What Are Safe Spaces?
Safe spaces are digital or physical “locations” where a person doesn’t feel ashamed of who they are or feel afraid to be themselves. I believe that part of combating shame and fear is empowering people to add their voices to whatever conversations are happening in that space, so you could also say that safe spaces are digital or physical “locations” where people are empowered. Let’s unpack some of that.
What Is Shame?
Shame is the feeling that we are unworthy in some way. It’s a feeling that speaks to our very identity as a human being, and that’s what makes it so dangerous. I find shame researcher Brené Brown’s definition helpful:
I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
Brené Brown, shame v. guilt
Safe spaces can’t exist alongside shame, because shame reinforces the idea that our performance (i.e. our actions and our ability to do “rightly”) determines our worthiness. Shame strips human dignity by claiming that someone isn’t inherently worthy of love and belonging; love and belonging must be earned. Shame, then, gets exploited by people in positions of power/authority to compel others to conform to expectations.
In my experience, shame has been a common tool in Christian circles in place of guilt. It seems like people have difficulty differentiating between feelings of guilt and feelings of shame, and too often we frame sin as a matter of inherent identity (shame). We can see this in the way many Christians talk about salvation. There’s a bold line that separates those whom God loves from those whom God doesn’t, and Christians often root that distinction in a person’s “inherent” traits and heap the burden of that identity on the individual.
In other words, “You’re a bad person — you’re impure and wicked.” Salvation is presented as something we gain for ourselves by changing who we are. We’re not moved to repentance because we feel guilt (a beneficial, personal process); we’re shamed into repentance, instead.
Shame ignores passages like John 3:16, Romans 5:10, and Matthew 5:43–48, which suggest that God loves us already. If you’ve visited Breaking Bread Theology and read the About page, you might remember that the second assumption I make in my pursuit of God is that God is love, and, therefore, God loves. Considering the relationship between shame and love in Brown’s definition, shame is an obstacle that prevents people from encountering God. If God is love and someone feels that their flaws make them unworthy of love, then God is inherently far from them.
Safe spaces should combat shame and help people experience love and belonging without heaping the burden of worthiness on their shoulders.
Safe Spaces and Fear
In my experience, fear of being seen for who we think we really are is often rooted in shame. Part of combating shame is practicing self-compassion, self-love, and self-acceptance. Without being able to accept ourselves, love ourselves, or have compassion for ourselves, fear of rejection by others grows, so shame and fear go hand-in-hand.
“If they knew who I really am, they’d reject me.”
Safe spaces should push against that kind of fear similarly to how they push against feeling shame. People don’t always have to like us, but safe spaces are places where we’re empowered to be ourselves without fear of rejection.
I understand that a few paragraphs in a blog post don’t capture the enormity of this challenge. Combating shame and fear can take a lifetime of practice, so creating safe spaces that are anti-shame and anti-fear is a tall order. I’m sure there will be a lot of failed attempts as we try to figure out how to do this, but I also think it needs to be articulated; places where Love reigns aren’t compatible with shame and fear, and a theology that claims God is love but leans into shame and fear isn’t consistent.
What Does It Mean to Empower Voices?
Empowering voices means creating environments where people can really be heard. This is both literal and metaphorical; “voice” doesn’t only mean audible speech, but it certainly can include audible speech. A voice is everything from what people say and write to the narratives into which they live to the heritage they bring.
I believe that empowered voices are a natural part of shame-free, fear-free environments, but also, the practice of empowering voices is a way of combating shame and, thus, creating those environments. This goes hand-in-hand with safe spaces; empowering voices requires providing some level of safety, and providing safety can naturally lead to empowered voices.
Helping people to feel safe — to be themselves without fear of becoming unworthy of love — necessarily requires an openness to diversity. That is, if we’re going to accept people, we have to practice really seeing them and listening to them, and that means we’re going to inevitably be confronted by both the similarities and the differences between us.
Safe spaces empower people to speak up through their voices, writings, narratives, heritage, and other forms of expression with the knowledge that they’ll be seen and heard. This is possible in part because they have no fear of shame or being disenfranchised by others in that space.
Again, I understand this is, in many ways, a difficult dream to realize, so let’s talk about the tension that inevitably exists when we start trying to empower people.
Safe Spaces: Safe For Whom?
I currently minister at a congregation that is going through a split, and everyone has feelings and opinions about all sorts of aspects within the discussions. There are some who feel they aren’t being heard, because their concerns aren’t reflected in the responses of others, but those same others also feel that they aren’t being fairly considered. Some folks don’t feel they’re worthy of being heard at all, while others are simply soft-spoken. Everyone wants to be heard, but the process of hearing is often more complicated than people realize.
