In our feature article, Carol Ann Weaver tells of two Mennonite evangelists who imposed a ban on musical instruments decades ago. It’s tempting to marvel at how utterly unenlightened such a response to perceived wrong now seems. Banning feels so backward.
But the ban is back. Emma Siemens discusses the pros and cons of cancel culture, a present-day practice akin to banning. To cancel is to cut off communication, to say that a person is so wrong they are not worthy of interaction. In lesser forms, it is a creeping tendency to dismiss people rather than engage. It is associated with progressives and it is present in church.
If that seems overstated, ask Mennonite professors, pastors, students and magazine editors if progressive backlash keeps them from voicing questions they consider important. The chill is on.
Like cancellers, I care about addressing injustice. I have stood up to oppressors in print, on the street and in government offices. I believe in confronting injustice.
I also believe in tension, self-critique and diversity. As well as grace, humility and freedom of speech. I do not believe everyone must agree with me nor that those who disagree should be silenced.
I disagree with people who oppose LGBTQ+ marriage (which puts me awkwardly at odds with some minorities), but I’m not going to gouge the speck out of their eye.
I am repulsed by elements of macho culture, but I often engage with people who tune into some of the online figures most commonly accused of toxic masculinity.
I disagree with my pro-Trump neighbours, but I don’t think shunning them makes the world safer.
Safety is often the stated rationale for cancellation. Indeed, certain views cause great harm to people. Our natural instinct is to protect ourselves and those we love. That’s good. We also need to consider whether cancelling—which tends to supercharge animosity—actually makes society safer and healthier.
There are times to unequivocally dismiss people, but more often we do well to heed the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who said, “If only there were evil people somewhere . . . and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
A rush to cancel relieves people of this duty of tension and introspection. Cancellers give themselves permission to separate themselves from evil and start casting stones.
Anabaptists have done tremendous work on restorative justice, which shifts focus from punishment to restoration. For decades, Mennonites have done the uncomfortable work of accompanying some of the most seemingly cancel-worthy sexual offenders in society. The outcome in many cases is safety through engagement.
Vulnerable people absolutely need to be shielded from harm. I also grapple with the fact that not everyone can disengage or retreat. Palestinians can’t ban armed settlers who burn their homes. My northern Indigenous friends assaulted by hydroelectric projects have little choice but to step into the nastiness to seek change. For them, the path to safety is dangerous.
The Christian story also involves risk and peril. The cross is not a promise of security. It’s a brutal, beautiful paradox—one we must hold in tension with our natural desire for safety.
Weaver’s story moves from the ban to apology to forgiveness and wholeness. Siemens also circles round to forgiveness and the possibility of redemption—the possibility that a piano shunner might find music in his heart.
To add another concept much less popular than cancellation, Carol Penner encourages us to confess our sins. Such confession humbles us, making it easier to extend grace to the people we may wish to cancel. It reminds us where the line between good and evil passes. At Penner’s suggestion, I am using Lent as a time to pray daily for a few people I’d like to cancel (and I mean legit prayers, not: “Dear God, please help them become less annoying”).
May God have mercy on us all.
New team member
We are thrilled to announce that Madalene Arias is our new Eastern Canada correspondent. She has an honours degree in journalism, a foot planted firmly in the working-class world and a beautiful story of Mennonite rootage. We will introduce her more fully soon.
In the Feb. 13 issue we called the Communitas Supportive Care Society a “Network” rather than “Society,” and in the Feb. 27 issue we added an “h” to Esther Epp-Tiessen’s surname. We apologize.
Will Braun welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.