Matthew 7, Cancel Culture, and the Trap of Self-Righteousness
An SDG&E worker is fired from his job after someone takes a picture of him with his hand hanging out the window of his truck as he cracks his knuckles. The person posts the picture on Twitter claiming the man was making a “white power” hand gesture, gathers a large internet mob, and manages to get the man fired. The man who was fired, Emmanuel Cafferty, is not even white.
TV star Stephen Colbert does a satirical segment mocking the Washington Redskins football team for starting a foundation to provide resources and support for Native Americans while at the same time retaining a team name that was considered by many to be an ethnic slur. As part of the satire segment, he announces that he will be starting the “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever” as atonement for the imagined offense of some of his comedy routines. The announcement is taken seriously by a portion of the internet with no knowledge of the context, and a large push is made to try to get him fired for “racially insensitive comments” or something to that extent. Being a wealthy TV personality with a large, devoted following, he is able to shrug it off as amusing.
A dozen other examples of this phenomenon probably just came to your head as you read those two stories. While strikingly different in the effect they had on the targeted individual, there is a fundamental characteristic they have in common; a large, self-righteous mob with little to no understanding of the situation passing judgement and condemnation on a stranger. Individuals able to hide behind the anonymity of screennames, largely free from any potential repercussions of their actions.
Our church and youth group have been going through the sermon on the mount the past two months, and we finally get to one of the most widely cited verses of the Bible by those who aren’t particularly familiar with the teachings of Jesus. If you know nothing else about what Jesus taught, you probably still know Matthew 7:1 — “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” It is a sentiment celebrated by those who despise being told what to do, confidently declaring that any correction they receive can be discarded as judgmental hypocrisy. After all, certainly Jesus declares in John 8:15 “You judge by human standards; I pass judgement on no one.” And of course, there is John 12:47 — “As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it.” Don’t forget the well-known John 3:17 — “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Yet in their understanding of these quotes, people often miss the context and intention. Jesus was constantly talking about judgement and sin in his sermons. The sermon on the mount we are currently covering ends with warnings about heaven and hell. All of Jesus’ parables that end with references to crops that don’t bear fruit being burned, or people ending up in unquenchable fire with a worm that never dies; those are all references to hell (“Gehenna” is the term he uses). Matthew 23 is an entire chapter devoted to Jesus condemning the hypocritical practices of the self-righteous religious leaders of his time. It’s often labeled as the “Seven Woes” section of the Bible, where he calls the religious leaders a “brood of vipers” who are dragging other people with them on their path to hell (a huge component of the motivation of the religious leaders to have him crucified a few days later). In John 8:44, Jesus declares that his opponents are actually children of the devil. If you add up all of Jesus’ teachings throughout all four gospel accounts, you’ll find that he preaches about hell more often than he preaches about heaven. Yet at the same time, he declares that he isn’t here to judge. Why the discrepancy?
Perhaps it helps, being that I teach in the medical field, to make a medical analogy here. I can make a medical diagnosis of a patient without wanting them to suffer from the disease. I can observe their symptoms, look at some lab values, and tell someone that they have diabetes…then warn them that unless they make some drastic changes in their life, they will face some serious health complications in the future. We all know this intuitively: we can warn someone that they are on a path to pain and destruction while at the same time wanting to rescue them from such a path. In the same way, we tell others that their actions are immoral or unwise, not out of self-righteousness, but in the hopes that we can help them avoid the harm that comes as a result. The doctor doesn’t diagnose the disease out of a desire to see a patient suffer, but rather in the hopes that a patient can be saved. Jesus and his followers preach in that same hope to all who will listen. Jesus is giving the diagnosis and offering the cure, rather than sentencing the sick to death.
And this is where our modern society has a problem when understanding what it means to be judgmental. Being judgmental is not a question of whether or not we tell others that they are wrong, but rather a question of our attitude when we tell them. Do we start from a position of arrogance, believing ourselves to be better, or a position of humility, acknowledging that we ourselves are just as imperfect and flawed? Jesus’ analogy in Matthew 7 famously compares two people, one with a speck of dust in his eye and the other with a tree in his eye. Surely a speck of dust in the eye is undesirable, but attempting to help another deal with sin in their life while living a life consumed with a judgmental attitude would be like trying to remove that speck while having a tree stuck in your own eye. Such an attempt, while perhaps making for good slapstick comedy, would undoubtedly end poorly. But there is no harm in attempting such assistance from a point of humility, and in fact such assistance might very well be necessary. We correct others all the time, for a wide range of concerns and offenses, and in fact we need to be corrected as well at times. Show me a person that never receives correction in life, and I will show you a person headed toward a great deal of unnecessary pain and hardships. I say that, not because I enjoy watching the suffering of others, but because I have seen this truth play out in the lives of many, including myself. There is no love in the heart of one who sits by doing nothing as another walks into harm…we speak in the hopes they can avoid some pain. Proverbs 24:11 has some insight into this: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.”
