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How cancel culture makes liars of us all For fear of never being forgiven, we pretend to be better than we are

Mahalia Jackson's favourite hymn, Amazing Grace, was written by a slaver. Credit: Ullstein Bild/ Getty

Mahalia Jackson's favourite hymn, Amazing Grace, was written by a slaver. Credit: Ullstein Bild/ Getty


June 11, 2020   4 mins

Born in New Orleans in 1911, Mahalia Jackson was often referred to as ‘The Queen of Gospel’. A civil rights activist, Jackson used the music of church spirituals and hymns to powerful public effect. “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free,” she said.

Many of the spirituals that she sang were taken from the Biblical book of Psalms, often from passages that lament the conditions of slavery into which the people of Israel were taken. She sang at her friend Martin Luther King’s funeral. Harry Belafonte called her “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”.

Among her favourite hymns was ‘Amazing Grace’. I find it hard to hear her sing it without welling up. It is utterly beautiful and captivating. And the opening words are such a direct and powerful statement of the Christian doctrine of redemption:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see.

The hymn was written by John Newton. And John Newton was a slaver. Not in Edward Colston’s league, perhaps. But he captained slave ships, trafficking his human cargo to a life of utter misery, and he personally profited from the slave trade. ‘Amazing Grace’ is such an extraordinarily powerful hymn precisely because it was written by a man with such a shameful past.

Newton has become a kind of patron saint to those looking for some sort of redemption. It’s no surprise, then, that Rev Jonathan Aitken, the disgraced former Cabinet Minster and a previous guest on my Confessions podcast, co-authored a biography of the man. Even those of us whose sins do not add up to anything like Newton’s, recognise in his words the promise that we are not necessarily eternally imprisoned by the things that we have done wrong in our lives. Jackson understood this. “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free” references freedom from imprisonment on a number of different levels.

The contrast here with the developing moral consciousness of the contemporary culture wars is acute and, to me, quite frightening. For although something like the anger that feeds into the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue has a clear moral righteousness about it, it is not a righteousness that has been tempered by any sense of our collective need for redemption.

The new, highly secular ‘cancel culture’ represents an extreme form of righteousness that has all the moral power of a certain kind of protestant Christianity, but none of the basic scaffolding of redemption on which such Christianity is built. And morality without forgiveness or redemption is a frightening, persecutory business.

Part of the problem with the cancel culture of modern identity politics is that it makes the confession of sins so much more difficult to achieve. Or, to put that in a more secular idiom: how can we all confront the various forms of racism, sexism, homophobia and so on that we harbour within, when the consequences of any form of public admission are devastating and toxic?

There’s a sort of furious moral vigilantism that encourages its adherents to trawl through our public utterances — in order to condemn and shame us in the high court of Twitter. Against this digital shoaling of the mob, any protestations of rightful innocence are impossible to make, and the fear of being targeted makes any exploration or confession of our hidden failings terrifying to contemplate.

Cancel culture makes us hide in fear. It makes us publicly pretend we are better than we are. It turns us all into liars — and the more we fear the exposure of our failings, the more we point the finger at others in the hope of misdirecting the anger of the crowd.

Hate the sin, love the sinner. This phrase is often trotted out in evangelical circles, and it has become too much of a cliché. But nonetheless it neatly summarises a kind of firewall that developed in some Christian circles to stop legitimate anger at injustice spilling over into some kind of endless personal attack upon the perpetrators. And it enables us to explore our own failings so much more easily.

The problem is that, under Christian culture, we used to believe that wrongdoers would get their ultimate comeuppance when they faced the divine after death. From such a perspective the final administration of justice would be carried out by the ultimate righteous judge who knows all the secrets of our hearts.

But this God is now dead in popular culture. And so the consequences of our moral failings have to be reckoned with in this life — otherwise we would get away with them without any sort of censure. In other words, the God that would judge us all with fairness and kindness has been replaced by the high court of the digital trial. And once sentence has been passed, there is no coming back, ever. That is what it is to be cancelled.

