Remember when the internet was still a new thing? I will never forget coming home from school in the late ‘90s every afternoon, heading into my parents’ bedroom where our family computer was and getting online. My favorite part, of course, was hearing the rocket-like sound of liftoff followed by the Welcome … quickly followed by the “you’ve got mail” voice from my computer to let me know I was now on the internet. Browsing the internet back then was a painfully slow experience, so for me, my favorite thing to do online was to go into chat rooms.
I always thought it was fascinating to talk with people from all over the planet. The internet seemed to be this cool place where geographical — or even philosophical and ideological or demographical or economic — barriers would no longer separate us from being able to have dialogue, to communicate with people and to exchange views. Unfortunately, over two decades later, instead of the internet and culture fostering dialogue bridge-building and the world becoming a smaller place, today it seems the chasm between us has widened and the internet has become a glorified echo chamber that fosters tribalism rather than bridge-building.
A recent article in the New York Times called “The Internet is Splintering,” talks about how the utopian idea of the internet was that it would tear down boundaries around the world, but technology watchers have in fact been warning for quite some time that it could do just the opposite, it could make our barriers even higher, and what has particularly made it complicated has been various national regulations for free speech and expression online. This past year has been what I would call a cultural inflection point between the pandemic, the issue of race in America, and polarizing politics all colliding with a mess of conspiracy theories, misinformation and fears over incitement to violence being propagated on social media.
Let me be clear that I understand there needs to be reasonable boundaries and rules of conduct for social media platforms and that I respect the right of private companies like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and others to regulate as they see fit. And certain behaviors from individuals do warrant societal consequences. Yet, as an evangelical Christian, I have become increasingly concerned for the overall direction our society seems to be taking that I fear will only further deepen our divisions, erode the fabric of what makes America a free society and will squelch the dialogue that could help us learn to love and respect each other, even with us having vastly different views on everything under the sun.
Our response to this cultural inflection point must not merely be to “cancel” whoever or whatever we disagree with; it should be to seek an understanding of where they come from, why they believe what they believe and seek common ground if it can be found. We should not be tuning each other out, we should be tuning in. Our response to the ugly and horrific aspects of our history and of those who helped make our history should not merely be to seek to erase their names or their legacies, but rather we should encourage learning about our history, the good, bad and ugly parts of it. Ignoring history sets us up to repeat it. We should not seek to avoid discussing or hearing difficult things that we fundamentally disagree with; we should be willing to listen to each other and hear out each other’s perspective. What has always concerned me about “cancel culture” is who decides what is worthy of canceling? It is one thing for social media big tech to feel as though misinformation that is dangerous needs canceling, but what about canceling out those who hold views that are against the mainstream culture on societal issues?
Case in point, recently Amazon decided to pull the bestselling book, “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement” without warning and explanation to the Christian author Ryan Anderson. The book is critical of transgender ideology, but it is far from radical, at least from a biblical Christian perspective, but from a mainstream cultural perspective, I imagine daring to believe in what the Bible says about sexuality and gender is radical and even “hateful.” It has been clear for the last several years that we are at a point now where dissent from LGBTQ ideology will get you “canceled,” ostracized, and soon, if the Equality Act passes Congress as it stands now, legally punished.
For us as Christians, while this has not been familiar territory of our experience in America, this was how our faith began. The world tried to “cancel” Jesus Christ by putting him on the cross and he rose from the dead. The world tried to “cancel” the early Christian church, and it grew to become the religion of Rome. We have often been rejected, ostracized, marginalized and for many even now around the world, persecuted from society and culture. And so, if indeed this is the beginning of being canceled for our beliefs by our culture, allow me to make this declaration: We believe there is a God; we believe in his son, Jesus Christ, as the only way to salvation for all mankind; we believe the Bible is God’s word; we believe in loving our neighbor and yeah, we believe marriage is still between a man and a woman, and we believe in biological gender; and we will not be silenced.
The Bible gives us advice that I find particularly relevant for the time we find ourselves in as a society: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). The definition of listening is to “hear something with thoughtful consideration and to give consideration.” It is becoming clear that we are not willing to listen to those who have different political, religious or cultural views than we do, and I see society guilty of that as well as many of my fellow Christians.
We need to be intentional about building bridges, not burning them, and not be afraid to have our beliefs challenged, because if we surround ourselves only with voices who reinforce our views, we will be building our belief system on a house of cards. The Bible tells us we should be “slow” to speak, yet that flies in the face with our quick-click impulsive screaming matches on social media. We do not even speak to each other, we just shout. And instead of being slow to become angry, we have lost the art of being able to disagree with someone on fundamental issues and still have mutual love, respect and friendship. The challenge for all of us who are Christians moving forward in the face of “cancel culture” is to present such a bold, powerful and loving witness of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that it cannot be canceled, ignored, sidelined or minimized.
As the culture around us becomes increasingly hostile to our beliefs, we have a choice. We can choose silence over speaking up, hiding our faith rather than letting it shine, and compromising our convictions rather than standing by them. Let us face this time we live in with courage and compassion.
“The further a society drifts from truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.” - George Orwell.
Stephen Mitchell is the senior pastor of Trinity Bible Church in Severna Park. He also is the host of a weekly podcast, “Real Christian Talk with Pastor Steve,” available on all podcast platforms.