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16 September 2016

Safe spaces and dangerous ideas 

Safe spaces and dangerous ideas 

John Coleby is public policy officer at the Evangelical Alliance.

It's the start of a new academic year. Thousands of students are heading to universities across the country, some of them for the first time. But the new term has been marked by a debate in the media, online and even in parliament about what a university is. People are asking: who should be able to speak, and who should not? Should any topics be off-limits because they are offensive? Those are the questions being asked in the debate around 'safe spaces' at university.

This week in parliament, one MP asked the prime minister about these safe spaces, saying: "Fear of being offended must not trump freedom of speech." Theresa May agreed, calling the spaces "quite extraordinary". 

Safe spaces can mean different things in different contexts. At some universities, safe spaces are places set apart for students from minority backgrounds who may feel marginalised on campus. The safe space guarantees that these students will meet people who will listen to their experiences and treat them with respect. Clearly, such spaces can be helpful to those dealing with the isolation that can go with being in a minority. However, this is not the sort of safe space that ends up in the news, or that endangers free speech for all.

The problem with free speech emerges when the whole university is designated as a safe space, or under a 'safe space policy'. This often means that no speaker at a campus event is to say anything that some students may describe as 'hateful' or 'offensive'. 

Who could be against that? Indeed, scripture commands us to love our neighbours, and to speak of our faith with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Nevertheless, Christians should be concerned when people start trying to go beyond this and ban offence. Because down through history, whenever a list of offensive things has been drawn up, the Christian gospel has generally been on it – and not for the reasons you might expect.

For example, one of the most offensive things about the New Testament gospel was how it broke down the old barriers between different people: Jew and Gentile, rich and poor alike. In the Church, those of different backgrounds, who may have hated each other before, become brothers and sisters in Christ. Even people within the Church struggled with this new unity (Acts 11:1-3). Peter, who lived and walked with Jesus, found it hard when he saw how offensive it was (Galatians 2:11-14). Offensive, yes, but glorious.

Another offensive part of our faith has been its commitment to justice. Take the book of Amos, for example. Again and again, Amos defends the voiceless and oppressed. In its first chapter, the book contains the earliest indictment of different nations for war-crimes. But Amos offended a lot of people. And sure enough, in chapter 7, Amaziah the priest sought to ban Amos from speaking – to 'no-platform' him. It is very hard to campaign for justice without offending the unjust.

As Christians, we have no problems with treating people with respect. But to be respectful does not mean to be inoffensive. In a world without sin and evil, nothing would be offensive, but in the world we live in, it is sometimes the offensive that people need to hear most of all. And let's remember, nobody has the right not to be offended.

To some people, be they students or anyone else, Jesus himself is "a rock of offence", as Paul says in Romans 9:33. But for us, who put our trust in him, he is our true, real safe space, in whom is our security and our strength. For as Paul goes on to say: "Whoever believes in him will not be put to shame." 

Image: CC Edward Langley