Is there a form of Cancel Culture that inhabits the Christian tradition? In a sense there is, excommunication, but with some odd twists to it that don’t fit easily into the logic of ordinary secular life.
To deny someone access to Holy Communion, the Eucharist, is not to damn their souls to hell, which, I suspect, is the usual interpretation coming from too many books and movies. Excommunication is the church’s way to recognize that a person living a “notoriously evil life” must be held accountable for it, and that entering into intimate communion with the living presence of God is inappropriate for someone who has shown open disrespect for God’s ways by their words and deeds. But, and it’s a huge but, it is also an invitation to confession and amendment of life so Holy Communion can be celebrated again in joyful fellowship. The intent of excommunication is to reconcile, not ostracize.
It doesn’t always work that way. Some who have been denied Holy Communion are sufficiently humiliated to never enter a church again. Some never took Communion seriously, so if this club doesn’t like them, another will. Some have been treated cruelly by self righteous judgment, especially by those who place a higher value on church practices and social customs than Christ’s teaching. That’s why, at least in my tradition, excommunication is seldom used.
Nevertheless, the purpose of excommunication is to call one to a renewal of life in full communion, not only with God but with the people of God assembled as the church. It is said there was a time when Lent was observed as a season for restoring the excommunicated to fullness of renewed life in Christ. The extent to which that worked out in practice is debatable, but the idea of it remains today when the people are called to observe a holy Lent by reminding them that it was once a season when “…those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”
Current practice asks each Christian to examine her/his own life during Lent, and make his/her personal commitment of renewed faith and amendment of life. In this time of political strife and pandemic restrictions on communal life, it may be all the more important for Christians to observe the coming season of Lent through more intentional examination of how we, as persons and congregations, have not welcomed the other in Christ’s name. How have we been intolerant of words and behaviors insignificant to the way of following Jesus, found fault and demanded accountability over trivial matters, condemned the vulnerable, gave succor to those who abused their power, proclaimed self superiority, and tolerated policies of oppression. It’s hard work. No one wants to be burdened by more guilt than they already carry, or stand condemned for sins they believe they didn’t commit. That’s not what it’s about. It’s not about guilt and condemnation. It’s about reconciliation and restoration to greater wholeness of community as the people of God. It’s not standing in the corner punishment, it a call to renewed life in love.
That has implications for the Christian response to the politics of Cancel Culture observed in the life of the nation (As an aside, if you have not read my previous column on Cancel Culture, please do so now). First, calling out someone for words and deeds harmful to the well being of others or the community must be for verifiable words and deeds far exceeding offense to one’s opinions. They must rise to the level of felonies, not misdemeanors. What’s the difference? It’s a judgment call, but to use an inexact example that will infuriate lawyers, misdemeanors are acts causing relatively minor harm that can be mostly rectified. Felonies are intentional and cause significant, often irreparable harm to persons, property and the community. Mere allegations, or reliance on what one has heard via the grape vine, don’t count. There must be verifiable evidence.
Second, calling out must be accompanied by lamentation: genuine grief not only that things have come to this, but they have come to this by a person(s) who has corroded his/her own soul in the process. It is a call not to make the person(s) a pariah exiled from the community, but to invite confession, repentance, amendment of life, and restoration to community.
Third, it recognizes that accountability for words and deeds means there are consequences, often in the form of trial, conviction and punishment, not always in a court of law. Christians are called to do what they can to influence the process of holding persons accountable so they do not become vehicles for revenge.
Do examples come to mind? Think about it with care and compassion.