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.

I did this. We did this.

Note: I usually do a series during the summer, and I guess this summer’s series became “Difficult, challenging, pointed sermons preached from a manuscript.”  I do not plan to continue it, but this sermons certainly matches last week’s sermon in difficulty.

Sermon on Lamentations 3 – I did this.  We did this.

“I did this.  We did this.”  The poems of Lamentations land like a self-inflicted gut-punch, reading like a mournful and terrible confession of realization.  “I did this.  We did this.”

At what point do we admit that we broke the world?  When do we finally say, “I did this.  We did this.”?  At what point do we stop pretending we are the rain drop that did not cause the flood or slow flake that did not participate in the avalanche and finally just say, “I did this.  We did this.”?

We divided ourselves based upon our own rules.  We declared all who disagree stupid, evil, non-Christian, and burned every bridge between us that we could.

We named dissent and difference of opinion evil.  We called so much disagreement and dissent evil that evil no longer has meaning and we no longer have language to recognize the abhorrent as such.

We allowed evil to happen in the name of political party.  We ignored the failings of those we agreed with, allowing their greed and power-seeking activity to continue because we agreed with them in spoken philosophy.

We withheld love.

When do we finally say, “I did this.  We did this.”?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The poet laments God’s wrath.  The poet feels the pain of God’s wrath and cannot help but lament.

How does God express God’s wrath?

Does God actively punish the poet and his people?  Does God actively bolster and strengthen the soldiers of the poet’s enemies and actively weaken and undermine the efforts of the soldiers of the poet’s people?  Does God actively force the poet’s people into a foreign exile and actively allow the destruction of the temple?

Or does God allow the natural consequences of their sins to take root?  Do the sins of the poet’s people weaken them naturally, spread them too thin and make them too confident?  Do the natural consequences of their sins condemn them to failure without God’s intervention?

Or did the poet just feel abandoned when the sins of the poet’s people finally lead to their destruction and demise?  Did sin finally cause so much damage the poet’s people imploded upon themselves.

The specifics do not matter to the poet.  God’s wrath is pain and destructions.  The poet laments God’s wrath.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Why does the poet lament?  Why does the poet “passionately express grief or sorrow”?  What right does the poet have to lament?  The poet himself says it.  “Why should any living [person] complain when punished for [their] sins?”  What right do we have to complain?  We did this to ourselves.

Our sin condemned us.  We became complacent.  We forgot God.  We abused our resources and ourselves.  Our sin—not the sin of someone else but our sin—lead to our demise.

Why do we complain and mourn?  Why do we complain when we did this to ourselves and why do we mourn what our sin caused us to lose?  Why do we lament our world?  We did this.  We broke our world.

We did not speak out.  We saw evil and we remained silent.

We continued to participate in the divide.  We threw insults and slung mud and dehumanized the “other”—even our friends and family—because they disagreed.

We turned our backs on those in need.  We used a policy of “worth” and “true need” to determine who we did not turn our backs on.

We congratulated ourselves for our sins.  We patted ourselves on the back for deepening the divide and celebrated how much “good” we did while we withheld love from those most in need.

Why do we lament our broken world?  We broke it and celebrated the initial wreckage.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The poet laments not feeling God.  He may have no right to lament, but he laments out of pain and without anything else to do.  And the poet laments the sin that brought him and his people to this point.

In his lament, the poet sees the path to healing: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.  Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven.”

The poet calls his people to repent.  The poet calls his people to confess their sin and own it, realizing that they did this.  The poet calls his people to turn from their sin and return to the life and path God intended for them.

And the poet calls his people to lift their hearts to God.

The poet will continue to suffer even as he starts on this path.  This path of healing does not immediately relieve pain but much like rehab after tragedy, the healing this path provides will hurt.

But healing will come.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We lament as we look at our world and God appears so far away.

Suffering happens in our back yard.  Sex trafficking—the sale and abuse of human beings—happens less than three miles from this sanctuary.

Suffering happens to the weakest and the least.  I need not name specifics; we all know what happens to the least of God’s children.

Suffering happens in the name of greed and power.  I am reminded daily of the suffering and torment our sisters and brothers in Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia suffer to simply satiate the whims of power of those with guns and soldiers.

Suffering happens, and we stand in complacence or participation as the world breaks.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We must repent, confessing our sin, owning our sin, and turning away from our sin.  We must do what God desires and what will heal our world.

We must speak up instead of closing our eyes to the suffering and torment the sins of our world cause.

We must bridge our divisions that have allowed politicized evil to not only happen but stand as the norm instead of the deviation.

We must vocally abhor evil from all evil doers, especially those who look and think like us.

Our repentance will not immediately relieve the pain of our sin or heal our world.  Our sin has shattered our world and the shattered world we have created will require extensive, painful healing.  Nothing will heal quickly or painlessly.

