Confession: I love The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. In my opinion, there’s no better way to end a stressful Monday than by texting my sister, mom and girlfriends as we dissect every ounce of drama that goes down all in the name of finding love.
For those who aren’t familiar with the show, the drama extended beyond Monday nights when long-time host Chris Harrison made racist remarks during an interview with former bachelorette Rachel Lindsay (also the first Black bachelorette), causing an outrage from bachelor fans and many previous and current cast members. He has since stepped down from hosting (at least for the foreseeable future), causing another outrage from longtime fans and defenders of the franchise. People were quick to pick sides and try to define that seemingly invisible line between “accountability” and “grace.” Turns out that’s not as easy as it may seem. So, I’m taking a quick pause from my writing on Christian Nationalism to talk about this idea of “cancel culture,” a phrase that’s been thrown around a lot in the midst of this most dramatic season ever of The Bachelor.
Even though there aren’t many comparisons I’d make between The Bachelor and my faith, this Chris Harrison situation got me thinking about how Christians should respond to “cancel culture.” And it’s this: I believe Christians are called to set an example when it comes to finding a balance between accountability and grace because we have the best example in Jesus when it comes to navigating the two.
A quick overview of cancel culture. On a larger scale, it’s the practice of silencing, banishing or punishing somebody (in effect, “canceling” them) when they make an inappropriate, unpopular or flawed statement. It’s social media driven vigilantism. It puts pressure on family members and close friends to speak out and denounce that person, lest they be canceled too. And it often results in people losing their jobs or some other sort of public shame or consequence.
However, I believe there’s a version of cancel culture that takes place on a smaller, less public level. It’s the posts that say “if you disagree with me, just go ahead and unfriend me now.” It’s declaring you could never be friends with someone if they voted for [fill in the blank.] It’s deciding that someone is beyond all hope because of a past situation.
As this form of cancel culture seeps into our individual conversations and relationships, into our churches and communities, I realized it’s not just a discussion of how people of influence should be held accountable. It’s about how we’ve become lazy in our approach towards the people in our own lives who disagree with us. How we’ve become ignorant as to the power our words have to either build up or tear down. We have stopped acknowledging that justice and love, accountability and grace, correction and mercy, are really two sides of the same coin. We must hold both in tension. As Thomas Aquinas said, “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; justice without mercy is cruelty.”
So, here are some thoughts on the times I believe we need to show grace and the times we need to prioritize accountability. [Quick disclaimer – as with all my writing, I am speaking from my perspective. For example, I have not personally been a victim of racism and do not want this to come across as a dismissal of legitimate hurt. These are simply some of my thoughts about accountability and grace, but every situation is unique and there are different levels of hurt. I don’t want to brush past that.]
- When to be humble and show grace.
We’re all going to get it wrong at some point. 1 Timothy 1:15 says “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” Cancel culture doesn’t maintain that “of whom I am the worst” mindset but rather puts us in a position of superiority to others. It’s accompanied by a lack of humility. It’s quick to point out the flaws in others without acknowledging our own. And it’s often done with a motive of catching someone in the act rather than seeking to restore them.
The way I choose to “correct and rebuke” speaks volumes of my own character. Sometimes I see somebody posting or saying something that just makes my blood boil. But before reacting, I have to ask myself what my reaction would accomplish. If I’m calling them out to make myself look better, shame or embarrass them, start an argument or get even with them, then I’m not approaching it from a posture of humility – and they’re likely to put walls up and resist change. If it’s somebody with whom I already have a genuine relationship, then it very well may be my place to lovingly speak into the problematic areas I’m seeing and open up room for conversation. But the motivation of that conversation must be more about pushing them towards growth than making myself look superior.
On the flip side, if I’m the one being called out, instead of immediately getting defensive, I should take a beat to evaluate what I said, why I said it and how it might have come across. If you’ve said something you regret, blaming “cancel culture” does not give you a get-out-of-jail-free card. We must own up to our actions no matter how far in the past they have occurred. We must repent and lament – but not let it hinder us from progressing and growing. Our past does not define us but it should inform how we live now.
Lastly, while it’s important to protect ourselves from toxic relationships, it is also important to not live in an echo chamber. Cancel culture is oftentimes based on our version of the truth. In a culture where we muddle our opinions with the truth and label anything we disagree with as fake, it becomes easy to cancel or dismiss others who disagree. Part of finding the balance between accountability and grace is coming to the realization that not everyone is going to agree with you. And that’s okay.
- When to be firm and push accountability.
Sometimes the offense goes beyond a difference in opinion and instead is something far more damaging, like racism (as we’ve seen with The Bachelor). This is when holding people accountable as well as setting boundaries for yourself become even more important. There are consequences to our actions, especially if you are using your platform or privilege to spread hate, lies, racism, etc. By no means should claiming someone is trying to “cancel” you be an excuse to avoid accountability or dismiss legitimate criticism. Accountability is necessary for growth. As Christians, we must not dismiss every piece of feedback we don’t like but rather be an example when it comes to receiving constructive criticism.
There is no better example of accountability than the one Jesus gave us. Countless times throughout his time on earth, Jesus protected people from being “canceled” while also pushing them to be better. He was also near to the people who had been hurt by those in positions of power and privilege. In John 8, Jesus flipped the script on the Pharisees who were seeking to condemn a woman caught in adultery: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
In their attempt to “cancel” her based on their own self-righteousness, Jesus actually spared them from being canceled. He didn’t let them off the hook but confronted them with their own hypocrisy and challenged their perceptions of what justice should look like in that situation. His first concern was protecting the women from being stoned. After that, he instructed her to “go and leave her life of sin.” Unlike the Pharisees, he cared more about her changing her heart than her suffering the consequences. And it’s in this loving but firm push for accountability that we most likely will see genuine change and not performative displays.
Just like showing grace does not mean you’re a pushover, holding people accountable does not mean you’re unreasonable and selfish. Even Jesus put limits on the grace he encouraged his followers to show. He knew not everyone was going to be receptive to his teaching. So, he told his disciples to “shake the dust from their feet” (Matthew 10:14) if people didn’t listen or demonstrate a willingness to listen and change. Our job is to not to change people’s minds and opinions. That mindset sets us up for endless disappointment and frustration because we ultimately cannot control what others say and do, as much as we’d like to.
Holding people accountable can be taxing, especially if you’re the one who has been hurt. Having conversations about difficult topics and challenging the perceptions that others hold takes a toll. That’s why it’s important to understand that setting boundaries is not the same as canceling someone. If you’ve been hurt, it’s not selfish to distance and protect yourself from toxicity and further hurt. Knowing when to call someone out is just as important as knowing when to walk away. We don’t have to continue in endless permissiveness and become a punching bag for someone who repeatedly shows problematic patterns of behavior or abuse, demonstrates no willingness to change or shows no remorse for their words and actions. It’s okay to shake the dust from our feet when we’ve already made multiple attempts at reconciliation, conversation or correction. There are other ways for God to work out redemption that don’t come at the expense of us getting repeatedly hurt.
The only one allowed to fully cancel is the one who is fully perfect. And if even he did not cancel us but rather died on the cross for us, how much more grace should we extend to those who make mistakes? And if he challenged the religious leaders of his day and pushed his followers to live a life worthy of the calling they had received, we too must follow in his footsteps and hold each other – and ourselves – accountable. Cancel culture is a nuanced, tricky subject, but I believe it starts with understanding that accountability and grace are not opposites but rather complementary to one another. And that they are both necessary as we strive to be more like Christ in word and deed.