The new, highly secular “cancel culture” represents an extreme form of righteousness that has all the moral power of a certain kind of protestant Christianity, but none of the basic scaffolding of redemption on which such Christianity is built. And morality without forgiveness or redemption is a frightening, persecutory business.
Born in New Orleans in 1911, Mahalia Jackson was often referred to as “The Queen of Gospel.” A civil rights activist, Jackson used the music of church spirituals and hymns to powerful public effect. “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free,” she said.
Many of the spirituals that she sang were taken from the Biblical book of Psalms, often from passages that lament the conditions of slavery into which the people of Israel were taken. She sang at her friend Martin Luther King’s funeral. Harry Belafonte called her “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”.
Among her favourite hymns was ‘Amazing Grace’. I find it hard to hear her sing it without welling up. It is utterly beautiful and captivating. And the opening words are such a direct and powerful statement of the Christian doctrine of redemption:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see.
The hymn was written by John Newton. And John Newton was a slaver. Not in Edward Colston’s league, perhaps. But he captained slave ships, trafficking his human cargo to a life of utter misery, and he personally profited from the slave trade. ‘Amazing Grace’ is such an extraordinarily powerful hymn precisely because it was written by a man with such a shameful past.
Newton has become a kind of patron saint to those looking for some sort of redemption. It’s no surprise, then, that Rev Jonathan Aitken, the disgraced former Cabinet Minster and a previous guest on my Confessions podcast, co-authored a biography of the man. Even those of us whose sins do not add up to anything like Newton’s, recognise in his words the promise that we are not necessarily eternally imprisoned by the things that we have done wrong in our lives. Jackson understood this. “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free” references freedom from imprisonment on a number of different levels.
The contrast here with the developing moral consciousness of the contemporary culture wars is acute and, to me, quite frightening. For although something like the anger that feeds into the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue has a clear moral righteousness about it, it is not a righteousness that has been tempered by any sense of our collective need for redemption.
The new, highly secular ‘cancel culture’ represents an extreme form of righteousness that has all the moral power of a certain kind of protestant Christianity, but none of the basic scaffolding of redemption on which such Christianity is built. And morality without forgiveness or redemption is a frightening, persecutory business.
[Editor’s note: One or more original URLs (links) referenced in this article are no longer valid; those links have been removed.]