And thus, we get to the self-righteousness of our modern culture. Often Matthew 7:1 is assumed to only apply to the overtly religious, but that is not even remotely true. One does not have to be even the least bit religious in order to be arrogant and judgmental. Certainly today, the cults of various political ideologies have replaced a great deal of the role religious practice used to have in our lives. Whether it’s golden statues of Trump or young people bowing down in some pseudo-worship as they confess their “white privilege” to interrogators, the chanting of creeds such as “follow the science” or “build the wall” together with fellow worshippers, or even joining into factions siding for or against various celebrities or sports teams, we’ve found a wide range of idols to turn into our substitute religion. And each individual thing might have its own kernel of truth, but as we throw ourselves behind a cause we must examine ourselves to see if we are acting from an attitude of superiority or an attitude of love. I could stand and preach the very words of Jesus with total accuracy, but if I did so out of a feeling of superiority rather than love I would accomplish nothing of any real value. Is my goal to help the lost avoid some pain, or is my hope to stand out as a righteous beacon and laugh as another suffers hardships?
A proverb that comes to mind when I think of this modern “cancel culture” or “call-out culture” phenomenon is Proverbs 26:17 — “Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own.” Often discussions on the cancel culture topic stray to meaningless examples like Dr. Seuss books or Goya beans or chicken sandwiches, but those are largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of our lives. The true problem is when a large crowd of strangers decide to insert themselves into a conflict or dispute they know nothing about, simply because they believe it will award them some likes and retweets on their internet posts. The internet today allows individuals to participate in such action from all around the world, and even create computer programs to do the work for them, and those who do so are often declared righteous by their internet pseudo-community. The reality is, however, the probability that you will contribute something positive to the outcome of such a scenario by joining this is essentially zero, no matter how proud you are of your insults after. This is the pride and judgmental attitude that Jesus is warning us about here in Matthew 7. It is nothing new or modern; the only difference now is the internet allows the entire world to join in the quarrel all at once and destroy lives in ways we couldn’t have in the past. We can hide ourselves in an echo chamber, only listening to those we enjoy hearing from, and only emerge to exchange insults with some stranger we will never cross paths with in real life. We can doctor images, edit video, and create enough misleading evidence to fill an entire mob with enough anger to kill someone they’ve never even met. A child can be targeted with enough hatred to drive them to suicide over an error, rather than gently instructed and corrected in righteousness (and for heaven’s sake, don’t dogpile on an autistic kid dragged up to some UN podium for a political stunt). This is why the Bible teaches us not to meddle with the quarrels of others; because most likely we will do nothing but aggravate an already difficult situation with an incomplete picture of the problem…very likely to the detriment of ourselves or another. It’s quite ironic; while there are times we can possibly speak some life into the heart of another who values our perspective, very often those are the times we shy away with the excuse that we “should not judge” our neighbor. People seem to prefer joining the assault on a total stranger who “had it coming” according to them.
This problem is amplified by society that increasingly sees patience and grace as a hinderance. We do not understand how to resolve conflicts. I recall joining an old high school history teacher of mine a few years back for somewhat of a retirement party…a rather forced retirement. In one of his lessons, he apparently pointed out some similarities between current trends in far right-wing ideology in the US and trends that were seen in the origins of the Nazi party of Germany in the 30s. A student or parent took offense to the perceived insult and responded with some amount of outrage. Bringing my old teacher to address the issue, the school administrator was quite shocked by his proposed solution: to sit down with the family that was concerned, open up the history books, and have a little back and forth talking about the history and clarifying his statements. The notion that such as conflict could be resolved through friendly discussion, listening to what each other had to say, was absurd to the administration, and my teacher realized this was probably the right time to retire. And this highlights the problem perfectly: those in positions of power and authority generally do not care about truth in much of modern society. They do not care about right and wrong. They want to avoid conflict, they want to appease a mob, and have no loyalty to those who work for them. They will toss aside their faithful employees in a heartbeat if it enhances their reputation, rather than fight for them and the truth.
So how does the Christian walk when living in such a world? When do we engage in a problem, and when do we stay out of it? There are many principles given in the Bible, and Paul gives some great perspectives in 1 Corinthians 5 as he’s helping a church deal with issue of one of their members engaging in sexual immorality. Verses 9–13:
“I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave with world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked man from among you.”
There is an important principle here to follow; the obligations of the Christian to other Christians (or at least, claim to be Christian) are different than our obligations to those who aren’t following Christ. To those who are in the church, we have an obligation to help each other turn away from the sins that separate us from God; we lovingly encourage and challenge each other to pursue holiness. Again, it’s out of love, not self-righteousness. The situation in 1 Corinthians 5 is so bad, Paul’s instructions are to forbid the individual from joining the Christian community there until he realizes the severity of what he is doing. To allow him to come would be the equivalent of endorsing the sin he was apparently celebrating. They had an obligation to show him, and the wider community, that such actions were dangerous and unacceptable. In a sense, they “cancelled” him.
This advice seems to be successful; in the next letter from Paul we read, 2 Corinthians, the man seems to have come to his senses and realized the evil of what he had done. In chapter 2 of that letter, verses 6–8, Paul writes:
“The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.”
