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Safe Space is more than a Slogan

It isn't enough to say we have places for everyone to flourish; we actually need to create these spaces.

Safe space has become a buzzword. It is unfortunate that this important concept has become a slogan with so many different meanings that it is often meaningless. Like the cheapened cries for freedom, calls for safe space raise questions such as: safe for whom? Safe for what? What do you mean by safety? Labelling a place or an event unsafe is sometimes used as a weapon against an opponent to avoid addressing substantive issues. Safe space has become another front line of the culture wars.

I was active in movements to expand safety beyond the absence of physical dangers to include being free from abuse and harassment. Better yet, a positive approach focuses on respect and creating conditions for every person to flourish. Adding another layer, awareness of the harms of racism has increased the focus on acceptance and belonging as conditions for healthy development.

Safe space does not mean freedom from disagreement. It speaks to how disagreements are handled. There are several factors that bring safe space into sharper focus right now: covid isolation, lack of practice in social arts, time spent in the online world, and sensitivity to diverse cultures and identities all increase tensions in spaces that should be safe.

It’s messy

Safe space has become complex and messy. So is life, as a friend constantly reminds me. Some Reformed thinkers see safe space as a positive unfolding of God’s intentions for humans, created to live in dignity, imaging God. Others tend to see it as another secular influence that challenges “the way things were done” in a simpler time when a few people controlled how society worked.

It is easy to say churches should be safe spaces. What it really means, beyond police checks for volunteers who work with children and other rules set out by insurance companies, is less clear. It becomes very complex for LGBTQ+ persons in churches like the Christian Reformed Church. I hear those who say the church is not a safe place for them. It is not, but it should be.

Safe space is particularly important for adolescents and young adults. I am reflecting on recent research into the connection between spirituality and mental health. The findings showed that, in general, young people who self-reported a strong sense of spirituality also reported higher levels of positive mental health indicators. That makes sense. But young people involved in faith-based groups reported higher levels of anxiety, bullying and other indicators of emerging mental health issues. That dissonance triggered in me a need to think again about how we are creating the conditions for healthy emotional and spiritual development, which is the essence of safe space.

I think about the safe space around Jesus. Summarizing his code of conduct, he told his followers their top priority was to “love your neighbor as yourself.” We tend to forget the last part, “as yourself,” in many definitions of what love means in challenging contexts. Putting oneself in the place of the other requires a lot of intentional effort to bridge diverse backgrounds. It takes a lot more than a slogan.


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  1. Angela: a very interesting and worthwhile exercise to compare your product with your mission. Has CC published any articles on Jordan Peterson yet?

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