Well, the University of Chicago has been all over my feed lately because of a “welcome” letter they sent to incoming students informing them there wouldn’t be any “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces” on their campus. Naturally, the pundits have been tripping over themselves to crank out a new round of think-pieces about how ridiculous those hypersensitive millennials are to need a safe space. It seems a bit ironic to me when these manifestos defending the so-called “intellectual rigor” of academia settle for truthy ideological grand narratives rather than actually seeking to understand the perspective of those they’re critiquing. Since I actually work directly with college students on a daily basis, let me explain what safe spaces really mean and why I think Christians should be all about creating them.
First, let me clarify what I’m not in favor of. I don’t believe in censorship. I’m not sure exactly where I would draw the line on that, but I think the way to deal with hateful, harmful ideas on a college campus is either to ignore them or to engage them vigorously and nonviolently in a way that cannot be discredited. One of the most asinine aspects of postmodern discourse is that we don’t have any direct arguments anymore. Instead of debating ideas, we seek to deconstruct, dismiss, and discredit their purveyors. I don’t think it’s a good use of student activist energy to pressure administrations into disinviting harmful, hateful speakers. Their speaking events are actually really helpful to consciousness raising, because they create the context for public critique and protest. Trying to silence them altogether only makes the speakers into martyrs and gives their fans a source of righteous indignation to build a movement around.
So let’s make it clear from the beginning that creating safe space has nothing to do with censorship. Safe space can have a variety of meanings depending on who’s talking. Within marginalized communities, safe space refers to a space where you can let your guard down and speak freely with other people who get what you’re experiencing and aren’t going to attack you for speaking with less than impeccably defensible logic at all times. It’s not that marginalized people want to spend their entire lives in a comfortable space that’s void of any challenging ideas. They just need places where they can retreat after a day of being bombarded by patronizing, presumptuous discourse that they don’t have the energy to dispute at every turn.
Many classrooms in elite, expensive universities like Tulane have at most a few people of minority identities who must contemplate minute by minute how contentious and disagreeable they really want to be when classmates are saying things that are ignorant and hurtful. Marginalized students spend all day nodding and being agreeable while white male messiahs dominate every classroom conversation in epic pissing contests with each other. So it’s not unreasonable for there to be safe spaces that are purely black or queer or female or whatever else where people can vent, cry, laugh, and decompress without having to appease and humor the members of dominant cultures who need to control of every conversation they’re a part of.
The president of Northwestern University shared about an incident in a dining hall where a group of black students were eating together. Two white students who were strangers approached and asked if they could join the table in order to have a cross-cultural learning experience. The black students politely said no, and the internet went crazy. Marginalized students are not obligated to provide cross-cultural learning opportunities on demand for students from the dominant culture. They are not zoo animals who exist to be studied by the self-appointed expert protagonists of the universe’s story. They’re not being racist or sexist or heterophobic to huddle together in groups of shared identity whenever they need to take a break. Until Christians are willing to let Muslims enter our churches and debate our pastors while they’re preaching, then we have no basis for disrespecting the safe spaces that marginalized communities want to create for themselves.
So one way of understanding safe space is as a retreat space in which a marginalized group can decompress and relax together. It has to be okay with me that the black, queer, or female people I love sometimes need to spend some time apart from white male messiahs like me.
As a pastor, I also see another meaning for safe space that describes a community rooted strongly enough in grace that everyone is safe in the sense that they will not be mocked, abused, or thrown out regardless of what they say. In my campus ministry’s welcome letter to new students, I describe our ministry’s safe space as a judgment-free zone where it’s okay to have questions, doubts, and passionate opinions as long as we speak and listen in love. I don’t believe anyone should walk on eggshells. Every church says that everyone is welcome, but living this out incarnationally is not always easy, especially when you’re dealing with wounded outsiders whose drama and outbursts can cause huge forest fires in your community.
Creating safe space is simply intentional, proactive hospitality. It means that I actually care about building trust and love in a community more than making one brilliant point after another. It means that I would rather see others learn and grow from the place they are than berate them for all the ways they offend me. It means that I am able to love people without giving them feedback until they ask me what I think.
Some Christians like to talk tough about how church shouldn’t be comfortable or safe. I blame this bravado on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a wonderful thinker though he committed a great exegetical crime in writing the Cost of Discipleship that has been such a profound influence on the evangelical world. His book offers a very peculiar interpretation of the Beatitudes, which are supposed to be Jesus’ assurance of a safe space for the poor in spirit, the meek, and the persecuted. Bonhoeffer twists these words of comfort into demands for costly grace which he pits against cheap grace. I understand why he did it. He was dealing with a church that refused to challenge Hitler! But his words have been co-opted and abused in an entirely different context.
So many chest-thumping conservative evangelicals are in love with the idea of costly grace. They need for their Christianity to feel mean and hard enough that it cannot be accused of worldly compromise. But it isn’t cheap grace to create safe spaces for other people. It actually requires costly grace. The more my ego is crucified with Christ, the more I ought to be able to make anyone feel safe in my presence. Radical hospitality is tremendously challenging; it requires vigorous personal honesty and humility. It means I have to give up being the protagonist of the conversation, which is very hard to do as a white man with a fragile ego.
The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” If I really live this way, then I will treat other people as the expert guests of honor in every conversation that I have. As Christian grow in our discipleship, we evolve from being honored guests to self-emptying hosts who put themselves beneath other people for whom we create a safe space. The measure of how saved I am as a Christian is how safe I am able to be for other people.
We live in a very graceless, cut-throat world. Some universities have decided to build their brand off of being that way. But as Christians, our most fundamental act of evangelism is to create safe space for those who are poor in spirit, meek, and persecuted.