In 2007, down a small alley off Fenchurch street in the City of London, Archbishop Desmond Tutu unveiled a sculpture to remember and acknowledge the evils of the transatlantic slave trade. This site was chosen because this is where John Newton had his parish after he became an Anglican clergyman. And it was here that he came to influence fellow evangelicals like William Wilberforce and the whole abolitionist movement. The base of the sculpture is an ambiguous structure that can either be read as the pulpit from which Newton preached his sermons against slavery, or as a slave auctioneer’s podium.

This is one work of public art commemorating a former slaver that I presume will not be targeted by those seeking to pull down other structures. Though if #ghandimustfall can trend on Twitter, and if a statue of Churchill can be graffitied — a man who, whatever his undoubted failings, was instrumental in the defeat of one of the most murderous and racist regimes the world has ever known — then no amount of redemption is sufficient in the eyes of our new guardians of public morality to blot out our past offences.

Sure, there are many statues of dead white men with blood on their hands that I would not lose sleep to see the back of. And who of us didn’t cheer when that statue of Saddam Hussein was smashed to the ground?

But nonetheless, without some sort of secular equivalent to personal redemption — and I don’t know what that would be — those who recognise themselves as “a wretch” will look nervously at this crescendo of moral righteousness and begin to fear that one day the same people will come after us too. Indeed, without the existence of redemption we should probably all be afraid of vigilante moralism.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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Dave Smith
Dave Smith
4 years ago

Oscar Wilde wrote
‘The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation. More than that it is the means by which one alters one’s past
Christ showed that the commonest sinner could do it, that it was the one thing he could do. ‘
We have forgotten, or many of us have, the extraordinary moment when Christ was confronted by the woman taken in adultery and was asked what should be done to her. Then in a truly magical moment he doodles on the ground and then changes all our futures by saying- let him of you who has never sinned be the first to throw the stone at her.
This current outbreak of intolerant behaviour by the righteous will pass. The words of Christ will remain .

David Barnett
David Barnett
4 years ago

I can’t dispute this analysis, but would make one observation. Woke-ism seems to be the philosophy of the mediocre. They may have attended elite institutions but seem incapable of making a logical case for their views and merely resort to ad hominem arguments.

By contrast there is a small cadre of articulate, penetrating thinkers with a classical liberal or conservative viewpoint. As pointed out STEM professors are more balanced (politicised subjects climate modelling excepted). So, perhaps the real hope for the future lies in the more balanced view of truly competent thinkers.

This essay is very suggestive that we are headed for a dark age when the wokerati politic our civilisation into collapse.

Perhaps the small cadre of the competent need to establish a Foundation ready to rebuild (echoing Isaac Asimov). Or perhaps they will withdraw to a Galt’s Gulch (Atlas Shugged by Ayn Rand) until the wokerati, unable to repair anything, scream for help.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago
Reply to  David Barnett

‘Or perhaps they will withdraw to a Galt’s Gulch (Atlas Shugged by Ayn Rand) until the wokerati, unable to repair anything, scream for help.’

I have not read Atlas Shrugged. But your comment suggests that it prefigures something I have posited a few times recently. Specifically, that it is time to divide into Progressive and Conservative cities, regions or states, because the two belief systems are simply incapable of existing side by side. The only problem, of course, is that within days the Progressive states would have become Venezuela/Zimbabwe/Baltimore and all their adherents would be clamouring to get into the Conservative states.

Andrew D
Andrew D
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

We already have versions of the two states. One version is London and a few university towns. The other is everywhere else.

Kathy Lang
Kathy Lang
4 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Elaborate, please!

Andrew D
Andrew D
4 years ago
Reply to  Kathy Lang

‘Wokeness’ is treated with indifference or contempt by the vast majority of those who have the good fortune to live outside localised centres of contagion.

Dave Smith
Dave Smith
4 years ago
Reply to  Kathy Lang

Hardly necessary. Just compare North London with say South Molton. Or Sturminster Newton. Worlds apart and getting further apart. My shire extended family never goes to London now . I go twice a year for essential business only.

nick harman
nick harman
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave Smith

Or compare North London with my own dear South London. Apart from a few pockets, we are regarded as deplorables by those north of the river.

