June 11, 2020

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.