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June 28, 2021

Mercy in an Age of Cancel Culture?

In Matthew 5, traditionally labeled the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his followers the Beatitudes (a word derived from the Latin word for “blessedness”). These proverbs were listed to define traits Jesus’ followers should emulate. Among Jesus’ blessings towards the meek, the pure, and the peacemakers, Jesus says “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Mercy is an important biblical trait, but it doesn’t seem to be very talked about in today’s broader culture. This may be because of the current popularity of cancel culture, which by definition opposes the concept of mercy found in Scripture.

What is mercy?

Mercy is giving someone a second chance, whether they deserve it or not. Though the Bible mentions mercy a lot, there isn’t one specific verse that provides a definition. However, there are plenty of instances where God showed mercy to his people, especially when they disobeyed him. A prime example could be the story of Jonah, in which God showed mercy to Jonah for trying to run away from God, and also to the people of Nineveh when they repented for their sins.

What is cancel culture?

The term “canceled” means to delete something or someone out of your life. While you can cancel just about anyone or anything you want, “cancel culture” has become the mass-movement of revoking privileges, taking away platforms, and trying to blacklist celebrities and powerful figures—sometimes for something that happened decades prior.

Cancel culture generally happens on (but is not limited to) apps like TikTok and Twitter. Some recent examples of canceled celebrities important to Gen Z include YouTuber David Dobrik, country singer Morgan Wallen, and actor Shia LaBeouf. Racism, homophobia, sexism, sexual misconduct, and generally frowned-upon behavior can all be triggers for cancel culture. There are times when “cancel culture” has been used to bring necessary accountability to people in power, as has often been true with the #MeToo movement. But in the gospel, this sort of justice and accountability is always balanced with mercy—a difficult balance to strike for sure, but one Christians are called to pursue. 

Though many have been forgiven and forgotten, no public figure is safe from cancel culture. Whether it’s re-interpreting something a celebrity says, or deep-diving to find something controversial, cancel culture invades privacy, often with the intent to harm an individual rather than raise awareness for an issue.

Can they coexist? How does this affect Gen Z?

By definition, it seems like the principle of mercy can’t coexist with a culture bent on making sure people never move past their mistakes. In such a divisive culture, standing up for someone and extending grace to them can even cause both parties to get “canceled” even more. The question remains: how as Christians can we extend mercy when other people are so passionate about canceling something or someone, and how can we be set apart and foster healthy dialogue when people are divided and opinionated?

One of the reasons it may be hard to extend mercy is pride. If someone has wronged us or done something to hurt others, our desire for justice can cause us to want to ensure that person “gets what they deserve.” That may mean something more personal like cutting ties with that person or something more public like ensuring they lose their job or social status. In whatever case, it’s important to remember that a worldly idea of “getting what one deserves” is very different from what God calls us to do.

In Romans 12:19, the Lord says, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” Ultimately it is God’s task, not ours, to rebalance the scales. And yet, He is also merciful. We don’t deserve forgiveness from God when we sin, but God gives it to us and calls us to follow Him with the knowledge we will always be loved and forgiven. Offering mercy to those who we think may not deserve it becomes one of the most important ways we can follow Jesus in this age, and it can allow for stronger relationships as well.

There are some actions that rightly call for more serious accountability. The #MeToo movement brought to light countless instances of unaddressed sexual assault. Some pastors have gotten canceled for embezzling tithes for their own personal lifestyle. Even though God looks at all of our sins the same, there are still worldly consequences we may face for certain actions that are seen publicly. It’s entirely situational as to what kind of second chance should be given to someone who makes a public mistake, but we should remember that we are all guilty of making mistakes, they just usually happen in a more private setting.

So, can mercy and cancel culture coexist? We don’t think that cancel culture will stop anytime soon, especially as people’s private lives become more public with the help of the internet and social media. But, though the headlines might continue to cancel and uncancel celebrities at will, we can still practice mercy in our own lives among a cancel culture. Practicing forgiveness and fostering healthy conversations about why we make the choices we do will open up more opportunities to extend grace and share God’s love through our actions, even when consequences are necessary.

Discussion Questions

Here are some discussion questions to spark conversation:

  • Have you forgiven anyone recently or given them a second chance? Was it easy? How did it feel afterwards?
  • Have you heard of anyone getting “canceled” recently? Do you think they should have been? Why or why not?
  • Are there times when you should forgive someone but not give them a second chance? What scenarios can you think of where that might be the case?
  • What are some acts of mercy we can practice as a family, towards each other or other people?

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