Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Safety is a Seductive Idol

Written by: on March 5, 2020

Calan (fictitious name) is a very white, very conservative, evangelical-oriented university located in the Pacific Northwest. Historically, they’ve marketed themselves as a safe university that promotes a “Christian camp” environment and perpetuates a conservative evangelical theology and worldview for its students. Thus, the majority of its student and donor bases come from homeschool or private Christian school backgrounds.

During an Immersion Trip at the US southern border, an adjunct professor from Calan caught a vision for what could happen if they forged a partnership with Global Immersion. In encounter after encounter with the human beings who are caught in the crosshairs of immigration, she discovered the implications of the imperial theology that she had been groomed within.  She became convinced of the good news that God is on restorative mission in and through us. She began to see her university as an incubator for next-generation influencers and discovered a deep longing for Calan to move beyond its theological commitment to safety and to realize its destiny as an instrument of peace that forms and releases Jesus-centric peacemakers into every sector of professional life.

The relationship between Global Immersion and Calan began slowly.  We moved at the pace of trust through a year of strategic conversations, relationship building with key stakeholders, speaking, and guest lecturing.  Next, we invited the Dean of the School of Education and a couple of hand-selected student leaders to join us for another Immersion Trip. Their experience awakened in them a shared conviction that Calan’s long term credibility and, ultimately, its future, required the theological, cultural, and practical remaking that our Immersion Trips, workshops, coaching, and consulting could provide.

A few short months later, we took another significant next step forward as we hosted an entire delegation (faculty, staff, and students) from Calan in a third Immersion Trip.  This one, though, included Calan’s President.

Our relationship pre-dated the immersion, but the experience solidified it.  While others ate or slept, he and I processed the complexities of immigration that we were observing, our shared mission to form people of faith to join God as peacemakers in the mission of restoration, and the shifting sands of higher education.  As trust grew, he let me in on the cultural opportunities and obstacles at the university and, together, we began to imagine a future Calan whose reputation was “incubator of a restorative revolution.”

That said, the conversations turned as he revealed that the greatest obstacle to the journey of institutional liberation and renovation was their institutionalized commitment to safety.  With humility and no small amount of frustration, he identified “safetyism” as the greatest threat to the academic integrity of the university. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathon Haidt would agree.

Their book was born out of a hypothesis that emerged between the two authors. Wondering about the trends that they were witnessing on university campuses with regard to student demands for censorship, they recognized that “many university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.”[1] This hypothesis gave way to an article in the Atlantic that, due to its viral popularity, was ultimately fleshed out in book form.

In short, The Coddling of the American Mind is a book about why young people feel so anxious; how parents have contributed to an increase in fragility and a decrease in resiliency in their offspring; and how US American Universities are coddling rather than challenging the fragility of the emerging generations. Their best work is the unveiling of the Three Untruths that underlie the phenomenon of safetyism[2]:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility[3] offers the lie that “what doesn’t kill you only makes you weaker.”
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning[4] says “Always trust your feelings.”
  3. The Untruth of Us vs. Them[5] offers the misconception that “Life is a battle between good and evil people.”[6]

Comprehending those Untruths caused a recent experience at Calan to come into focus.

This fall, I was invited to campus for a third time to speak at the student body’s weekly chapel service. Knowing that my theology and style of preaching is a bit edgier than they’re used to, I advised with the President and one of his Deans on the message that I was preparing to give. The passage I had selected was one of the more controversial moments in the life of Jesus. In fact, it’s a moment that portrays Jesus intentionally immersing into what religious wisdom referred to as “enemy territory” that, if stepped within, would contaminate one’s faith and compromise one’s standing with God. Simply put, Jesus transcended religious wisdom and moved beyond the threshold for safety where he was further transformed.

With the green light from the President and Dean, I delivered the message. Upon its conclusion, I was met by three very angry, white eighteen-year-olds who…had a lot to say about how they “felt” about my message. First, the message had made them feel very uncomfortable (See Untruth Number Two).  Second, I was identified as “one of those preachers” who talks about justice rather than Jesus (See Untruth Number Three) and was, therefore, a “dangerous heretic” (See Untruth Number One) who they hoped would never be invited back to campus.

In conversation with Lukianoff and Haidt, let’s analyze their feedback within the context of “safetyism.”  First, their defensive approach signals something of what they believe about difference: within the paradigm of safetyism, different means dangerous. That is, “different” is not understood as an opportunity to grow or expand or lean in with humble curiosity.  Instead, it is perceived as a contaminate, a threat, that must be resisted lest it leads to one’s ruin (Untruth Number One).

Second, the immediacy of their heated presence upon the completion of the chapel service indicates that they did not have the tools to recognize that they were escalated and likely incapable of constructive, civil discourse. Rather than asking themselves, “Why am I escalated and what does it say about me?” they resorted to the response of safetyism: “I’m escalated because of him and he needs to know that what he did was wrong” (Untruth Number Two).

Third, they were quick to identify and draw boundaries around two different types of preachers.  The “Us” preacher was the one who “talks about Jesus.”  The “Them” preacher, of which I was seemingly identified as, was the one who “talks about justice.” The former was very obviously portrayed as good and preferable and the later as evil and to be dismissed. For the record, the entire talk was centered exclusively on Jesus.