But if we lament our shattered world and our sin and we repent, confessing and turning away from our sin, healing will come.

I lament our shattered world though my sin shattered it.  I try to repent of the sin I lament.  I seek the painful healing our world desperately needs.

Please—please—do the same.  Amen.

Stop Hiding

Sermon on Genesis 3:8-12 – Stop Hiding

We need to set up the scene.  This immediately follows creation.  God gave Adam and Eve one instruction—one singular rule—and this passage happens as a direct result of them failing to follow that rule.

We cannot ignore that; they broke the rule, and that indiscretion had consequences.  Remember what the passages says they did: they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, giving them awareness of everything, including sin and shame.

Actions have consequences.  They gained this knowledge and they could not unlearn it.  They suddenly had to be aware of their bodies, their thoughts, their desires, and how selfish they became.  They had to be aware of things they could desire, things that would harm them and damage their relationships.

Adam and Eve had acute and intimate awareness that they broke the one rule, that God had a reason for that one rule, and the consequences they would suffer for breaking that one rule.  Their knowledge of shame and desire and brokenness makes them feel shameful and broken.  Something changed, and they now felt the need to cover and hide themselves.

Adam and Eve sinned, permanently and irreparably breaking their relationship with God and with each other, and they had painful awareness of that.

No matter how you read the creation story—six literal days, six periods of time, or an allegory for evolution—the story ends the same: humans became aware, enabling them to sin and desire things that will destroy relationship.  Adam and Eve failed and every further relationship suffered because of it.

They hid their shame.

We do not like to fail.  When we do something bad, we often become like children.  Remember your childhood when you broke something and very carefully placed it just so appeared unbroken until someone else touched it, hopefully placing the blame for breaking the thing on them instead of you?  Or maybe for the married klutzes in the room, last week or last month when you did not want your spouse to realize the thing broke—like a knick-knack that has no real value but you cannot replace because you bought it states away on a vacation—so you just place it just so and hope it does not come up for a decent amount of time?

When things get messed up—often without true fault—we act like children and try to hide it out of shame.  When we do something wrong and stand at fault—like, say, eating from a tree that will give you all knowledge without considering if you want all knowledge—the shame usually trumps our willingness to vulnerably admit something broke, a either trinket or a relationship.

Sometimes hiding works on Earth.  The person you hide from suffers the same state of imperfection you do.  We do not always know when someone else does something wrong to us or in a way that affects us.

God knows.  Adam and Eve hoped they could hide, ignoring the fact that the creator of that Tree of Knowledge that gave them all the knowledge they wished they could erase from their minds or give back also created them and would have to know everything and see everything to create a Tree of Knowledge.

God knew Adam and Eve messed up, and they all knew Adam and Eve’s actions broke their relationship.

In Adam and Eve’s case, hiding simply exasperated the situation; they added lying and deception to the problem and did not give God the opportunity to possibly fix it.  In our relationships, hiding has the same result; it simply further breaks the relationship, especially once everyone knows the truth but even before when it remains a secret.

I believe we live in relationship with God, and that relationship facilitates the healing God gives.  God can heal everything, but God healed us not through waving his arms and making everything okay but through Jesus walking amongst us and having relationship with us before giving himself for us.  Without relationship, the healing from Jesus does not happen.

Relationship requires vulnerability and honesty.  We cannot expect healing from God if we do not lift the parts of our relationship we broke and our wounded hearts up to God to vulnerably ask for healing.  God knows all—God sees our fig leaves and sees us hiding behind the trees—but God heals us through relationship and we cannot have relationship if we continue to hide.

You cannot have relationship if you do not vulnerably admit your brokenness and weakness, either with God or with each other.

This must go beyond selfishly asking God for forgiveness to avoid condemnation.  We live in relationship with each other.  We have friendships, romantic partnerships, the guiding relationship between parents and children, and life as a family in the Body of Christ.  Those relationships cannot heal if we do not confess the actions that wound each other and address the wounds we create.  These relationships exist between broken people instead of a broken creation to a perfect creator, and we can only offer imperfect and incomplete healing apart from God, but any healing requires the same vulnerability.  We cannot heal in hiding.

We need to start confessing for real.  The liturgy feels nice and sounds nice, but if we do not lift our broken hearts to God, we cannot get the healing we need.  If we say sorry out of obligation but will not willingly and vulnerably name our misdeeds, especially when no one confronts us, the wounds our misdeeds create will not heal.

You are broken.  You have wounded multiple people.  You have broken relationships with each other and with God.

Confession and repentance can provide opportunity for heal; hiding and claiming innocence does nothing but exacerbate the wounds.

Do you want healing or bigger wounds?

Confess for healing, to God and to each other.  Amen.