Fearless Moral Inventory and Cancel Culture

I debated posting this because of how “hot” this issue is. I will touch a nerve that some will call political. I have selfishly avoided controversial public statements recently for a host of reasons, but I need to address a horrific trend I see happening in people I love and respected.

Real Talk: U.S. politics manufactured your outrage over the estate of Dr. Seuss stopping production and sales of six titles you have never heard of – or haven’t heard of in years, at least. The beloved classics the outraged keep bringing up and demanding be read until all of our dying breaths will still be available at every bookstore and library – with a few, radical exceptions of places the outraged would never patronize, anyway.

U.S. politics manufactures outrage to distract from bigger issues. I wish the estate had quietly just stopped selling the titles *PUTS ON CYNICAL HAT* instead of doing a press release to make the estate look more woke to sell more books to progressive millennials *TAKES CYNICAL HAT OFF* but they made their decision on how to do it and we played into the outrage game that decision gave to us.

No one got canceled and everyone got distracted from the bigger issues going on all around us. We played right into the game, and our politicians love that they can come out against “cancel culture” instead of addressing, again, all the big, life-and-death issues going on all around us.

But I cannot add anything to the direct conversation. If you want to get mad and read more Dr. Seuss, you will; if you want to stop reading Dr. Seuss – or did years ago – you will. The whole exercise wasted everyone’s time and only served to anger and divide us further.

I only even addressed it in specific as a conduit to the bigger issue this and other stories like it point to. I see something else happening here, something I have seen since everyone started screaming about “Cancel Culture” and wanting to just ignore past transgressions because they happened “in the past” and were perpetrated by our heroes and beloved creators of things we love.

After reading The Refuge and Kathy Escobar in Searching for Sunday, I have argued that Christianity and church needs to take a lesson from the recovery moment and start using the 12 Steps to guide our path of repentance.1 We, as individuals, as communities and congregations, as institution, and as the whole Body of Christ need to actively repent and do better – and give up our addiction to comfort.

(I encourage you to grab a copy of the 12 Steps a guide; you won’t need it to read this, but you might find it helpful for bits I didn’t write complete and useful later if you decide something I said resonated with you)

The first three steps you can easily mimic and declare just by sitting in the pew and saying the words. Cradle Christians have done this since their birth (adapted to fit a generic Christian repentance movement and not recovery from addition specifically):

  1. Admit we are powerless over sin and that our lives have become unmanageable.
  2. Come to believe a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
  3. Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God (as we understand God).

Read the gospel, believe the gospel, believe the cross, and decide to put God in charge. Easy to say and easy to fake; only really requires showing up and saying the right words.

Also pretty easy to sniff out a liar, but naming that liar – even with proof – is problematic to say the least. Comfortable liars don’t take kindly to admonition, and their apologists really don’t take kindly to it.

But when you get to step four – and especially step five – just arriving at church and reading the words on the page stops fulfilling your visible obligation. We must look in the mirror and see our true selves, not the polished version we created for job interviews or the “selectively, perfectly imperfect” version we create hourly for social media. We must name our sin, name how we have wronged each other, wronged ourselves, and damaged our relationship with God.

We must name when we chose sin and its comforts over love and its sacrifices. We cannot just generically say, “I am sinful; forgive me, God,” at this point. We can no longer privately confess and only name those sins that don’t really make us look “that bad” as we have our personal, private conversation with the magic, vending-machine version of God that provides tickets out of Hell that only cost a silent confession once a week. We must name our sins, in detail to at least one other person.

We must bear our souls and say, “I am broken and sinful, and I must name the ways for facilitate healing.” Our healing and making this creation closer to what God intended requires it.

And then we ask God to take away our sin and make amends to those we have hurt.

On an individual basis this looks exactly as you would expect, and most people do not lose their mind and try to convince someone making amends they have nothing to apologize for and their feelings of sinfulness only come because culture and popular opinion have shifted.

We absolutely need to do this on an individual basis – and frankly, we need to not just encourage it in worship but give space and safety for it to happen (I don’t know what that looks like, exactly, but that’s also a different conversation). We need to acknowledge and name how we have damaged relationships and withheld love, and we need to do what we can to heal the relationship. 2

But this must go beyond our individual sins; we must confess the sins of the bodies and institutions we hold up and systems we benefit from. We must do this for God’s creation to get better and heal. We must do this much the same way Jesus did this (which got him killed).

Yet every time anyone sees something wrong in our history and says, “That’s a terrible thing that happened…” or, “That was wrong then and is wrong now…” and suggests trying rectify the situation and make amends to those hurt, sections of our society – and especially particular parts of the Body of Christ – start jumping up and own, hollering about how it’s silly and anyone offended by our harmful past actions – and present actions – are “snowflakes” who just follow popular culture.

Racism is real and depictions of non-White people – and who we consider White now but did not before – from periods of our past are incredibly racist and lift Western European and American White-ness as superior to all other races and cultures. Depictions rooted in sexism, homophobia, and any other -ism, do the same to the marginalized for the benefit and entertainment of the privileged. Continuing to publish those depictions does active and lasting harm to the groups depicted.

Ceasing publication and distribution of those images and depictions shows at least a small sign of fearless moral inventory and a step toward doing better.

I will never give Disney any room for moral authority – just, no – but I find part of the updated disclaimer they put on dated and problematic pieces they have available for viewing incredibly apt and approaching righteous (as much as I want to vomit saying anything Disney does is righteous):

“These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now.”

You don’t have to believe Disney truly believes this or says this for any reason other than financial gain to see the righteous truth and frank confession in that statement.

These things did not suddenly become wrong, and culture did not dictate our morality to us. We (royal we) do a fearless moral inventory of our society, systems, and culture, and, in doing so, learn that we did things that were wrong but acceptable when we did them. We look to both do better and make amends for our wrong actions.

As far as I read in the gospels, that sounds like what Jesus called the religiously comfortable and powerful to do.

We do all of this inadequately and constantly fall short3, but if we continue to take a fearless moral inventory – and act upon it – we can move the needle toward justice and God’s will. We can follow and embody Christ instead of fearfully and angrily holding on to what was because the fearless moral inventory might uncomfortably implicate us and taste bitter in our contentedness.

Do we refuse to participate in following God’s will for justice and sacrificial love because we might find ourselves implicated and needing to repent and take the bitter herbs, or do we follow Christ even to death – especially the death of our sinful and comfortable selves?

I think you know the right answer. I hope you choose it, and I pray for the strength to choose it myself.

Peace,
– Robby


1 I know the 12 Steps as written and published contains problematic language for a couple of reasons – gendered language for God, an implied necessity for Christian faith, etc. – but the steps themselves are a pretty spot on and incredibly challenging path to repentance. Unless you can stop sinning whenever you want, you have an addiction to selfishness and withholding love (and if you can stop any time you want, why don’t you)?

2 No one owes us forgiveness or absolution, by the way; you apologize to open the space for reconciliation and find peace yourself, not so you can receive Earthly absolution from the person you wronged. Any apology that ends with, “Are we good?” or any other request for absolution is a false apology.

3 Some (read: very few, but not zero) people do get wrongly “canceled” or have no opportunity make amends for small, past actions, but this is rare and exaggerated by those whose beloved heroes refuse to make amends for egregious past and present actions and fall victim to what some have started called “consequence culture.” I wouldn’t acknowledge this on principle, but if I don’t, it gives opportunity to discount the whole thing. I must say to those people, “Cancel Culture” for being kinda bad on social media but not awful isn’t nearly as prevalent as is being canceled standing up to the rich and powerful and not being rich and powerful yourself.

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