If Lukianoff and Haidt assess the general disposition of students on top tier campuses as fragile, anxious, and easily hurt, it makes me wonder what they would say of students who inhabit US American Christian Universities. My encounter at Calan, interpreted alongside Coddling also leads me to wonder at how White American Evangelical theology is contributing to a dangerous intellectual fragility that is accelerating xenophobia and racism within the movement.

While I appreciate Lukianoff and Haidt’s six recommendations on how parents and educators could produce wiser children[7], the fact of the matter is, these fragile, anxious young people are already inhabiting our campuses and work force.  So for those of us who are currently working with the young, coddled minds, let me offer these six suggestions:

  1. Hold space for them to be anxious and fragile for that is what they are.
  2. Metabolize their energy and, in so doing, disarm their anxiety.
  3. Affirm their courage in voicing their anxiety and fragility.
  4. Check their disrespect when it manifests and encourage civility.
  5. Teach self-awareness by asking them to invest as much energy getting curious with themselves as they are protecting their fragility.
  6. Follow up in order to provide space for them to voice their new discoveries.


[1] https://heterodoxacademy.org/coddling-of-the-american-mind/

[2] Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind, New York: Penguin Books (2018), 29.

[3] See also Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: What it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

[4] In addition to Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, Psychologist, Dr. Leon Seltzer reflects HERE on the danger of trusting one’s feelings.

[5] Listen HERE as Brian McLaren talks about a God who transcends Us vs. Them

[6] Haidt & Lukianoff, 3.

[7] See Haidt & Lukianoff, Chapter 12.

About the Author

Jer Swigart

17 responses to “Safety is a Seductive Idol”

  1. Greg Reich says:

    Powerful example of the lessons in the book. I see great wisdom in your 6 suggestions. Where else in your ministry do you find this type of mindset that the students portrayed? What is it about the restorative work that you do that they see as offensive? How do you think their view of Jesus made them so contrary to yoru message? Have we forgotten the radical side of Jesus?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      I don’t think we (White American Christians) have forgotten the radical side of Jesus. Rather, I wonder if we ever truly knew the radical side of Jesus. For to see Jesus as radical is to understand, first and foremost, that he was a dark-skinned Palestinian Jew who lived on the underside of Empire. This was a Jesus who, in story after story and teaching after teaching, intentionally subverted any and every system that did not reflect the things of heaven. The radical Jesus was a cross-wearing rather than a cross-wielding first-century incarnation of God whose name is Peace.

      So no, I don’t think we’ve forgotten the radical Jesus. Rather, because we’ve made Jesus in our image, we’ve never known the real, radical One.

      Would love to get your reflections on this….

  2. Dylan Branson says:

    Stepping outside of our “safety bubbles” is one of the most liberating experiences we can have. I mentioned in Darcy’s post that my parents were very hands off when I was growing up; however, the one area they would always jump on to be more “hands on” was when I started talking about going to Hong Kong and China. All of a sudden, going to China would mean “They’re going to kidnap you and shove bamboo shoots up your fingernails” or “You know they kill Christians there; they’re going to track you down.” Keep in mind, the topic of China had NEVER come up in the 20 years of my life prior to me expressing interest in going. But the thought of me spending a month and a half in Hong Kong for a summer volunteer program suddenly raised every red flag in their mind because it “wasn’t safe” (to this day, when we talk about Hong Kong and China “safety” is the key word).

    The organization I used to serve with had a tagline they would use at the end of all their briefing/recruiting sessions: “Be ruined for the ordinary.” And as I would reflect on that, I was always reminded of the cost of following Jesus. It isn’t a path of safety, but a path of crucifixion as we die to ourselves each day. Even as I reflect on this, I can feel tears welling in my eyes. This moment in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe speaks volumes:

    “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.”

    “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”

    “Safe?” said Mr Beaver “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

    • Jer Swigart says:

      This idea that God is safe is a conundrum to me. If we take incarnation and cross seriously, we’re faced with the reality that God didn’t prioritize God’s own safety. If that’s true, then we have to ask the question, “Why do we think that God is consumed/concerned with our safety?”

      I wonder if the answer is found in our construction of God. Perhaps we’ve made a God in our image who prioritizes our accumulation of power, wealth, and safety because that God suits us better than a God who invites us to lay our lives down for the sake of the world.

      What do you think?

      • Dylan Branson says:

        I think part of the issue is that we’ve tried to tame God. I would agree that we’ve constructed God in our image so that we can justify our actions more so than anything. How do we communicate God is anything BUT tame though? Like we’ve talked about several times already, there’s a lot of unraveling we need to do in regard to the American Evangelical identity. When reading through the book The Insanity of God, one of the key points the author hit on was how persecution is a natural product of the Christian faith; Jesus calls us into obedience to Him above all else, which is what creates such tension with the world. During the last political election, I kept hearing more conservative friends say that Christians were going to be persecuted if Hillary won the election (and even now, I hear similar arguments about Sanders and other democratic nominees). And yet I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Is that really such a bad thing for the church?” While we shouldn’t seek out persecution, when it does come how are we going to respond to it? The shock that the Christian faith isn’t meant to be relegated to the comfort and safety of our pews is going to be wake up call one day.

