‘Cancel culture’ has become a bit of a boogeyman phrase these days. Implicit in it, is a picture of social media ‘mobs’ hunting for something to be offended about. With the added intent of ending someone’s career if possible. While I feel there is some truth to that, I think it’s also become a lazy critique against people asking for justice. In reality, cancel culture is nothing new. There have always been consequences for wrongdoing. The only difference is now, social media has given a platform to more voices who would otherwise be ignored or silenced.
So is there justice to be found in this process? Yes and no. On the one hand, holding people accountable, asking for changes in problematic behaviour and deplatforming those who continue to harm others is good. On the other hand, completely writing people off, doxxing them and sending threatening messages is… not so good. Unfortunately, the term ‘cancel culture’ tends to blur all these things together. So as believers, how should we respond? Despite social media not existing 2000 odd years ago, I believe the life, death and resurrection of Jesus can help clear this up for us.
A second chance
Throughout his ministry, Jesus encountered a lot of people who would’ve likely been cancelled today. Take Zacchaeus the tax collector for example. Infamously known as someone who essentially overcharged people for a living, Zacchaeus was so low in people’s estimations that they were shocked Jesus went to his house. But Zacchaeus’ response goes to show why we shouldn’t completely write people off:
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”Luke 19:8
Importantly Zacchaeus didn’t just apologise, he vowed to make things right. This act of restitution, where what was lost would be restored, moved Jesus to proclaim salvation over him. Jesus didn’t define Zacchaeus by the wrong things he had done, instead he gave him a chance to acknowledge his wrongdoing and prove that through his actions. So when we confront those who are acting unjustly, let’s make sure we still acknowledge their humanity and also leave space for restitution. But what if they don’t respond like Zacchaeus?
Addressing the issue
There’s a number of times throughout the Gospels that Jesus pulls no punches. This couldn’t be any truer than with the religious authorities of the time. Matthew 23 is an iconic example of Jesus calling out the religious authorities as ‘whitewashed tombs’ for how they cared about appearing as righteous, but underneath were unjust at heart. Reading it today almost resembles a Twitter thread/rant. So why did Jesus treat Zacchaeus so kindly, but the extreme opposite for the religious authorities?
There are many factors involved, but there are two that stick out to me: institutional critique and harm reduction. Jesus wasn’t just speaking to one or two ‘bad apples’, he saw the religious authorities of the time as riddled with systemic problems that harmed others. When we see systems that actively harm people with no sign of slowing down, the appropriate response is to try and put a stop to it. Following Jesus’ example, we should call out injustice when we see it and not allow it to be normalised. So if that looks like publicly scrutinising a fast fashion brand or calling out institutional racism, let’s do it. Not just to add to the cacophony of voices, but to raise awareness in our sphere of influence and to sow the seeds of a vision for a better future.
Nothing sums up God’s vision for justice better than Jesus’ death and resurrection. It wasn’t just a moment to pay the price for sin, it went further than that. Through the cross, Jesus restored humanity’s relationship with God. When the curtain in the temple was torn, we weren’t only forgiven, we were also given access to the fullness of life Jesus promised in John 10:10. Through Jesus’ resurrection we have access to freedom and righteousness that empowers us to live more just lives.
Jesus may have vowed to destroy the temple, but he also promised to rebuild in three days. So when we’re tempted to join the social media pile on, are we doing it just to condemn or to guide people to a more just re-envisioning of life? Mariam Tadros put it brilliantly well on the latest episode of the Together Podcast:
Justice can’t just be about restitution or retribution, it has to be about healing and learning to live with one another.Mariam Tadros
So whatever you think of ‘cancel culture’ as a term or social media phenomenon, my advice is to follow the footsteps of Jesus. Let’s make sure our pursuit of justice keeps people’s humanity intact, makes right what was wrong, calls out institutions of injustice and restores people to live in a more just world.