Moreover, not everyone is having the same conversation. Some people are talking about processes. Some are talking about doctrine. Some are talking about scripture interpretation/translation, while others are talking about postures toward scripture. Some are pushing their own agendas, and others are guarding traditions. All the while, many people are assuming they know what the conversation is about, so when they hear others, they make assumptions about meanings and implications because they don’t realize they’re having a different conversation.
Some of these differences can be overcome through careful and intentional dialogue, but not all of them. It comes back to the three things I mentioned above: shame, fear, and empowering voices. Just as shame and fear can keep people from finding their own voices, shame and fear can also keep people from hearing those voices. If a person leans into shame and fear as tools against others, they render themselves incapable of hearing others’ voices.
For example, if we see someone as shameful, we may be approaching them with the assumption that they have nothing beneficial to say; they’re unworthy of God’s love, and they don’t belong. Or, we may be approaching with the expectation of “fixing” whatever makes them shameful, predisposing us to condescend. Those postures twist our own “love” for them by allowing us to justify withholding genuine affection and acceptance, which is going to make it difficult (maybe impossible?) to hear them.
If we’re accustomed to using fear as part of our speaking points (e.g. emphasizing how much of a threat something is), we may be approaching the conversation with a defensive posture and the assumption that we need to resist whatever they say. Or, we may be approaching with the expectation that we can help them see their own dangerous folly. Similar to the shame postures, these postures of fear can make it difficult to hear their side of the conversation.
All this to illustrate that safe spaces aren’t always safe for everyone. The nature of human diversity — emotions, assumed narratives, conditioned disgust, shame, expectations, etc. — can, unfortunately, render some people “mutually exclusive” to others. What do we do when a space becomes unsafe for some?
One of my professors once told me, “If we have to choose between the oppressed and the oppressor, we side with the oppressed.” Part of the messy work of creating safe spaces is discerning which voices are oppressing others and which are being oppressed. Which voices are trying to hold up oppressive systems and structures, and which are trying not to be crushed by them?
Safe spaces are only safe for people who want to be part of safe spaces. Everyone wants to feel safe, but remember: safe spaces are anti-shame and anti-fear, and they empower people’s voices to be heard. Voices that seek to undermine those characteristics aren’t trying to be part of the safe space, even if those voices still want to feel safe.
Intolerant of Intolerance
A dear friend of mine makes a distinction that I find helpful: intolerance of differences vs. intolerance of intolerance. I think that in order for safe spaces to work, they have to make room for people to be different — feel differently, believe differently, understand differently, express themselves differently, etc. Safe spaces can’t be intolerant of differences and diversity, and that means disagreements have to be ok.
In order for that sort of space to flourish, though, I think there has to be an intolerance of intolerance. This is a paradox. I get that. I anticipate that opponents of safe spaces will try to argue that it’s hypocritical. I understand what they mean, but part of safe spaces is safety, and I believe that those of you who know what it’s like to feel unsafe understand what I mean when I say that intolerance can’t be tolerated if we want to help the marginalized and oppressed overcome shame and fear and be empowered to speak up. They have to know that they’re not alone and that others will stand by them against the people who try to push them back into shame and fear.
Creating safe spaces is messy work. It can be painful and filled with surprises. It requires continual and careful discernment, which can also be heavy work. It challenges everyone who commits to being there. In many ways, it’s uncharted territory. Humanity has never made a concerted effort to be safe together, so safe spaces can seem fleeting or impractical. We’re going to fail over and over again, so we’ll need to reflect on those failures and adapt as we go.
A common question people ask when reflecting on efforts and experiences is “did it work?” I think there’s a better question. “Did it work” only considers the final outcome, and it assumes we know what the outcome should have been. If a space “fizzles” out, does that mean it didn’t work? What if, in the time it existed, it helped people overcome shame and fear and feel love and belonging and freedom for the first time in their lives? Is that failure? What if it empowered voices that went on to empower other voices? Is that failure?
I think the better question is “what happened?” What happened focuses on the journey and the events. It reminds us to consider more than just the final outcome. For those of us who believe God is creating out of love moment to moment, “what happened” helps us to consider the ways God was at work and where we may have participated in that work (or not participated).
Safe spaces aren’t about leaving legacies or necessarily lasting forever. They’re about people, right here and right now. They’re about love, right here and right now. Maybe loving people will create something that ripples into eternity, but that’s for tomorrow to worry about. For now, let’s just see what happens.
Originally published at https://breakingbreadtheology.com on July 22, 2021.