“We never really talked about it,” the young girl stated as we sat down. “Our school basically said you can’t because you might offend someone.”
I grabbed my burger a little tighter and shifted in my chair. We had watched a movie about abortion before going out for burgers to recap the film. I asked if they’d ever studied abortion in school. I was shocked that they were shunted from talking about it because abortion is offensive for some.
So I started researching why important conversations are shut down in our culture. I’m dismayed by what I found.
The glow of my iPad in my late night study was blinding. Abortion wasn’t the issue. I wanted to understand safe spaces.
I read stories of speakers whose lives were threatened because they voiced a contrary opinion. Videos showed riots on college campuses over assumptions about a speaker’s feelings on gender identity.
Schools responded by creating safe spaces. Some colleges offered coloring stations and counselors, so students could retreat and share how they were offended. I could only imagine the cultural shift for many professors who changed syllabi to soften the dialogue on difficult issues.
Not really knowing what to do, I sat down with pen and paper to chart the issues. In desperation I flipped open my Bible next to the notepad and started scribbling my jumbled thoughts. Starting in Genesis, I outlined the first chapters.
I wrote the word God at the top of the paper. God created the world with order and purpose. Under that I wrote man. God created man in his image. Then I wrote the word work. God gave man work to do before the fall. Then I wrote woman. God gave man a suitable helper and the two supported each other. Then, community. In Eve, God gave Adam a person with whom to enjoy common unity. God gave Adam and Eve community, reflecting the nature of God. Lastly I wrote the word purpose. The world as God designed it was meant to give humankind purpose, identity, and safety. Everything finds its origin in the design and character of God.
I flipped the paper upside down. Now it feels like the world is more upside down than right side up.
In the dead of night I looked out my window. It was cold outside my house. The light from my window only lit parts of my backyard. I thought how dangerous it is to live in a world without God. If God isn’t illuminating the world, we’re left grasping for direction in the dark.
Safe spaces started to make sense as I stared out my window that evening. When the world is turned upside down we fashion order and purpose around our pursuit of identity and safety. We build communities, look at marriage, understand work, and explain humanity in an individual and sometimes arbitrary hunt for identity and purpose with a covering of safety.
Since that evening there has been a pile of books on my desk helping me decipher how we arrived in a safe space culture. A common thread emerged from my research. People need to be guilt-free to progress. God has a moral standard. People don’t meet this standard and therefore feel guilty.
God needed to die. Thought-shapers like Friedrich Nietzsche believed that getting rid of God would allow society to create a better standard. Without God there is no standard for right and wrong. Nietzsche argued that a godless world would grant a sort of second innocence. He pitched that—without the standard set by God and without a foe like Satan standing in opposition—we could regain the perfection of Eden. Doing away with condemnation and making morality relative would catapult culture towards progress.
However, simply removing God didn’t do away with guilty feelings. There is a strange persistence in guilt. Sigmund Freud advanced Nietzsche’s ideas, saying that guilt is the most important problem in developing civilizations. If a civilization can do away with guilt they can progress unfettered.
Freud offered a godless therapy to de-moralize and deconstruct guilt. Whatever moral norms surrounded culture, Freud wanted to challenge them for the sake of liberating people. Essentially, Freud said guilt is a construct placed on a person by someone else. No one is truly guilty. Therapy can reveal that bad thoughts and wrong actions result from an underworked superego, a hyperactive conscience. Events from a person’s youth or things outside a person’s control drive them to live outside a moral norm. Guilt follows, and that is unjust. Freud worked to deconstruct guilt so a person was left with a subjective and emotional explanation for their feeling of condemnation, removing their culpability.
But despite Freud’s efforts, guilt stood persistent. People still feel guilty.
There’s an ironic aspect of truth. Truth stands, even when it isn’t popular. Truth is consistent with reality. It is coherent and understandable. It is complete, addressing all who look on it. The unwanted reality for all of us is that we are guilty. This is true.
There is an unspeakable persistence in guilt. I watch videos of my kids and feel like I haven’t spent enough time with them. I feel guilty that the money from my wallet doesn’t stretch far enough to allow me more time with them. I watch news reports of starving children around the world and think that I should support one more orphaned kid. The lady next door needs me to mow her lawn, but I find myself researching fantasy football. And then there are my devotional habits. If only I could spend just a little more time I would be better. Guilt is persistent, and the world’s answers for it are hollow.
One of the books I read blamed our feelings of guilt on technology. This generation of students is the first to have the iPhone as teenagers. Information overload is an hourly reality. With this flood we don’t know what is important and therefore think everything is worth fighting over. The loudest voices are often perceived as the right voices.
Another book introduced people like Herbert Marcuse who called for restricting the rights of some people so the rights of others could be better displayed. He wanted to treat guilt by creating a level playing field for everyone. His writings called for an absolute equality, where tolerance required some discrimination. He felt that indiscriminate tolerance breeds repression—if we’re tolerant of everyone the weak don’t get heard. Marcuse called for restricting free speech and other rights of those who have influence so that those who don’t can be heard. Those who are heard now must have their rights of speech restricted so the quiet and disenfranchised can participate. His ideas made me drop my book.
From Marcuse hundreds of ideas emerged looking to deal with repression and guilt. Kimberlé Crenshaw developed a concept called intersectionalism. A person’s standing in race, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical ability, and even fertility earns a place of privilege or oppression. I am defined as a white, heterosexual, cisgendered male, which means that I am privileged and I cast oppression on all ranks of those who do not fit my social makeup.
I hate oppression. It makes me feel guilty. So I need to un-become the things that I was born into. I need a safe space to disrobe in.
The more I researched this, the more I realized that there is a significant amount of guilt inside and outside the Church. Turning from God, as Nietzsche urged, and deconstructing sin, as Freud encouraged, does not remove guilty feelings. I guess Romans 3:23 is true whether a person believes it or not: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”
The way a godless world deals with condemnation is to find a scapegoat. Through intersectionalism a person can assign a stronger class the blame for repression. If a person is part of a more privileged class, they may try to cleanse themselves by stealing someone else’s suffering. There is a faux humbling, casting guilt on a different class of people to sanctify themselves. This is the reality of safe spaces.
The great theological injustice of safe spaces is their inability to deal with our guilt. They offer a place of sanctification without offering any atonement. There is a need for a true scapegoat. Casting blame or oppression from one class to another does not remedy the problem of the pain we feel. When Adam did that in the garden, it didn’t absolve his failure. Adam needed someone to truly shoulder his failures because they were crushing him.
God provided that for Adam, and he provides it for us. Let’s not be a culture that simply casts our guilty feelings on a different people group, time period, or economic class. Let’s look for true redemption in Christ, talking about real brokenness, how it truly makes us feel. And let’s find our identity in the One who knows what it is to suffer and be raised victorious… Jesus Christ.