The Christian has an obligation to take steps to help another Christian see the error in their ways. We do not have this same obligation to those who are not Christians. There is little point in walking around trying to force strangers to follow the laws of God. Why would someone who hates God want to follow anything God has to say? How could we expect them to even care? Only once they actually have an interest in hearing the words of Jesus will they take anything you say seriously.
And here, I want to make an important clarification that I think is poorly understood in our current culture. I saw a little picture circulating around Facebook lately of Jesus bringing a colorful sheep back to a flock of sheep, and one of the sheep in the flock says “Hold it there! He wasn’t lost, we kicked him out!” And Jesus responds, “I know, and I found her.” This is a slightly heretical depiction, and a complete misunderstanding of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son, parables that are told together as a set in Luke 15 and were probably the inspiration for that picture. These are not parables about someone who was kicked out of a mean religious community and then brought back in; these are about individuals who have completely rebelled against God, took delight in following a path of evil, made themselves enemies of God, yet are brought into repentance and have their relationship with God restored. God is rescuing them from their own sin and rebellion; not an exile from a community that mistreated them. And this rescue does not involve putting the lost sheep into an abusive environment; it’s about bringing them into a real flock with a real shepherd. The sheep have no ability to kick out other sheep. Jesus was very intentional with his metaphors…there is a reason shepherds and sheep are a common theme in the Bible. Ultimately, we are each that lost sheep at some point, needing to be brought back in.
Now, there are settings where church leaders have the authority to declare that someone cannot be part of the Christian fellowship. Paul gives some guidance on that in 1 Corinthians 5, but Jesus also gives some instructions, for instance in Matthew 18:15–20. Jesus’ instructions to the disciples in this section suggest that there are ramifications for such declarations not just on earth, but also in heaven. The line “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” seems to be a reference to this excommunication process when conducted properly by godly leaders for the right reasons. The right moment to “cancel” someone like this isn’t always clear; there are principles given by Jesus and the apostles, but such decisions require a great deal of prayer and wisdom, and aren’t made lightly. They certainly are not the kind of decisions you would entrust to an angry mob of strangers. Questions like “Do they pose an immediate risk to those around them?” or “Do they realize what they’re doing is sin and want to change?” are crucial to ask.
And this highlights a foundational problem that prevents our culture from really understanding what Jesus teaches in Matthew 7 or what he means in the parable of the lost sheep; our culture doesn’t actually understand what sin is, or even believe it is a real thing. We live in a society dominated by subjective truth and morality, surrounded by a people that are taught to follow their own personal truth, rather than seek objective truth. It’s like that Babylon Bee headline from back in 2017: Culture In Which All Truth Is Relative Suddenly Concerned About Fake News. A society that does not believe that objective truth exists cannot have objective morality…at least, not an objective moral standard you could compel another person to follow. When there is no objective morality, there can be no offense against God. God becomes more of an imaginary friend who is always happy with us and just wants us to be happy whatever we’re doing…and when that is your perspective there is no such thing as rebelling against God. Everything is permissible if it feels right to you. And when everything is permissible, when there is no objective moral right or wrong, all that matters is power and oppression. It’s like that famous line in the Melian dialogue, as Athens prepares to attack the island of Melos: “you know as well as we do the right, as the world goes, is only in question between equal power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” You do what you do because you can and you want to, and if you can’t then you fight to get the power. You rally a large, angry mob around you to tear down those you personally find offensive. There is no repentance because there is no sin to turn from or righteousness to turn to…only a fight for power and control. If all that matters is what I want, then anyone who tells me I’m wrong is an offender and oppressor.
How does the Christian respond to such a society? We think of Paul’s reminder to the church in 1 Corinthians 2:2 — “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The Christian response is to preach Christ crucified for our sins. We understand what it means to speak the truth without judging because we know that we ourselves would be found guilty if we were to try to stand on our own righteousness. The Christian is not the person who believes they have earned heaven by their own righteousness; the Christian is the one who knows we have no hope unless we are forgiven by grace. Our desire is that others would know that same grace. And to those who tell us it is arrogant to make a claim to know truth, we remind them that the very statement that it is arrogant to make a claim to know truth is itself equally a claim of truth. All that remains after that is to argue the evidence for either claim. We can certainly advocate for righteousness as best we can; speak up for the oppressed and those with no voice, look after widows and orphans in their distress, but do not be surprised when a society that rejects God also rejects the call to repentance.
To the fellow Christian, our hope is to always grow in holiness, challenging each other. Our goal is never to see the other fall, but always to see the other restored. We remind each other of right and wrong, confess when we’ve fallen short, and strengthen each other in our walks. And that ultimately is the difference between those who are judgmental and those who speak the truth in love; the words of the message may even be the same, but the goals and heart are entirely different. Both can declare right and wrong, both can warn of the danger to come, but only those who declare such things out of love do so with the goal to save a soul. A self-righteous, angry mob doesn’t want to see restoration; they want to see blood. They got what they wanted, I suppose, as Jesus’ blood ran down the cross he was hung on…yet unbeknownst to the mob, that blood bought the restoration we all needed. At the end of the day, Jesus was the one cancelled so we could be renewed.