Posts tagged ‘Liberalism’

Considering Cancel Culture

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It used to be a term reserved for struggling sitcoms. Now, it’s something that happens to businesspeople, politicians, stars, and journalists.

Cancellation.

Recently, a variety of voices have expressed concern over what has become known as the “cancel culture” that seems to be running roughshod over our society. “Cancellation” refers to an attempt by one group to destroy and discredit some person or some other group with whom they disagree.

In a letter published in Harper’s Magazine, a group of progressive luminaries expressed their concern that:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. 

It turns out that this letter caused such a stir that some signatories asked for their names to be removed. Why? Because some others who read the letter wanted to destroy and discredit those who signed it. They wanted to cancel those who expressed concern over cancel culture.

Just days after the above letter was published in Harper’s Magazine, an opinion columnist for The New York Times, Beri Weiss, published a scathing public resignation letter, also decrying the pernicious “cancel culture” she perceived to be prevalent and personally directed toward her within the halls of America’s paper of record:

My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m “writing about the Jews again.” Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are. 

It is critical to understand that “cancel culture” is not the coin of just one particular political party, culture, or time period. Humans have been cruel to each other and tried to destroy each other when they have disagreed with each other for a very long time. The question is: what do we do about it?

In one sense, we must begin with ourselves. We cannot stop the unscrupulous from being cruel, but we can be measured in how we respond to the unscrupulous. Here are some responses to cancellation to consider:

  • Love. Responding to those who hate you with love is not only biblically orthodox, it’s generally wise. Responding kindly instead of in kind to those who want to destroy your reputation or livelihood will almost certainly throw your enemies off because it is not the response they want or expect. Speaking well of your enemies disarms them and garners the goodwill of others toward you.
  • Humility. If others are angry with you for something you have said or believe, it is worth it to ask: Do they have a point? This question does not assume that the person who is upset with you is completely correct, nor does it imply that they are handling their disagreement with you well. It simply means that they could be right on something even if they are wrong on many things. And if they are right at all, you want to learn from them. As strange as it sounds, those who hate you can also be those who teach you. Whether you’re willing to learn is up to you.
  • Truth. Responding with love and humility does not mean you forsake what you believe to be the truth. Love and humility do not equal appeasement. Even if the person who is trying to “cancel” you refuses to listen to you, others will. Don’t be afraid to make your case.
  • Gentleness. Sometimes, people become offended not so much by what someone has to say, but by how they say it. Don’t argue a point with the deleterious intent of triggering or offending someone else. Instead, argue a point in the hope of coming to a consensus with someone else. A little bit of gentleness in how you argue can prevent a lot of cancellation when you argue.
  • Empathy. As easy as it is to become defensive and upset when someone angrily disagrees with you, it can be just as easy to become cold and calculating when you disagree with someone else. You secretly wish them ill rather than well. You dream of humiliating them in a debate. When they fall prey to calamity, you feel a spark of schadenfreude. Resist these urges. Listen to and learn from those with whom you vehemently disagree. If you want others to give you a hearing, you need to give them a hearing. Cancellation is no better from you than it is for you.

With all this being said, we must admit that certain people and philosophies do hold views that are deplorable and unacceptable. But more often than not, destroying people’s lives does not lead to the destruction of their views. Their views, when confronted in anger and vitriol, often wind up being merely hardened. So, instead of trying to cancel those with whom we disagree, we could try something else: we could try persuading them. And we could remember: debating ideas does not mean demeaning people.

People are more than their positions.

July 20, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – Christ and Culture

This past weekend in worship and ABC, we wrapped up our series, “Unresolved,” looking at how we, as Christians, are called to relate to our world.  This question of how a Christian interacts with the world is a longstanding quandry, and was perhaps most famously addressed in 1951, by Yale theology professor H. Richard Niebuhr in what would become the defining work of his career, Christ and Culture.  In this seminal work, Niebuhr outlines five ways in which Christianity has responded to culture, or the world:

