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Cancel Culture – Would Jesus Approve?

On an episode of ‘Welcome Back, Kotter’, a TV sitcom from the 1970’s, Vinnie Barbarino meets someone he is crazy about. Because they don’t live near one another, they have to say a painful goodbye when it is time for this new girlfriend to go home. The ‘Sweat Hogs’ (Vinnie’s friend crew) and their favorite teacher, Mr. Kotter, enter the scene to console Vinnie. In his signature Brooklyn accent combined with an unexpected wisdom filtered through a low I.Q., Vinnie says: “You know what, Mr. Kotter? Some people come into your life and then leave. It’s so stupid!” Mr. Woodman, the annoying principal, comes in for a brief moment and interrupts with a self-centered, cranky comment to Kotter, and then makes a quick exit. Mr. Kotter turns back to Vinnie and says: “you know what’s worse? Some people come into your life and stay there!” It made me laugh because both statements about relationships are true, but I happen to see a third category developing in recent years from our “cancel culture” phenomenon.

This third category suggests that, on a personal level, if you don’t like someone, or they have hurt you in some way, you can simply choose to act like they don’t exist. Sometimes it is referred to as “Ghosting” and sometimes as “Stonewalling”. There are certainly those people who we can choose to eliminate from our life because they are truly toxic and unhealthy. Sometimes dangerous. But there seems to have developed a blurriness that ends up putting imperfect people, and/or people we disagree with, into this category with the toxic.

People are being categorized as “unhealthy” and then eliminated from the lives of those who deem them unworthy of relationship. The beliefs of the two parties clash, making one or both uncomfortable, angry, irritated, or whatever negative emotion they evoke in us. The cancel culture of today makes it seem like cutting people out of our lives is a right we have in order to delegitimatize their thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. It’s a new form of intolerance that makes it seem like the person being cut off is at fault, when in reality it is more an issue of the “canceler” who judges the other person as unworthy of their relationship. The canceler of an individual person is exhibiting more of a psychological phenomenon, whereas the cancellation of a group of people is more of a sociological phenomenon. By “removing” people based on whether or not they agree with us, we are creating a more divided existence for ourselves based on a judgment of beliefs.

Lately, I have seen a number of adult children doing this to their parents. They determine that their parents were grievously at fault in some way in their parenting, or that their beliefs are “wrong,” or their actions are “manipulative”, and the child becomes angry and judgmental, refusing to talk to the parent or allowing them into their lives at all. They just go cold and silent.

On a national scale we see entire news outlets that cater to one way of thinking and that bash the “other” way of thinking. It’s hardly “news” at all, but rather opinions about political views and events. Surely this approach will widen the divide and create separate sides that cannot coexist peacefully.

On a local level, I think we can all relate to what happened regarding the Colony Days and Colony Christmas name change to Braided River this year. Many of us had a collective reaction to what we thought was cancelling one local people group to appease another. Instead of counter-canceling we should have asked questions and sought to resolve the issue with more compassion and understanding.

As a Christian, we should not see ‘relationship elimination’ based on culture and beliefs as a valid option for relating to one another. Christ didn’t specify that we were to only love those relatives who made us feel good, or those church members who fully agree with our point of view, or those co-workers who are easy to work with. During the Last Supper, Jesus said to His disciples: “I give you a new command: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another” (John 13:34). Since Christ is the example we follow, it is easy to see what love is supposed to look like. He forgave those who harmed Him. He had compassion on the apostle Peter who routinely failed Him. He was patient with people who didn’t understand what He was saying. He gave time to the woman at the well whom nobody else wanted to be seen with.

Do you think Jesus would have “canceled” anyone from His life? There are some verses in the Bible where Jesus tells His disciples to go and preach the gospel and if the people do not want to hear the message, the disciples can “shake the dust off their feet” and move on. It is a symbolic way of surrendering those people to the Lord and is a spiritual release from feeling responsible for the results of the message being shared. So no, I don’t think Jesus would have canceled anyone from His life. Rather, He would offer them every opportunity to know Truth and to be in relationship with Him, but He would not go so far as to force it. He leaves the matter in the hands of those hearing the message. The dust-shaking is a way of saying “they can decide for themselves.”

In a cancel culture approach the canceler is basically saying “you don’t see things my way, so I want nothing to do with you and you have no value for my life”. There’s no seeking to understand; no outreach; no forgiveness extended. There’s only criticism, judgment, and rejection. It often doesn’t stop there because the canceler seeks to persuade others to follow suit. The silencing is growing louder in this current culture of cancellation, and the wounds and division are mounting. I do believe the cancelers will also be hurting themselves. Whenever there is judgment, unforgiveness, and arrogance, there is a high cost.

Maybe Vinnie Barbarino was smarter than he appeared when he said “some people come into your life and then leave. It’s so stupid.” He wasn’t specifically talking about these canceled relationships, but he could have been. It certainly applies. May we cease canceling one another, and may we learn to listen to each other with patience and kindness, hoping to at least understand and respect one another, regardless of our strongly held beliefs. It would be the Christ-like thing to do. Save the severing for truly toxic and dangerous relationships.

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