David Barnett
David Barnett
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

You have it wrong. Everyone knows (ahem!) the Berlin Wall was built to keep out the hoards of West Berliners trying to get into the GDR socialist paradise.

David Barnett
David Barnett
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I have long advocated a city-state model in preference to the nation-state. Cities could form leagues for when they need to pool resources against an external threat,

Steve Craddock
Steve Craddock
4 years ago

Please forward this article to secretary of state or city councils for their consideration when they are developing their knee-jerk “something must be done” legislation or thinking of commenting on the present hysteria.
If our leaders sort out guidance from sources other than the baying mob on Twitter they would be much more respected. By way of a yardstick I cannot think of the last time a politician said anything like this that caused me to pause and say I hadn’t considered that.

Chris Jayne
Chris Jayne
4 years ago

Hi Giles, loved your writing over the last few years.

Does part of this stem from the differing foundational assumptions between those who are intuitively right and left leaning? The right see humans as born flawed and morally improved by our institutions. The left see humans as born perfect and flawed by our institutions. Therefore where cancel culture is most rampant (left leaning institutions) it could be seen as an attempt to diminish the corruption or maintain the purity of an institution.

If you haven’t read it already, Yuval Levin’s Time to Build is a super book on American institutions that skirts around some of these issues.

Tim Corn
Tim Corn
4 years ago
Reply to  Chris Jayne

Hobbes versus Rousseau – the battle continues

Tim Corn
Tim Corn
4 years ago
Reply to  Chris Jayne

Hobbes versus Rousseau

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago
Reply to  Chris Jayne

Is this a slightly simplistic distinction? It’s mostly people on the right, for instance, who champion common sense, and who currently complain that young people are being corrupted by an institution, our universities.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
4 years ago
Reply to  Chris Jayne

I’ve always disliked the left-right dichotomy fearing that it pushes people into adopting a prescribed set of beliefs that aren’t necessarily their own. For instance, I am socially conservative, but economically a little liberal. I don’t mind being taxed a little extra if my money is going to causes I deem worthy, but I dislike the way unwholesome lifestyles are being inserted into school curricula. In that way I’m a little bit left and right-wing, although no doubt, there are many who would claim I’m far-right because I think heterosexual relationships help us develop and mature as human beings. Saying that, I would never go around admonishing or cancelling those who think otherwise.

I’ve lately come to Christianity, because of the exact points Giles Fraser brings up in this article. Wokeism is a false religion, an inverse of all that Christianity stood for. ‘Whiteness’ is an original sin, yet one without hope of spiritual redemption. The sins of past generations are visited on their descendants (which Christianity is against) and further symbolized by the great UnWoke Satan (Donald Trump). Sexual deviance and immorality is seen as virtue while working, paying taxes and generally wanting a quiet life are indicators of undeserved privilege.

I’ve come to the conclusion that without Christianity as a central pillar to our modern lives, we’ve regressed to the ways of our barbaric ancestors who partook in child sacrifices, unhealthy sexual practices, mob justice and idol worship.

I think (and hope) that what’s happening now is that we are witnessing the death throes of Wokeism, and that is why cancel culture is being ramped up. Unfortunately, I think it will get slightly worse before it gets better. If Trump is reelected in November there will be a meltdown.

richard steele
richard steele
4 years ago

It is refreshing to read what many of us out here have sensed; that the left (whatever that is), are keen to show the thin edge of totalitarianism. This was amply demonstrated this week when the app, HBOMax decided to remove the 1939 film, Gone with the Wind. I can appreciate the sensibility behind HBO’s decision to temporarily remove the film from its menu, but it’s a troubling demonstration that the left wishes to scrub clean all that may offend us. Simply put, it’s censorship disguised as virtue; shallow and didactic. Without redemption, all that may offend can expect a lifetime of persecution; the destruction of reputation and livelihood. Who needs an old-fashioned ‘brick and mortar’ gulag? The digital version is so much more efficient.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
4 years ago

Thank you for this deeply moving piece Giles.

