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Why Cancel Culture Needs the Breathtaking Mercy of God’s Kingdom

Last year, Vito Perrone was formally offered the job to lead the public schools of Easthampton, Massachusetts. Perrone was well qualified as the former Easthampton High School principal and as the interim superintendent of schools in nearby West Springfield.

Unfortunately for Perrone, he sent an email to the school committee over contract negotiations that caused an uproar. Perrone’s sin? He addressed the women as “ladies,” which he meant as a sign of respect. However, this was deemed an unforgivable microaggression. Perrone was told that “the fact that he didn’t know that as an educator was a problem.”

The job offer was rescinded.

In recent years, the minefields of cancel culture have blown up on formerly anonymous school officials as well as on well-known figures like J. K. Rowling and journalist Kevin Williamson. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observed, “Cancellation, properly understood, refers to an attack on someone’s employment and reputation by a determined collective of critics, based on an opinion or an action that is alleged to be disgraceful and disqualifying.”

Cancellation is possible these days for anyone who commits actions or makes statements that one group or another considers beyond the pale. But what happens when cancel culture meets the breathtaking mercy of God’s kingdom?

Cancel Culture’s Perilous Cliff

Our merciless moment reminds me of Les Misérables, the 19th-century classic by Victor Hugo, and especially of the character Javert, who weaponized his narrow interpretation of justice. Hugo wrote, “[Police inspector Javert] had nothing but disdain, aversion, and disgust for all who had once overstepped the bounds of the law.” He sought to cancel all transgressors—especially the former convict Jean Valjean.

Javert’s greatest strength was his biggest weakness. Driven by a Pharisee-like commitment to the letter of the law, he couldn’t overlook the slightest infraction. “Though Javert’s toe-the-line mentality is often appropriate and admirable,” writes Bob Welch, “it becomes a millstone for him—and society at large—when used without restraint.”

Our cancel culture has brought us to the same perilous cliff. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities.”

Worse, the merciless approach of cancel culture drives us away from what sinful people like you and me most need: mercy.

Seemingly Impossible Forgiveness

God’s kingdom provides a surer foundation. As the Lord said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). It sounds simple, but the implications should awe us.

The merciless approach of cancel culture drives us away from what sinful people like you and me most need: mercy.

Peter once asked Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (18:21). Peter was proud of his far-reaching forgiveness, having exceeded the accepted norm. But Jesus famously responded, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy seven times” (v. 22). The lavish extent of divine mercy almost seems irresponsible.

During my years as a pastor, I’ve witnessed a range of situations in which people confess they cannot forgive: the man who was abused as a child, the wife of an alcoholic husband. They’re undoubtedly right, apart from Jesus. Because God alone can fully heal our wounds and revive the dead, we need him to move our hearts to forgive. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). God calls us to do likewise, nearly impossible as it may seem.

When this kind of mercy appears, our merciless world sits up and takes notice. Consider the case of Brandt Jean, the younger brother of accountant Botham Jean, who was killed by a Dallas police officer in his own apartment in 2018. In October 2019, the officer, Amber Guyger, was found guilty of murder.

During the sentencing, Brandt took the stand and delivered a powerful victim impact statement. He said he forgave Guyger and hoped she’d find peace and give her life to Christ. Then Brandt asked if he could hug her, and the two embraced for nearly a minute in the courtroom. His powerful act of mercy made national headlines.

At the Edge of Destruction

Sometimes such acts hit closer to home. When one of my friends (we’ll call him David) returned on furlough from missionary service in Europe, he called to ask whether he and his wife (Margaret) could visit us in the Chicago suburbs. David had been an intern at our church, and he was a significant church leader in his country. On several occasions, we’d served together overseas, and we never missed an opportunity to enjoy fellowship when he was back in the States. But when we talked, I could tell from David’s voice something was wrong.

The lavish extent of divine mercy almost seems irresponsible.

On arrival, he asked if we could go for a walk, leaving Margaret with my wife, Angela. As soon as we stepped out the door, David began to confess marital infidelity. As we walked, he said he’d not yet told Margaret but realized he needed to.

We walked together for about 20 minutes, agreeing that when we returned to my house, he’d confess. I felt like I was like watching a train wreck in slow motion—with loved ones sitting in the train. Margaret listened attentively as David poured out details of his sin. I watched her eyes fill with tears as her life collapsed before her. Then, after about 10 minutes of David’s monologue, there was silence.

Poor Margaret. The ever-faithful pastor’s wife who was entirely devoted to her husband and their ministry was dealt a deep blow. She wouldn’t have been faulted for allowing David to experience the destructive whirlwind of his own making. I pictured demons cackling with glee as the shadows of shame and condemnation encircled them.

Mercy Transforms

But then Margaret spoke. She lifted her chin resolutely, face shining like an angel, and announced, “I am committed to Christ. I am committed to our family. And therefore, I am committed to you, David.” With each word, the light of heaven shone more brightly, and the shadows of condemnation rolled back.

This was no cheap grace. Margaret’s pain is real and lasting. There was, of course, a journey of restoration and healing ahead, not to mention the need for structured accountability. Margaret’s trust had been shattered, and it’d take time to rebuild her relationship with her husband. But the decisive step—her statement of mercy—enabled this couple to escape the shadows and begin rebuilding together. Not all women can or should grant forgiveness to an unfaithful husband so quickly, but in this instance, Margaret did, and it was breathtaking.

The decisive step—her statement of mercy—enabled this couple to escape the shadows and begin rebuilding together.

It was a real-life picture of the message at the heart of Les Misérables. That story isn’t ultimately about Javert but about the thief Jean Valjean. At a bishop’s door, God’s mercy encircled Valjean like the prodigal son receiving his father’s embrace. And what was the result? “Another story must begin,” he cried. From that moment at the beginning of the novel, Valjean would change not only his name but his entire approach to life. Unlike police inspector Javert, his heart was captured by the mercy of God.

Two Paths. Which Will We Choose?

Valjean and Javert are remarkably similar. Both were born and raised in poverty. They were loners fighting with inner demons. Both attempted to embody ideals that would enrich society. The fundamental difference is their response to mercy. Valjean not only embraced it but made the transmission of mercy to the undeserving his overriding purpose in life.

But when the light of mercy shone into the darkness of Javert’s life, he recoiled.

In the end, Javert committed the ultimate act of cancellation. He took his own life. In the musical version of Les Misérables, Javert cries, “There is nowhere I can turn. There is no way to go on!” The music is haunting, especially for the way it echoes “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” a piece in which the former thief rejoices in the magnificence of God’s grace. The message is clear: when you live by the law, you die by the law.

Thankfully, cancel culture will not have the last word in God’s kingdom. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). Every time we extend mercy, forgiveness, and compassion in the name of Christ—when we extend love that pardons others for their guilt—we testify to the divine mercy God has shown us, and we reveal mercy to a world that so desperately needs it.

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