the flesh, willingly dies by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. His death is described in the New Testament as a ransom, an offering, and a sacrifice. He pays a price for the transgressions of the world. And that means forgiveness can be real. The price we all intuitively sense must be paid, is actually paid by Jesus.
Forgiveness may have been rejected by the crusaders of cancel culture as a weakness that denies the seriousness of wrongdoing. But Christian forgiveness does not say the thing that happened didn’t hurt, it wasn’t wrong or it didn’t matter. Forgiveness means that the incident did hurt, it was, wrong, and it does matter – but I have the power to forgive you, to release you from my vengeance because I trust that justice will ultimately be done. The transgression will be judged by a higher authority than me, or you and if any of us truly repent and own our wrongdoing we can be forgiven in an ultimate sense – because someone HAS paid. Christian forgiveness underlines the seriousness of the hurt and evil that has occurred, since forgiving it requires the suffering and death of God.
In practical terms the concept of Christian forgiveness is a gift to any culture.
Forgiveness and redemption are possible, and outrage at injustice has a foundation in reality. Precisely because life is sacred, transgression and injustice really matter. But forgiveness lies in the realm of possibility not by denying the potency of the hurt or the seriousness of the action, but because a price has been paid for human wrong doing in the death of God in history. There is power outside of ourselves to receive forgiveness and to give it.
The power to forgive may just be the greatest gift that the Christian story can offer our age.
Dr Amy Orr-Ewing is an Author, Speaker and Theologian. She is a Senior Fellow at OCCA the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.