Cancel Culture and Campfires

It was December 22, and the fire crackled as we nestled up in our sweatshirts, the oldest among us sipping whiskey to keep warm on our parents’ back deck. Beneath the large mesquite tree, we were occupying a new space as siblings: the first of us married and the youngest among us bidding childhood goodbye as a high school freshman. 

The second youngest, Libby, was the speaker of the circle at that moment.

“Cancel culture is just—so unhelpful. Like what does that solve? Writing someone off forever? We can’t live with these extremes. They only smash the world to bits.”

I was caught in her surety. As a woman intimately familiar with the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements, I have lived plenty of moments where the only responses I could imagine in my own body were rage, expletives, and a promise that together, we would never again allow what had been perpetrated upon one of our sisters, one of our sons, or on a community. I have witnessed the impact of the very deepest levels of trauma. I have wondered what I might physically do to the men responsible if I were ever to be in the presence of one of them. Would I be able to control myself? Or would I set that man on fire and feel the righteous blessing of God while I did it?

And my story cannot even begin to account for the literal hate crimes waged through ethnic hatred, racism, homophobia, and more pronounced gender-based violence—often in the name of religion, tradition, or family. I look at those stories, and I shake. God, there is BLOOD crying out from the earth. How can we do anything but demand in the name of your holiness that justice come NOW?! Yes, certainly there are things we must, together, cancel.

 And yet—I have also lived enough life to stare down the barrel of being “cancelled” myself, if not for my own actions than for standing next to someone I love, someone more often than not caught in a crossfire of wounds and now trying to live with integrity and offer repair, all to no avail.

Most of the people I respect have a story of being cancelled. I am not talking about a casual cancellation, like getting unfollowed on Twitter. I’m talking about a “bridges burned,” lives changed, jobs lost, faith-altered cancellation. I’m talking about the kind of cancellation where, in a different room with a different crowd, people I love and trust have undeniably been labelled lost causes: the very evil that the world needs to be rid of. Maybe I’ve been called that as well. Maybe I’ve been labelled part of the problem: just another complicit woman who recoils from lighting the pier of justice when she knows goodness from the one accused. 

I sit in silence as Libby finishes her thought, and the conversation carries on, rolling past me for a moment as I lose myself in the fire before me, licking the logs twelve inches from my feet.

I have noticed a theme in the words of women and men who are writing right now from the margins of my culture: not girl bosses or mainstream pastors, but women of color, refugees, and queer Jesus-lovers. They speak with the knowledge and clarity of their own wounds—not to sanitize or excuse violence, but to remind us like a loving and ever-present mother that setting those who have wronged us aflame does nothing to heal our own seething and tender burns. 

I do not know precisely how justice and forgiveness are supposed to live inside of us together.

And I have people who have been part of my life that I cannot imagine speaking to again before God makes us both whole. But I’ve also lived a story touched by the miracle of resurrection, and I think the modern-day prophets I am reading would affirm Libby: cancel culture does nothing for any of the wounds that we keep bearing.

Perhaps we have to stop lighting piers and start building campfires.

And if that’s true, maybe addressing our current pandemic of fires has to start with how I tend to my own angry flame.

Katy Johnson lives, dreams, writes, and edits in a messy, watercolored world. She’s a 32 year old, discovering her hope, her longings, and the wild spaces in her own heart. Her favorite creative project right now is called Will I Break?, and someday, that manuscript may see the light of day. For now, she shares her thoughts here.