A Christian's guide to boycotting
by Amy Simpson
If you google the words “Christians” and “boycott” together, you quickly find that the internet is a fairly unkind place (if you didn’t know that already). Most links will lead you to criticism over Christianity’s reputation with boycotting. Even within our own tribe, other believers question the validity of boycotts, often calling them a waste of time or an arrogant display of self-righteousness. And conversely, scattered among these articles are pleas from high profile Christians strongly suggesting that your reputation as a believer is dependent upon you immediately removing your support from certain well-known companies that have publicly abandoned biblical morality.
So to keep you from reading yet another one of these similar pieces, I’ll let you know ahead of time - this isn’t one of those. The Bible makes it clear that we should steward our resources wisely, but it doesn’t give us an exact description of what that looks like. Jesus told the rich young ruler that to follow him, he must sell all of his possessions. But that is an example of descriptive teaching, not prescriptive. He doesn’t ask that of everyone he meets. Therefore, convincing you to boycott something or not isn’t a responsibility I feel inclined to take upon myself.
However, I still think having a conversation about boycotting is important. Because typically, when Christians boycott things, we’re told to follow this script:
- Get outraged about an immoral thing someone or some company hasdone or said or advocated for.
- Remove your financial backing from this place.
- Tell everyone you know that you will no longer be spending money on this company (and that they probably shouldn’t either).
- Feel good about yourself for doing the right thing.
Does this sound familiar? Maybe you’ve done this before. Maybe you grew up in a family who did this often. Maybe you’ve grown weary of this type of representation of our faith and sworn off any and all boycotting. I get it. I think I’ve been in all of those positions before. This is why I want to look at the 2 pitfalls I see in this type of boycotting.
Christian cancel culture
The issue of boycotting has been brought front and center over the past couple weeks due to Netflix including a Sundance-award winning film,Cuties, to its streaming service. In thinking about boycotts, I conducted a poll and asked other Christians - what boycotts do you remember in your lifetime?
I received many responses, some I was completely unaware of. Target, Starbucks, Wells Fargo, McDonalds, Heinz Ketchup, Disney, Levi Jeans, Progressive Insurance, Teletubbies...the list goes on and on.
Now, we may differ in whether or not Christians should have had legitimate concerns with each of these; but as I researched them, I found a common theme, or a predominant emotion that seemed to rise to the top and tie the initiation of these boycotts together, and that was the emotion of disgust.
Make no mistake about it, God has no problem using emphatic language when it comes to sin. His word tells us that he HATES it. But unlike our context for that word,
God’s hatred has to do with his incompatibility with sin due to his nature of perfect love. We see this manifested in his jealousy for us - his zealous protection of our devotion that grieves anything that gets in the way of our affection for him.
Disgust differs from hatred in that it names something as repulsive in a sweeping declaration that not only includes a person’s actions, but oftentimes the person themselves. When people feel disgust, it usually elicits a shame-based response. It hardly ever invites the self-perceived righteous towards understanding, compassion, and the hope for redemption. It is not used as an invitation to draw near.
In a recent article fromThe Gospel Coalition titled “If You’re Fighting the Culture War, You’re Losing”, author Cap Stewart summarized it like this:
“In the words of [theologian] Jonathan Edwards, do we engage one who opposes us “without angry reflections or contemptuous language . . . [and] as seeking his good rather than his hurt; [and] more to deliver him from the calamity into which has fallen than to be even with him for the injury he has brought”? As these words suggest,we are not at war with our ideological opponents—we are at war for them.”
As Christians, when we choose to boycott something based on our conscience, it should ALWAYS be an act of ministry - both in the stewardship of our God-given resources AND the softness of our hearts. It’s not JUST about the “them” in each scenario, but also about us and our formation. Boycotting often gets a bad reputation because the loudest voices show no motive of love for the kingdom that's coming.
Instead, it looks much more like our version of “cancel culture”, which declares that certain people are “dead to us” with no hope for restoration. This is anti-gospel, because it’s not what we see in Jesus - and it certainly isn’t what Jesus sees in us.
Finding discernment amidst the noise
When we respond in the way of disgust, shame, and self-righteousness, it shouldn’t surprise us that the other side responds similarly.
In the instance of Cuties on Netflix, after receiving backlash - there were statements released by Netflix and the director herself about how the film was intended to be “social commentary against the sexualization of young children” and articles that came to this defense - that anyone taking issue with the fact that the movie exists on a major platform should stop discrediting it, sit down, accept the creator’s intent, and shut up.
Which basically ends up with two types of people shouting at each other over the internet. Because of this, we rarely get to intelligent discourse or critical thinking about the issue and just pick a side. Using Cuties as an example, we don’t ask questions like:
- Who had funded this project? Were there any investors who saw this as a passion project for advocating for the sexually exploited?
- What are the experts who lead organizations that advocate for trafficked children or regulating the porn industry saying? Do they see the validity in not only the intended message, but the medium in which it was displayed? Has it helped their cause?
- Where do the profits from this movie go? To organizations working on-the-ground with exploited children?
These are questions that will be (if not already) answered over time, but it takes effort on our part to refuse simplistic reactions, and discover that discernment is usually found somewhere in between the loudest voices. We would do well to consider what each side has left out of their narrative, and navigate thoughtful conversations as we desire to see God's truth revealed graciously.
If we do choose to participate in a boycott, maybe our best course of action isn't marked by outrage and public recognition. Maybe it is to:
- Prayerfully consider what God is calling and convicting us of as we seek to walk in grace and wisdom, recognizing that we can easily be pulled toward the sin of self-righteousness.
- Choose to do so without needing to declare it to everyone we know by posting on social media, acknowledging that God may not be asking everyone to respond in the same way we are.
- Be intentional about declaring what we are for more than what we are against, and put our money where God's heart is. Using Cuties as an example, maybe the most important question isn’t, “Will I cancel my Netflix subscription?” but, “Am I willing to invest the same amount into an organization working against the exploitation of children?”
- Love the people around us abundantly, not withholding ourselves because of disgust or shame.
In this way, we can model the hope-filled, redemptive way of Jesus - as we seek first his kingdom coming to earth. We are notofthis world, but as we liveinit, may we be people who are known by our love.
Amy Simpson is a contributing editor to Hold Fast.