by Layton Friesen
Safety has been a divisive question during this pandemic. We have also heard much about clergy sexual abuse recently—again. The grim recurrence of these headlines confirms again what the church should have known: loving and protecting the vulnerable is part of the essence of biblical faith. Is this possibly the harshest thing Jesus ever said? “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). No one can read that without sensing that Jesus had a gut-level, mama-bear instinct to protect the vulnerable rooted in the ancient Israelite concern for the orphan, widow and alien.
The stories of those hurt by the church need to be told, and churches need to ask the hard question of what they are currently doing to make sure the vulnerable are genuinely loved and protected. When churches take concrete steps to change their practices, they are creating space for people to finally hear the good news of a God who loves them deeply. It is hard, practical, gospel work.
To this end, churches are talking about what our culture calls “safety.” We have various safety policies crafted for us by people knowledgeable about liability, abuse, risk reduction and ministry. However, as a church we need to constantly be aware of how cultural ideas so closely akin to biblical ideas are nevertheless not quite the same. How are cultural ideas of safety like and unlike the biblical convictions expressed by Jesus? In what way is safety part of a biblical vision for loving the vulnerable?
Safety is a bit like tolerance. One cannot be totally opposed to worldly tolerance without also being opposed to the biblical convictions about mercy; but they are not the same. There is just enough overlap between the concept of safety and Christian love to make it almost impossible to question without implying that one does not care about the vulnerable. But there is only a partial overlap between the two. Safety is almost a biblical concept. Loving the vulnerable, however, is central to biblical justice. This is not just semantics.
Why is safety almost, but not exactly, a biblical conviction? For starters, if safety is our ultimate criteria, God will disappoint us. In Scripture God is ever the protector of his children but God does not seem intent on insulating them from all risk and danger. God allows his children to experience the rough and tumble life of a dangerous world but the psalmist nevertheless proclaims, “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).
Is that safety? Only in the eschatological sense. When all is done, when life on earth is over and the world has thrown all its damnation at us, those who trust in the Lord will be well. Those persecuted, oppressed, killed in typhoons and, yes, crucified, nevertheless say at the last, “My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust” (Psalm 91:2). But the God who has defeated death to protect his children seems not to feel the need to keep his children safe from suffering and death. The church needs to be utterly devoted to the hard work of loving the vulnerable (which God does relentlessly) without making an idol out of safety.
Does this make a difference in how the church handles safety issues? In many ways it won’t but in some ways it will. To the extent that we are able, we need to prevent bad things from happening to people, especially the vulnerable. But Christian love is more concerned about making sure that something good happens to the vulnerable. We need to make sure that vulnerable people, whoever they are, find themselves caught in a web of interesting, supportive, empowering, intergenerational friendships that press home the love of God in practical, organic, trust-building ways. Safe children in this sense, are children who are not only protected from predators, but whose lives are spun into a web of stable, intergenerational friendships. It’s the lack of community that is the true danger to the vulnerable.
I think this does give us a place to evaluate safety policies and practices. Do they contribute to this web of intergenerational friendship, or do they make it more difficult? Is this policy preventing and perhaps even frightening good adults from being involved in the lives of children or is this enabling friendship to happen safely, naturally and fruitfully?
It seems to me that a basic EMC value across our churches is intergenerational friendship. This is unique to our particular way of doing church. We want our churches to be places where kids of all kinds and adults of all kinds find each other fun and interesting, where folks of all ages can worship, serve, and play together. This can only happen if there is safety. But safety in itself does not make that happen. Love is infinitely more than safety.
Does the church still have Jesus’s gut-level anger on behalf of the vulnerable? The unborn, the elderly, the young, the poor, sexual minorities, those with mental disabilities and illnesses, and those whom society makes a pariah, like sexual offenders; all these have different kinds of vulnerabilities. The question is not simply whether we can be trusted to keep bad things from happening to the vulnerable, as important as that is. But can we be trusted to entangle the vulnerable in a mess of love and transforming friendship in the name of Christ?