Is cancel culture a ‘bad religion run amuck’?

14 August 2020

Communications Manager Paul Huxley considers musician Nick Cave’s recent comments on cancel culture.

Nick Cave is not the first person you might imagine whose comments on cultural issues would spark online discussions and comments. His haunting 2019 album Ghosteen received enormous critical acclaim, taking many Album of the Year awards.

But Cave’s recent comments in his newsletter have provoked much discussion, seemingly capturing a feeling that often goes unspoken.

Answering two readers’ questions, ‘What is mercy for you?’ and ‘What do you think of cancel culture?’, Cave responded highlighting the value of mercy and criticising cancel culture:

“You’ve asked about cancel culture. As far as I can see, cancel culture is mercy’s antithesis. Political correctness has grown to become the unhappiest religion in the world. Its once honourable attempt to reimagine our society in a more equitable way now embodies all the worst aspects that religion has to offer (and none of the beauty) — moral certainty and self-righteousness shorn even of the capacity for redemption. It has become quite literally, bad religion run amuck.”

People are religious. And as Western culture has moved away from its Christian roots, people have not suddenly stopped being religious. Human beings may be categorised by scientists as homo sapiens – that is wise, or thinking beings – but I think an alternative name, homo adorans (worshipping man) gets more to the heart of what we are. Humans worship. Worshipping God is our very purpose.

Inevitably religious

Cave is by no means the first to recognise the religiosity of today’s culture. Environmentalism has often been compared to a religion. In this religion’s framework, the sins include pollution, ozone damage, deforestation and greenhouse gases. Climate activists become the priesthood, here to save us from the imminent apocalyptic disaster. Debate on the efficacy of their proposed policies is treated as heresy and dissenting scientists silenced. Gaia is our god and we must observe strict rituals (sorting out our recycling, implementing dietary restrictions like veganism) to accomplish our salvation.

That’s not to critique environmentalism so much as to show its religious character.

And to paraphrase Cave, political correctness is a well-meaning attempt to improve society that has unfortunately morphed into a monster of merciless moralism.

Few people really want to offend others. Sure, there are some who abuse platforms like Twitter to get their kicks, gain infamy while sowing discord. But UK people as a whole, probably the world’s best queuers, more often intend to be polite and sympathetic to others. Political correctness is intended to be a good thing, highlighting real problems with historic language around disability or race, for example.

Political correctness has become an idol

But in the form of cancel culture, political correctness has become an idol. An idol which, according to Cave, is the antithesis of mercy. He explains his view on how the value of mercy improves the humour, creativity and beauty of society:

“Mercy allows us the ability to engage openly in free-ranging conversation — an expansion of collective discovery toward a common good. If mercy is our guide we have a safety net of mutual consideration, and we can, to quote Oscar Wilde, ‘play gracefully with ideas.’

“Yet mercy is not a given. It is a value we must nurture and aspire to. Tolerance allows the spirit of enquiry the confidence to roam freely, to make mistakes, to self-correct, to be bold, to dare to doubt and in the process to chance upon new and more advanced ideas. Without mercy society grows inflexible, fearful, vindictive and humourless.”

I’ve recently been reading through stories of Christian Legal Centre cases – some known to the public and some that have not yet seen the light of day. And even as someone familiar with what has happened, I’ve been struck by the utter lack of mercy shown.

For example, Seyi Omooba. Obviously an extremely talented performer. Having got to know her, a tremendously likeable person. It shouldn’t really matter – her freedom would still matter if she had a spikey, difficult personality – but that’s not her at all. Yet another performer dug up old posts of hers, graciously defending the Christian view of marriage, and she was hounded away from a high profile role, marked out by the High Priests of theatre as ‘unclean’.

Or Kristie Higgs. Again, an obviously gentle and kind-hearted woman driven from her job without mercy. Recently, the way I’ve seen my friends from Core Issues Trust treated by online activists and service providers.

‘Merciless’ is the perfect word to describe this.

Was Christianity just the same?

But I hear the counter-argument – that this is just the nature of cultural dominance. That the group in power always crushes minority views. That during their cultural dominance, Christians did just the same, joylessly persecuting those who were different to them. Now the shoe’s on the other foot and Christians simply ought to take their lumps.

What should we say to this?

I think we should start by listening. Christians – and the Church as a whole – are a work in progress. There is simply no need to pretend everything – even anything – in our history is perfect. We’re still descended from Adam, we still make similar mistakes and there is no golden era of Christendom that got everything right. Some of our ‘heroes’ had slaves or supported slavery. Some were antisemitic. Some persecuted other religions or other types of Christians. This all happened, and we shouldn’t simply brush it off.

But the Spirit of God was still at work. He led Christians to repent, even to lead in the fight against the slave trade. Christians don’t now talk of Jews in the ways Martin Luther and many others once did. And the wars of religion gave birth to arguably the most tolerant – the most merciful – societies in world history.

We can own our real mistakes, but tell me, what other culture has developed that shows more genuine mercy and tolerance to its dissenters than late stage Christendom?

Not cancel culture, I would argue.

Uniquely fitted for mercy

Whatever mistakes we’ve made, in truth, Christianity is truly better fitted to grow a culture of mercy than any other conceivable religion.

“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36 ESV)

We worship, and seek to follow, a God who doesn’t just claim to be merciful, but who proves it. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. The Lord’s prayer says:

“Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us”

It is our daily business to forgive. We pray that God would forgive us as we forgive.

We’re debtors to mercy. And a society that loves the God of mercy ought to show mercy to others.

Nick Cave, though no Christian, understands the value of mercy and poisonous effects of cancel culture:

“Cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society. Compassion is the primary experience — the heart event — out of which emerges the genius and generosity of the imagination. Creativity is an act of love that can knock up against our most foundational beliefs, and in doing so brings forth fresh ways of seeing the world.”

My prayer is that he, and the many others who acknowledge the intolerance of cancel culture, will come to Jesus and find true mercy.

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