Peter Boghossian was a professor of philosophy at Portland State University, where he taught for ten years.
He loved his job.
He loved teaching critical thinking to students. And he was committed to questioning everything, including the ‘Social Justice’ ideology that took over the campus.
But his questioning stance led to push-back from students and staff.
The campus authorities investigated him. Students would spit on him as they walked past. And eventually, this became too much for him. So, he quit.
In his resignation letter, he wrote:
‘While I am grateful for the opportunity to have taught at Portland State for over a decade, it has become clear to me that this institution is no place for people who intend to think freely and explore ideas.’
Boghossian is another victim of what has come to be known as ‘Cancel Culture’: the push to marginalise and make life difficult for people who speak up against the prevailing ideology, which in his situation was ‘Social Justice Theory’.
He’s raising his voice about the dangers of Cancel Culture and the threat it poses to a free society:
The ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. The conformity it breeds among people afraid of losing their reputations and even their jobs.
And it’s a threat many Christians are aware of.
But Boghossian recently shed light on another danger we face from cancel culture. An overlooked danger, but a threat nonetheless.
And it’s a danger Christians should be aware of, lest we succumb to it.
The Overlooked Danger From Cancel Culture
In an interview with podcaster Bari Weiss, Boghossian was asked this question:
‘How do you stop yourself from…saying ‘if they’re not going to play fair, then neither am I…[I will] fight fire with fire?’
In other words, when threatened with cancellation – or when cancelled – how do we keep from fighting outrage with outrage, hate with hate, cancellation with counter-cancellation?
This is the overlooked danger we face from Cancel Culture: not the cancellation itself (although that’s bad, to be sure). Instead, it’s our response to Cancel Culture. Fighting outrage with outrage.
Now some might say we have a right to play just as dirty.
After all, aren’t we in a ‘culture-war’ when it comes to Cancel Culture? Isn’t the future of freedom and Western civilisation at stake? Why shouldn’t we respond to outrage with outrage, cancellation with cancellation?
The Danger of Outrage
There are many problems with responding to cancellation with outrage. While it may feel natural and even appropriate in the moment, it’s dangerous in many ways.
And God’s Word warns us of these dangers:
- It damages others through cruel words that tear people down – people made in the very image and likeness of God (James 3:9-10).
- It damages our soul, as we’re eaten up with anger toward another: an anger that doesn’t achieve the purposes of God (James 1:20). But risks escalating and inflaming the situation, making it worse (James 3:5-10).
- It dishonours God, who commands us to show mercy as we’ve been shown mercy (Matt 18:33).
- And at worst, it can fuel a cycle of vengeance. It can Balkanise public discourse. And entrench people into hardened positions. Which is one reason why God commands us not to take vengeance into our own hands, but leave room for his wrath (Rom 12:19-21).
The Unexpected Blessing of Being Cancelled
But on the other hand, cancellation offers a unique opportunity: an opportunity to show the fruit of the gospel in ways that witness to God’s grace.
When we’re cancelled and yet respond with grace, we show our world the power of the gospel. Our actions point to the God of forgiveness. The God whose Son prayed for those crucifying him, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). Our mercy points to the God of mercy, confounding the cynic, and even silencing the critic (1 Peter 3:15-16).
The Impossibility of Forgiveness
But such forgiveness doesn’t come easy. For most in our culture, it doesn’t come at all. The growth of Cancel Culture is a sign that forgiveness and mercy are disappearing from wider culture, as people shut others down rather than forgiving them. And forgiveness is disappearing, in large part because our cultural memory of Christ is fading away.
But as Christians, we have a high priest who can sympathise with our weaknesses (Heb 4:15). Our high priest was attacked. The mob piled on. He was cancelled.
And yet, he forgave.
He entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23): to the One who promises vengeance (Rom 12:18-21). As Christ was cancelled, he didn’t respond with vengeance but with mercy.
The Only Way We’ll Forgive
And so, the only sure way that we’ll forgive those who cancel us is to remember the One who was cancelled.
If we remember the One who was cancelled for us, if we’re overwhelmed by His mercy toward us, then we’ll more likely forgive those who want to cancel us (Matt 18).
If we remember the One who didn’t repay insult for insult but was gentle toward his accusers, it will impact how we speak. Yes, we should speak the truth to evil. But we should speak with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:9, 15).
When facing Outrage and Cancellation, remember the Christ who was cancelled for you.
Otherwise, we’ll succumb to the temptation of fighting outrage with outrage, cancellation with cancellation.
The Atheist Who Emulates the Way of Christ
Peter Boghossian is an Atheist. But he’s a Western Atheist. Which means a cross-shaped culture has profoundly shaped his morality. When asked by podcaster Bari Weiss how he stops himself from hurt the people who hurt him, this is what he said:
‘If the question is do I feel tempted to use methods to hurt people, the answer is no. Because to me, this has always been about ideas and not about people. And I harbour no animus against the people who genuinely try to make my life miserable…I really do look at them as victims…of an ideology.’
Here’s an Atheist whose gracious response to cancel culture puts many of us Christians to shame.
He knows the (overlooked) danger from cancel culture. But he doesn’t hurt the people who hurt him because he sees them differently: not as enemies to be destroyed. But, in his case, victims that have been brainwashed.
As Christians, however, we have even more reason to beware of the overlooked danger from Cancel Culture.
We know how paying back evil with evil dishonours our God. That may be how our world reacts. But it’s not how the servants of the cancelled King should respond.
As He showed mercy to his accusers, so should we.
Even to those who cancel us.
Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh. Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.