In 2015, there were 5,818 reported incidents of hate crimes where a victim was targeted because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability. 65% of all women and 25% of men have experienced street harassment. One in five women report being a victim of rape.
With rampant physical and emotional violence, many individuals live in a psychological war zone. They learn to be constantly on the defense when parts of their identity put them at risk. At any given time, 24.4 million Americans are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
We need places that don’t just offer to protect us physically, but also emotionally and spiritually.
That’s where safe spaces come in.
According to Everyday Feminism, safe spaces are “places or communities – either online or off – where bigotry and oppressive views are not tolerated.
Ideally these are places where you can let your guard down. You can be yourself without fear of harassment or violence. As a queer woman and a victim of sexual assault, I’ve used these spaces to process and heal, and to better understand who I am. I surround myself with other LGBTQ folk or other women who understand the impact of sexual assault, and I feel safe to reveal who I am and what I’ve gone through. Therapy is also a safe space for me and, occasionally, so are small groups at my church.
One of the major arguments against the creation of safe spaces is the notion that they threaten free speech. In 2016, the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students wrote a letter to incoming students explaining the school’s “commitment to academic freedom means that we … do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
Some people feel that guarding students against opposing viewpoints does them a disservice; students can’t learn to defend their own beliefs and tolerate opposing opinions if they are protected from them. Those who oppose safe spaces often write off students advocating for protection as being overly sensitive. One religious studies professor wrote in the Atlantic:
Trigger warnings and safe spaces are terms that reflect the values of the communities in which they’re used. The loudest, most prominent advocates of these practices are often the people most likely to … label arguments against affirmative action as impermissible microaggressions. These advocates routinely use the word “ally” to describe those who support their positions on race, gender, and religion, implying that anyone who disagrees is an “enemy.”
I’d argue that anyone who doesn’t understand the need for allies probably has never needed one.
The president of Northwestern responded in favor of safe spaces. He argued that “students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable. Safe spaces provide that comfort.”
These spaces can enhance the freedom of speech by protecting those who need this freedom the most: those whose voices have been historically marginalized.
The need for safe spaces should not be limited to universities. If any place is going to offer psychological protection, shouldn’t it be the church?
How can the church create a safe space?
- By prioritizing people over theology or politics. We can keep each other safe only by setting aside any worldview disagreements and prioritizing healing and love.
- By becoming educated about all manner of oppression. We should know how our communities are being impacted by various forms of oppression.
- By listening rather than speaking. We should be asking trauma survivors what they need to feel safe and to heal.
Regardless of people’s good intentions, safe spaces inevitably fail. For example, a group might be sensitive in one area but not another: offering conscientious dialogue around racism or gender discrimination, but not realizing ways that they are ableist.
Not everyone will agree what a safe space is or how to create it. What makes one person feel safe might leave another feeling exposed.
The best we can do is try to make it a little better, a little safer for everyone else.
The church has a longstanding history of being a sanctuary: a place of refuge. In one of my favorite Bible passages, Jesus says, “Come to Me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Offering rest is a way of taking care of one’s neighbor. Offering protection against bigotry is a way of valuing all people as beloveds of God.
Jera Brown is an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. She blogs about being a queer polyamorous Christian on her personal blog and edits a multifaith site offering queer perspectives on the future of faith communities at sacredandsubversive.net.