Even though I think we do need cultural change/reformation towards

Equalised (intrinsic) Value
Equalised (intrinsic) Worth
Equalised (intrinsic) Dignity
Equalised (intrinsic) Respect

with the superordinate goal of
#OnePanetLiving
#AllBeingsMatter

I do share your deep concern with the lack of a redemptive superstructure.

This makes me that that Wokeism (the propensity towards shaming) is an iteration of the Old Testament God which embues itself with notions of ‘just’ superiority from which it seeks to sustain the structural cultural inequalities that benefit the ‘Liberal Establishment’ point of view in competition with the ‘Conservative Establishment’ point of view.

Thus Woke shaming, blaming and guilt tripping does not want a superstructure of redemption exactly because it does not want cultural equality. It wants cultural inequality.

Thus rather than driven by the God of Love of the New Testament, Wokeism prefers to be driven by the wrathful God of the Old Testament.

This means it is solely up to US to create the necessary redemptive superstructures to counter the superiority complex of cultural Wokeism.

So how do we embue our cultural systems with the Logic of Love, the Logic of Care and the Logic of Forgiveness to overcome the Logic of Shame, the Logic of Blame (hate) and the Logic of Sin (guilt) in order to deeply find the Middle Way (the radical centre – the place of Grace).

By practicing Love, by practicing Care and by practicing Forgiveness in all our relations with other Beings on the planet.

If Trust and Faith in our ability to practice Love, Care and Forgiveness is not enough, then we can incorporate Shaming as a sin within the Equality Act 2010 so that shaming on the basis of race, gender or belief becomes unlawful.

Let us ALL repent our shame and seek forgiveness from ourselves and one another in the spirit of Care and Love.

In this context, let our new religion be the Religion of Love.

Thank you

Cave Artist
Cave Artist
4 years ago

The luxury and sin of self righteousness previously indulged by religious observance has a new home in the 21st century. It is no less ugly and destructive.

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
4 years ago

Thank you for your thoughtful reflections.

john ford
john ford
4 years ago

Under the law or under the mercy?

saxspiritsoul
saxspiritsoul
4 years ago

I find it interesting that the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein is mentioned. I tweeted an image of that event juxtaposed with the toppling of the Colson statue , pointing out that one of the two events involved great violence, as the result of an illegal invasion. Although not commonly acknowledged , Saddam was known for his charitable works as well, his contributions to the Palestinians were notable, and the Iraqi health service was beyond compare in the entire Arab world. These acts of benevolence are never cited as any sort of mitigation for his well chronicled evils however. Colson it seems should be viewed differently, according to those who have condemned the toppling of his Idol , which happened peacefully and for a righteous cause. His contributions to hospitals and charities are given for his statue being in place in the first place
No mention of the brand that he would have personally endorsed, that was used to mark as property, thousands of living human beings, nor the deaths of so many in transit to a life of servitude and unspeakable horrors. One of these two acts of vandalism was staged,as a propaganda exercise and the other was a near spontaneous act , happening after years of bureaucratic belligerence had prevented it’s legal dismantling. Both were symbolic , one of a false victory, preceding years of chaos and conflict, the other the beginning of a struggle to finally lay to rest the ghosts of an empire that introduced racism and discrimination to the entire world. Is the toppling of this Idol of enslavement more important than the ending of prejudice and discrimination? I can only say one thing, echoing the message that runs through the entire Bible, justice must prevail or as it is so succinctly put, BLACK LIVES MATTER

floatyleaf1
floatyleaf1
4 years ago
Reply to  saxspiritsoul

Brilliantly said!

