We are hardwired for self-preservation. To that end, we all seek safety—being free of or stronger than what threatens us.
Rather than focusing on our common denominator, however, we have given preeminence to stereotypes about each other. This has polarized us, dividing us into sides and stripping us of our shared and full humanity. Divided this way, we assume each side holds uniformly to mutually exclusive positions.
We’ve come to see one another monolithically—Black people are all like this; white people are all like that. Conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, and so on—we’ve separated each other under tidy, polar opposite labels.
We’ve become convinced those not like us are a threat, are unsafe. And seeking safety, we’ve further entrenched apart from each other.
There’s a better way, and it’s rooted in the most basic lessons of Scripture. We all are created in God’s image, God loves us, and we are to love one another. Living these truths in this world isn’t easy, and it’s sure not safe. But it’s the surest way to get there.
What is safety?
The tension between us may be because we think we have different definitions of safety.
We’re not talking about a defensive back in football. We’re talking about the basic Merriam-Webster definition: “the condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury or loss.”
I can see the eyes rolling now. I can hear all the people who grew up standing on the front bench seat of their parents’ car—while the car was in motion. I can hear the “Oh, brother” from all those who swung from monkey bars over asphalt playgrounds.
“How in the world did we survive our childhoods? Come on, the world isn’t a safe place.”
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No, the world isn’t a safe place, and we aren’t at odds over seat belts and playgrounds. We’re at odds over societal norms and violent histories. Our desire for safety is a desire to live in a world with different norms and a different future.
Another objection might be that people can’t be safe to do whatever they want. It is true; safety, by definition, has boundaries. Safety is not the same thing as license; it does not mean being free of consequences.
When we regard each other as stereotypes, however, we often assume the other person means something different than what we mean by things like safety. While some might want to be free of the consequences of their actions, for example, the vast majority of us understand being safe doesn’t mean we get to hurt other people with impunity.
If nothing else, a good start is remembering we all share a desire for safety—being free of or stronger than what threatens us. Politicians understand that, even if we don’t.
Promises vs. reality
In election years, politicians seize on our propensity to reduce each other to stereotypes. This year, they are seizing on our desire for safety and our assumption that we mean different things by it. They are promising if we elect the right person, all will be well.
If safety is obtained so easily, it is lost just as easily. No single human being or political party can make us safer than another, much less guarantee our safety.
The brokenness in the world is more complex than politics can solve—especially in these days of such polarized politics. If we could solve our brokenness in binary, either/or ways, our ongoing struggles would have been solved long ago.
Policies can tilt the scale toward safety—understood here synonymously with justice—but those policies cannot do the work each of us must do. The work each of us must do is at the level of morality, not policy.
A more fundamental common denominator
I used to see a large sign at the front gate of an oil and gas drilling business outside Cleburne. The top of the sign read: “Safety is a moral issue.” The explanation underneath was in print too small to read at 60 mph. But really, does the statement need much explanation?
Safety is a moral issue, because we all share something more central than a desire for safety. We all are created in the image of God. The original creation may not have been “safe,” but hurt, injury and loss were not part of God’s image in the beginning. Further, we all are objects of God’s love, demonstrated for us in Jesus Christ. These fundamental points define how we are to treat each other.
From that starting point, followers of Jesus can desire the kind of safety we all seek—“being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury or loss.” Furthermore, followers of Jesus can model achieving that goal by living the teachings of Jesus Christ.
I know this sounds utopian, but among followers of Jesus, it’s supposed to be reality. This reality is not naïve, thinking we can get to that common ground easily.
Safety doesn’t mean we won’t disagree over political, theological and aesthetic convictions—which aren’t the same, despite our often treating them the same.
Safety means when and as we disagree, we will seek to avoid injuring those with whom we disagree.
It means we will follow Jesus, valuing each other’s full humanity, engaging in uncomfortable conversations, letting go of our preferences, serving each other, persevering in doing good and seeking the welfare of our communities.
Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP. The views expressed are those solely of the author.