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.

In defense of troublemakers

Last year, a 25-year-old Seattleite named Andrew got a taste of Mark Driscoll’s almost cult-like style of church discipline. Andrew’s story has made the rounds many times since blogger Matthew Paul Turner first shared it. I won’t rehash the details here.

Yesterday, Slate picked up the story, which prompted some to accuse Turner of tarnishing Christianity’s reputation by criticizing Driscoll. The following comment, posted to Turner’s Facebook page, captures the feelings of those who believe it’s wrong for Christians to publicly criticize other Christians:

Way to go Matt. You’ve given those far from God fodder for scoffing at Christ and his bride… hope you are proud.

Matthew Paul Turner loves to poke a stick at the more ridiculous elements of the Christian subculture. From really bad church signs to abstinence bears, he invites us to share an ironic laugh at the expense of the absurd.

But there’s nothing funny about spiritual abuse. So instead of his usual satire, Turner’s criticism of Driscoll is intense, earnest, and, at times, angry.

Which bothers those who think it’s more important to protect Christianity’s reputation among nonbelievers than to call out abuse and injustice in our midst.

But such preservationist instincts never stopped writers of the Bible from criticizing corruption in the early church — loudly, at times. If it’s wrong to engage in public criticism of those who are abusing others in the name of Christ, then we may want to consider making some drastic changes to our Bible. We could start by cutting 1 Corinthians.

Paul lashes out at the church in Corinth for everything from separating into factions to neglecting the poor. His letter is now canonized in sacred scripture, where anyone, Christian or otherwise, can read it. Whether he knew it or not, Paul was airing the Corinthians’ dirty laundry for all to see.

“But they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” some argue. And they’re right. Jesus himself said as much. But if it’s Jesus’ reputation we’re concerned about, then it’s incumbent upon us to speak up when someone abuses people in his name.

Love means standing up for the abused and marginalized, even — and especially — when their abusers profess to follow Christ. Yes, even if that means being labeled a troublemaker.

The world could use more troublemakers like Matthew Paul Turner.