  • Christ against culture.  Niebuhr summarizes this response as one which “uncompromisingly affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty” (45).[1]  Thus, this response to culture eschews most encounters with culture.  For instance, “political life is to be shunned…Military service is to be avoided because it involves participation in pagan religious rites and the swearing of an oath to Caesar” (54).  This way of thinking, then, takes a stance of deep suspicion and antagonism toward things of the world.
  • The Christ of culture.  People who adhere to this system of theologizing “feel no great tension between church and world, the social laws and the gospel, the workings of divine grace and human effort, the ethics of salvation and the ethics of social conservation or progress.  On the one hand they interpret culture through Christ, regarding those elements in it as most important which are most accordant with His work and person; on the other hand they understand Christ through culture, electing from His teaching and action as well as from the Christian doctrine about Him such points as seem to agree with what is best in civilization” (83).  Thus, this response is liberal and affectionate to the zeitgeist of a culture.
  • Christ above culture.   This, historically, has been a majority position in the Church, and posits that “the ‘world’ as culture [cannot] be simply regarded as the realm of godlessness; since it is at least founded on the ‘world’ as nature, and cannot exist save as it is upheld by the Creator and Governor of nature” (117-118).  In other words, though Christ is not opposed to culture inherently because He in some sense created it, He nevertheless reigns above it and is certainly grieved by the sin that has crept into it.  As Niebuhr writes, “The fundamental issue does not lie between Christ and the world, important as that issue is, but between God and man” (117), for man is sinful.
  • Christ and culture in paradox.  Like the response of Christ above culture, this view sees the fundamental issue as one between God and man:  “The issue lies between the righteousness of God and the righteousness of self.  On the one side are we with all of our activities, our states and our churches, our pagan and our Christian works; on the other side is God in Christ and Christ in God…It is not a question about Christians and pagans, but a question about God and man” (150).  How does Christ deal with men who are against Him?  By means of His law and His gospel.  Niebuhr says this is the position of great theological luminaries such as Augustine and Luther.
  • Christ the transformer of culture.  This response “is most closely akin to dualism [i.e., Christ and culture in paradox], but…what distinguishes conversionists from dualists is their more positive and hopeful attitude toward culture…[Conversionists have] a view of history that holds that to God all things are possible in a history that is fundamentally not a course of merely human events but always a dramatic interaction between God and men” (190-191, 194).

Although Niebuhr never explicitly endorses any of these five views, he offers no criticism of the fifth view.  Many scholars, then, believe that this is the view to which Niebuhr gives his tacit approval.

So which view is correct?  On the one hand, save the second response, all of these views have something valuable to offer to orthodox Christians.  On the other hand, to simple accept each view as equally valid quickly degenerates into an anachronistic and individualistic pluralism.  That is, accepting each view indiscriminately enables each individual Christians to respond anachronistically to different situations in their lives using whichever model they arbitrarily deem best at the time.  This will not do.  The question we must ask, then, is, “Which of these five views is normative for the other four?”  The Lutheran response would be, “Christ and culture in paradox.”  Why?  Two reasons come to mind.  First, this view understands the root of our problem, which is not culture per se, but us.  The reason there is even any discussion concerning how Christ relates to culture is because the people of culture are sinful and depraved, hostile to God.  Second, because this view is realistic about human sinfulness, it does not fall into self-righteousness, for it understands that “all of us are in the same boat,” as it were, and therefore encourages us to love our neighbor and serve in our respective vocations, just as Christ commands.  Thus, we, as Christians, in our life’s stations, are called to proclaim the  “gospel of faith in Christ working by love in the world of culture” (179).  This understanding, in turn, frees us up to decry the evil not only of culture, but of ourselves, as does the view of Christ against culture. Yet, it does not fall into separatism.  It allows us to herald the transcendent gospel as the solution to this world’s problems as does the view of Christ above culture.  Yet, it does not fall into dualism or even a soft Deism.  And it allows us to serve in our vocations for the good of our neighbors, transforming culture, as does the view of Christ the transformer of culture.  Yet, it still realizes that we, as culture is transformed, are by no means able or responsible for creating a utopian society.

Perhaps the biggest strength of the view that Christ and culture are in paradox is simply this:  it acknowledges and allows the tension between Christ and culture.  And it admits that we can never remove this tension or relegate it to a non-issue.  This, in turn, empowers us, as Christians, to engage our world thoughtfully and humbly, for we, like the rest of the world, are sinners, but we are also joyfully and freely redeemed by Christ.

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[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York:  Harper & Row, 1951).

February 20, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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