On using the label “cynic” to silence people…

If you’re a Christian and you want to silence someone who’s criticizing some aspect of the church, label them a cynic. Or maybe ask why they have so much anger.

Sarah Cunningham, author of Dear Church and The Well Balanced World Changer, recently wrote that she’s grown “cynical of cynicism” — from Jon Stewart satirizing inept politicians to Stephanie Drury and her “inflammatory Facebook-follower mob” at Stuff Christian Culture Likes (SCCL) mocking the excesses and abuses of the evangelical subculture.

Sarah believes cynicism is a form of spiritual kryptonite — destroying faith, tarnishing the church, and maybe even damaging our physical health.

And she’s right. A steady diet of satire won’t nourish your soul. But I’ve also found that a healthy dose of it every now and then CAN be a lifeline when I feel like I’m drowning.

More to the point, I’m not sure everything that gets branded as “cynicism” deserves the label. (Is it time for yet another “you keep using that word” meme? Why, yes, I think it is…)


Cynicism — real cynicism — is toxic. It is (to borrow shamelessly from Wikipedia) a “form of jaded negativity.” It leaves you incapable of seeing the good in anyone or anything else. It is satire without hope, pointing out flaws without really caring if they ever get fixed — and maybe even hoping they don’t, so you won’t run out of “material.”

But too often, we misappropriate the term “cynic” to stop others from pointing out the flaws in us, to silence those who are grieving and processing and healing from the abuse that’s been inflicted on them by the church.

Publicly criticize the evangelical subculture? You must be a cynic. Mock the celebrity pastor cult and its more absurdist elements? You’re just being nasty. Call out spiritual abuse and manipulation? You’re dragging the whole church through the mud in the eyes of a watching world.

So my question for those who see people like Stephanie and SCCL as nothing more than a roving band of angry cynics is this: have you ever been abused? I haven’t. Sure, I have my baggage like anyone else. I’ve been negatively impacted by Christian fundamentalism, too. But nothing in my life rises to the level of abuse experienced by people like Stephanie. Which means I don’t know what it’s like to walk in her shoes. Which also means I should think twice about dismissing her as a cynic.

And let’s face it: if anything deserves to be mocked, shamed, lampooned, scorned, etc., then it’s the emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse of others in the name of Christ.

The church hasn’t always done a good job owning up to its failures or dealing with abuse. When we silence whistleblowers in the name of “Christian unity” or “protecting the church’s reputation,” what we’re really doing is prioritizing abusers over their victims. As long as there are churches that force children to forgive their pedophile abusers — and yes, that actually happened — we need prophets who are willing to rage at this kind of injustice.

While we’re at it, we can all stop worrying about “airing the church’s dirty laundry” in front of a watching world and the damage it might do to our “testimony.” (Believe me, it’s nothing compared to the damage already done by abusers and those who shield them in the first place.)

Evidently, “reputation management” wasn’t a big concern for the earliest Christian leaders. If it were, we’d have a much smaller Bible. You’d have to chuck most of Paul, for starters. He doesn’t exactly soft-peddle dysfunction and abuse in the church. He wasn’t afraid to write about it in letters like 1 Corinthians, which were eventually canonized so they could be read by Christians and non-Christians alike.

So no, I can’t survive on a steady diet of satire. I need more than SCCL and parody celebrity pastor profiles on Twitter. I need prophets of another kind, too — prophets who imagine a new way forward and help me believe it’s possible. But we should always make room at the table for those who will rage against injustice, who will hold a mirror to abuse and not let us look away until we finally acknowledge it.

When we dismiss these voices as “cynics,” we do so at our peril.

5 thoughts on “On using the label “cynic” to silence people…

  1. Hey Ben, I just wanted to say that I agree with so much of what you said. Unfortunately, I didn’t do a good job in introducing myself in that article or contextualizing what I was saying. I’ve written two books on engaging disillusionment which include a lot of energy spent on the VALUE of frustration…so we may land a little closer on this point that it may appear. But that said, I did reach a place where I myself was too entrenched in cynicism for my own good and it subtracted from my well-being and I needed, very much, to move beyond it then. It’s all a process and a journey and it looks different for different people, but articles like this make me realize it’s important to tell a fuller picture instead of slapping a sound byte out there as an article. Thanks for responding.


    1. Hey Sarah, first of of all, thank you for taking the time to engage in this conversation. I have a copy of Dear Church and really appreciate your perspective. Walking the line between frustration for the way things are and hope for the way they could be isn’t an easy thing for me. I think you’re probably right that we are closer on a lot of this than it may appear.

      What I probably should have said better in my piece is that I agree on the importance of not letting our frustration or disillusionment consume us. An all-satire diet can’t sustain us. (It might be good to turn off Jon Stewart every now and then, much as I LOVE him, and watch the real news.) Your observation, though, that this journey looks different for different people is an important nuance. I feel that I need to give space to those who, unlike me, have experienced genuine abuse at the hands of the church to process what they’ve been through, without me deciding when they’ve had enough time to do so. When we as a church don’t do that, when we don’t acknowledge and address the abuse they’ve experienced, I think it only prolongs their experience of disillusionment.

      So all that to say… I appreciate your perspective on this, I’ve been enriched by it, and I’m grateful to you for engaging in this conversation. Thanks!


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