Richard Spicer
Richard Spicer
4 years ago
Reply to  saxspiritsoul

Only Jesus and his mother are without sin.(some disagree with even that) The rest of us are a mixture of good and bad. Saaddam kept Iraq from the chaos that descended,and persists, after he was toppled and kept Iran at bay but most would say the evil he did to the Marsh Arabs cancelled that out. Forgiveness works better than cancel culture and victim culture.

rgalarza2
rgalarza2
4 years ago
Reply to  Richard Spicer

My dear brother, the Bible declares unambiguously and repeatedly that ALL have sinned. There is only one sinless, our Lord Jesus Christ, His name be praised.

henrysporn
henrysporn
4 years ago
Reply to  saxspiritsoul

Ridiculous. Saddam’s statue was taken down by the very people he so badly oppressed. Colson’s statue was removed by people who arrogantly believe they would have been just as “righteous” as they are now had they lived in Colson’s time 200+ years ago. And of course, what started with Colson has now moved on to Churchill; even Gandhi isn’t immune.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
4 years ago
Reply to  henrysporn

Another distinction is that Saddam put his own statue up; it was a display of power. Dictators erecting statues of themselves during their reigns and societies erecting statues to remember the deeds of the dead are entirely different processes, with different motives. Undoing either is likewise different.

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
4 years ago

Commodification of human flesh is the arch evil of the modern era, and the business of slavery probably its most dramatic instance; but, from long before Colston to Steve Jobs up to this moment and who knows how much longer capitalism has been the primal Mephisto flesh & blood idol desperately needing to be cancelled, and -at least in some cases- without mercy. At the same time, Fraser’s Woman-caught-in-adultery thesis could not be more profoundly pointed than in the case of the current American descendants of Colston’s cargo who veritably luxuriate (think “jock celebrity”) in the objectivized sweat of its horrors. So, yes, BLM is hypocritical; and what’s more, childish. And it is unlikely Lloyd Blankfein is frightened by their Stefano & Trinculo antics.

Teo
Teo
4 years ago

There maybe a christian achilles heel that woke-ism exploits and that some commentators jab at – but for sure the confrontation is with a totalitarian ideology that is anti-christian.

degonzalez2016
degonzalez2016
4 years ago

Interesting article. Cheers to you sir. But I would dispute the whole idea that “
Cancel culture makes us hide in fear. It makes us publicly pretend we
are better than we are.” Imo, this phenomenon does seem to turn us into liars–but I don’t think very many are hiding in fear. Instead what you seem to see is public agreement regarding issues and attitudes, while racism festers under the surface. In such cases, I entertain the idea that those with “moral failings” are not afraid of exposure. One would surely be content remaining hidden.

Saint Maybe
Saint Maybe
4 years ago

I’ve only hear Giles preach once and, on that occasion, I very clearly remember him saying that Newton carried on slaving for some time after he wrote “Amazing Grace”. I’m surprised he hasn’t mentioned this sad fact(?) here.

trevorgevans
trevorgevans
4 years ago

Thank you Giles; good to see an attempt at tilting the situation to greater balance.

It is always difficult to be in the minority when the majority is so loud in its clamour that the very noise emanating forth causes one to start in alarm and shrink for cover. Given the historical background to the current wave of demonstrations, the indignation pouring forth is understandable but as social media allows many to board the outrage bandwagon, the very democracy that most of wish to see continue is replaced, if only temporarily, by ochlocracy.

Everyone who has ever lived is flawed but I am not sure that this means we should not recognise the goodness in the benign actions for which these idols with feet of clay are responsible. We need, somehow, to publicly recognise good actions. If this cannot be “correctly” achieved through statues then some other form of public acknowledgment of good actions is required so that we can remember the power of good and be propelled along its path……or maybe we need statues of the idols of the people that those currently committed to statue removal feel should be lauded, in order to achieve a balance.

This current anger will pass, at some point, and hopefully the world will then be a fairer place with the people that comprise BAME feeling and, importantly, being more secure. The simmering anger needs to retreat to restraint so that all are able to speak their truth without the fear that Giles notes makes all us public liars. In addition to taking fairer action, I shall, as I am not agnostic, be praying for a happy resolution.

