Sometimes incidents cluster together and you realise you’re not just looking at a few coincidences, you’re not even looking at a trend, you’re looking at the new normal.
Complex though they are, a series of recent events crystallised this for me. There was the shame-hunt against Kevin Hart, hounded out of hosting 2019’s un-hosted Oscars for something that he said ten years ago, and has since apologised for. There were the social media attacks on the Superbowl’s half-time artists, and former civil rights marcher Gladys Knight, for singing the national anthem, both thereby apparently failing to take a stand against racism. And there was the cyber-shaming of Liam Neeson because he confessed that, after a close friend was raped by a black man 40 years ago, he’d wanted to kill a black man. He hadn’t done it, but admitted, to his own horror, he’d considered it.
Some would argue, including John Barnes, one of England’s first black professional footballers, that Neeson should be applauded for his honesty. After all, we won’t get anywhere by pretending that we never feel prejudice, that there is no smidgen of sulphur in our hearts. And we won’t get anywhere when every syllable in our public discourse is CAT-scanned and MRI-ed for any atom of possible prejudice. 34 years after Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four predicted, the thought police have arrived – they just don’t work for the state.
In 1985, Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death, reflecting on two mid-century fictional visions: Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley believed our addiction to pleasure would enslave us, Orwell that our fears would. Postman argued that Huxley was right. I doubt he’d argue that now. Today, the laudable commitment of liberal democracies to inclusion and diversity risks morphing from protest to no-platforming to illiberalism and totali-shame-ism.
And here’s the thing. There’s no forgiveness, no mercy, no forgetting. Just a relentless drive to judge and denounce.
All this serves to highlight the majestic, counter-cultural grace of the gospel. Yes, God is a God of justice, opposed to the degrading of any human on any grounds. Yes, he has seen our every furtive action, picked up every sly whisper, logged every darkling thought… yet his mercy flows from the cross like an ocean, drenching the universe. As today’s Pharisees rage, God’s offer is ‘mercy, mercy, mercy’ to all who would repent and receive him. And our watchwords: grace, truth, love, and courage.
Mark is the Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (www.licc.org.uk). This article was previously published as part of their weekly “Connecting with Culture” series, and is reproduced with their kind permission.