The concept of a “cancel culture” is not a new one. Every time a small town or parish or office allows a stream of gossip to overtake reality and sensibility, cancel culture is often the outcome. We have seen it in politics, in the church, in entertainment. It doesn’t take much for a person to be shunned, fired, destroyed. outright murdered, including juridical execution.
Rabbi Gamaliel was a senior member of the Sanhedrin, possibly the president. He came from an even more illustrious family as the grandson of Rabbi Hillel the Elder. We meet him in Acts 5 starting at verse 34. The Apostles had been imprisoned, miraculously released, and brought before the council and questioned, where they proclaimed Jesus, which so enraged the council that they wanted to kill them. “But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:34-39). The apostles were freed, but not before a little vengeance in the form of a flogging.
Fascinating as the testimony is about others claiming to be the Messiah, perhaps more so is the fairness and humility with which this leader turns to God’s revelation to judge this claim. Gamaliel’s name comes up once again, in Acts 22:3, when Paul, once Saul, says that he was trained in the Law by Gamaliel.
Stephen was one of seven chosen to take care of the needs of the ekklesia after the Greek converts complained that they were being left out. Part of conversion was to turn all your worldly goods over to the community. “And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2). (I admit to having found that a little odd given the image of Jesus washing Peter’s feet, but be that as it may.)
Stephen spoke in the Spirit. And Israelite council members became jealous, and slander began. Stephen was arrested. His defence begins with a review of Salvation history, and our reading picks it up with Moses (Acts 7:44-8:1). But by the end he had clearly blamed those in the synagogue as stiff necked, uncircumcised of heart, and opposing the Holy Spirit. This enraged them. And when he finally proclaimed a vision of Christ at the right hand of God, they had had enough, and rushed him, dragging him off to be stoned. And a young man named Saul approved, but stayed back and held coats. Can’t throw a rock at a man’s head if encumbered with a coat. Yes, Saul, that student of the wise Gamaliel. But there was no Gamaliel to save Stephen, or correct Saul. Despite Stephen’s holy death and forgiveness of his executioners, it is a tragic story.
And what has that to do with us, other than the horror of the scene, and our self-assurance that we are better people now, more civilized. We know that stoning is still taking place in the Middle East. But that is them, not us. Oh, yes, lynching. Well, that is terrible, but we don’t do that anymore. Or do we?
I am writing this on the Commemoration of the Martyrdom of Johnathan Myrick Daniels, died at age 26, Episcopal seminarian and social activist for rights of Black Americans, especially voting rights. A shotgun blast to the chest as he pushed a 17-year-old Black girl out of the way. Going to a small general store, probably for something cold to drink. Dictators vanish people, cancel them, when they fear them for speaking out. But so do communities. Systemic racism, as we are finding out, can be so imbedded, so hidden as to feel normal, even comfortable. Why did the man who shot Daniels curse the girl? What made him so angry? How did that demonstration, which had just ended, so upend his world that he had to kill? And we can ask Saul the same question. Why did he hold coats? Was there something already eating away at his systemic fear of breaking the Law, an ethical question emerging from his years with Gamaliel, but not so strong that it would make him try to stop the stoning? Was his evangelism against the Jesus Way justification for his complicity in Stephen’s martyrdom?
God still had a use for Saul, and a vision, a pilgrimage, and a new name turned his talents for, and not against, Jesus. Did God want Stephen’s witness? I don’t know and dare not guess. Could Stephen have survived and become great friends with Paul? Or is the playing out of Salvation history complex and dependent not only on God’s will, but on our experiences, culture, and actions? Our road to salvation is a much easier one. Baptism. The Sacraments. The teaching of the Church. But there is, as Shakespeare would say, the rub. Our humanness. Even with the willingness to see, will the other be open to peaceful conversation and acceptance, so that both can come away in greater love of God and each other? Will we be shunned for stepping out of the norm? Fear. Shame. Unfamiliarity.
I have a dear friend, an ordained pastor, a fighter for justice, who returned from the liberal West Coast to his childhood home in the Deep South. And listened as he became confused at how emotionally torn he became as the familiar Confederate flags and statues were removed, although he is, without a doubt, opposed to everything the Confederacy stood for. Except the love of home, where he grew up, with the memories of food, of church, of family, of social customs, which were buried in the story of his life. And another dear friend, who has been called as Rector to a parish in his old home state in the Midwest, after years teaching theology on the West. Coast. Again, the foods, the weather, the look and smell and feel of forests, different and so right. I still miss the smell of East Coast deciduous forests with its mushroom-y loam. Did you know that the Atlantic ocean smells different than the Pacific? At least to me. And if those things can be so deeply buried as to become almost in our DNA, how deep can the subtle fears and judgements about race or religion be?
And so we cancel what is uncomfortable. And the pundits and manipulators recognize these signs and symbols and use them to control our vote, our social norms, and what it takes to make us take up a rock and throw it at a man with a face like an angel. Ask yourself over and over, where did this or that thought, or action, come from. Don’t just stuff yourself into a candy box of niceness. Really look and honor who you are and how you became you. And God will transform what he wills, in Love.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She is a postulant in the Episcopal religious order, The Sisters of St. Gregory. She lives with her cats, books, and garden. Soli Deo Gloria.