Greg Greg
Greg Greg
3 years ago

Wow. So well said. It’s truly demonic. It shames and accuses its way through life. Wokeism is not simply a religion devoid of grace. It’s much worse. It’s a religion that deems grace to be the unpardonable sin. ‘He who doesn’t sufficiently stone others, be himself stoned.’

vince porter
vince porter
3 years ago

Too bad that pieces such as this are read only by the converted rather than by the mobocracy.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
4 years ago

Interesting article again Giles.
Unfortunately, being an agnostic, I am not too sure that your explanation of God punishing the bad is very relevant today.
How would he grade the sins of the past as against the sins of the present, particularly as what is regarded as a sin has changed over time?

Would he have to change his mind over Mr Colston, because he was following the mores of society of the time – thus “good” in his time -, but now that the mores have changed he is now “bad” in our time?

Or even more pertinent to yourself Giles as a believer, will he judge you by the mores in 300 years time. You might consider this somewhat “unfair” as you could correctly claim to not know the future mores of society.

So are you being “unfair” in saying that Mr Colston sinned, when he followed the current (to him) mores? Or do you feel you will be cancelled if you point out this dilemma?

Roger Sponge
Roger Sponge
4 years ago

Every generation is equi-distant from eternity. The Christian God has told us what we will be judged by. The Beatitudes are a good example. They’re not “the mores of the time”.

Grant Turner
Grant Turner
4 years ago

Not being Mr Fraiser, I can’t answer for him, but the issue with
Mr Colston would already be moot at one point because slavery wasn’t
universally seen as a ‘good’ in his time, John Newton, the very
redeemed ‘wretch’ who was a captain of slave ship above was
contemporary more or less of the period Mr Colston lived in.
His change, and powerful abolitionist movement he became involved in
show there was already strong voices and awareness of the evils of
slavery, it wasn’t some unquestioned good at the time but was already
seem to be an evil.

But to wider issues, images of God as a judge or courthouses are
just that, images and metaphors, just as images of works being tested
by fire and so on, to mistake them as a concrete picture of what
Christianity (depending on the tradition) proclaims, or to take it
before the metaphor and imagery it is, would be a mistake.

God’s judgement if Christianity has any claim to truth, is in
first God’s judgement (again in Christianity) is in the Cross (so in
John 12:31 ‘now is the judgement of the world: now shall the prince
of this world be cast out’ referring to His coming death on the
Cross, the Resurrection, and defeating of the powers of death, hell
and evil, an imagery you see played out through New Testament and
early Christian writers), which is basically God’s judgement,
forgiveness, salvation and reconciliation of the world to Himself in
Christ. The other aspect would be that in the age/world to
come, however a Christian imagines that to be, we will know and Him
and ourselves and all others in absolute clarity, in being the full
light of the Truth (again just another image and metaphor for a truth
that cannot be fully expressed at this time) of He that is Truth, all
we are will be know without deception, ignorance, illusions,
falsehoods, rationalizations, defects, psychological pathologies or
so on.

We will see and know ourselves,, our union and connection to
others, and the hurts upon others, ourselves to Him, to creation
(part of what that image of the test of our works by fire hints at),
with all the clearness of that understanding. Even now this
happens to us, a moment of clarity over a particular situation,
event, practice, habit, relationship or area in our lives for good or
ill (see perhaps John Newton, though it doesn’t have to be in
relation to something destructive, it can be just as much to anything
else, creative, a perception of truth, of beauty or the Good or so
on). For Christians this is that full illumination in God’s
glory, to see Him as He is, and to see our true selves, and know and
with the grief of love to see and repent and heal from the damage
done to ourselves and others in the future beyond future, beyond this
age as it is, with all it’s changing and shifting mores and
apprehensions of the Good.

It is to become as Athanasius would say, Christ become man that we
could become (as) God, which is to be fully human (since to be fully
human in Christian conception is to be in the image and likeness of
God) and fully your own particularly person-hood, and free from all
restraints and defects that withhold from that full flourishing into
full humanity (itself seen as only a beginning of ever deepening
becoming and joy).

Of course this could all be wrong and nonsense, and from your
perspective you might indeed perceive it so, we must all follow what
we perceive the truth of reality to be, and be true to our reason and
understanding, but hopefully that might help, or not. Hopefully it helps clarify (at least this Christian’s) understanding towards such matters.