        • Jer Swigart says:

          You’ve hit on something really profound here, Dylan. It seems that once upon a time, the movement that was identified as the Way of Jesus thrived through persecution. It seemed inevitable that if you pledged your allegiance to Jesus rather than the Empire, life would be hard. Yet there was something of the environment of persecution that grew the movement. Now, it seems that we will avoid persecution at all costs…which involves killing those whom we think may threaten to persecute us…which requires that we put down the cross and pick up the sword. I’ll offer this with some trepidation: a persecution-avoiding-through-violence-and-worship-of safety Christianity seems to be an illegitmate one.

  3. Darcy Hansen says:

    The evolution of your relationship with this school is beautiful. For such a time as this… Keep rattling the cages of bondage, in the most generous and gracious way, of course. I so appreciate your ending suggestions. You are definitely a spiritual director at heart:)

    Safety is an illusion. When we get out of our bubbles, we begin to realize that more and more. I think it’s especially true with our theologies. As you’ve proven in your immersion experiences, the structures we’ve existed in begin to fall. The foundation is still solid, but the constructs need to come down and be replaced with different ones. It all begins with an invitation, and a yes to that invitation. I have a friend that says, “Ministry happens at the speed of friendship.” May those friendships continue to be forged within your context and beyond.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Safety is an illusion. Yes. And, as I mentioned in my title, it’s also a seductive idol that demands that we lay down faithfulness to a cross-wearing God in order to worship her. It makes me wonder how we’ve come to an understanding of a God who, in any way, prioritizes our safety. As I mention in my thread with Dylan, we’ve had to construct a God that is different than the one we see in Jesus in order to believe that safety is important.

      As an aside, I’d love to get your take on the connection between our worship of safety and fear of death.

      • Darcy Hansen says:

        The worship of safety and fear of death are intricately linked, both in culture and in our Christian contexts. We try so hard to prevent death, pain, or suffering from happening, to keep our kids safe, to medically treat everything even when it’s beyond treatment. We cling to every last illusion but at the end of the day, we are human and death will take us all. Fear is the driver. I believe satan uses it to distract us from being fully human as Jesus was human, and in doing so, we think we can manage all situations and circumstances in our favor. Pain and suffering is avoidable, to a point, in our modern world, so why not avoid it, even to death. I’m not against medicine or pain intervention measures, but I am very concerned about our motivations driving cultural behaviors. An interesting thing I’ve learned is since our language around death is so anemic, our perception of the reality is as well. If there’s no language around an issue, then the issue doesn’t really exist. This feeds our perspective that we actually won’t die (there is psychological evidence this is true). We say we believe scripture, but we actually don’t, because to believe we can live life counter to that of Jesus, who lived a life of suffering and service and submission to God’s will, is so counter cultural to our western mindset and experience (I’ve seen you mention this in some of your posts regarding justice issues, too). So we build the idols. Is there hope? Absolutely, but we have to carry the cross, not just tip toe around it to get to the empty tomb.

        • Jer Swigart says:

          “…we think we can manage all situations and circumstances in our favor.” Woah. That’s a provocative perspective with some deep resonance in me. One that seems to be fueled by fear, safety, and privilege. Thanks for thoughts on this.

  4. John McLarty says:

    I’ve been fascinated over the past couple of weeks to dig deeper into our triggers, intuition, irrationality, and such and how they drive us. Your story was spot on- both for how to slowly bring people along and for how easily we get hooked when we feel our beliefs and values are being threatened. I’m a big fan of Babylon Bee, but man, there are folks in my church and community who get really bent out of shape by satire and other forms of truth-telling. And while I appreciated the book’s concern for my kids’ generation, I see this playing out across the age-spectrum. It’s not just young people who have become fragile, it’s all of us.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      John, I agree. It leaves me wondering at the connections between our rigid theologies and statements of belief and such and the fragility that we see in white American Christians of all ages. What I mean is, I’m beginning to see the belief system of White American Evangelicalism as a very fragile house of cards. Many have been trained to protect that house of cards (some to the point of death). Protection, defensiveness, etc. have become our posture and practice over the interrogation of what we think we believe. If we don’t have the courage to interrogate it ourselves, we’re certainly not going to allow anyone else to interrogate it. Thus, the defensiveness grows, as does our fragility. Meanwhile, the house of cards (built mostly by dead white ethnocentric European dudes) probably needs to be toppled.

      What if we actually let the cards fall? Perhaps if we did, faith would replace certainty and we’d find life in the movement once again.

      • John McLarty says:

        Definitely will have to start from the inside out. Perhaps some of the dominos have already started to fall as high-profile leaders are confronted with the reality of accountability. Maybe the next step will be a harder look at how we’ve enjoyed unchecked power and our need to humbly repent and reclaim what it means to really follow Jesus.

        • Jer Swigart says:

          “Inside out” as in pastors first, then congregations or as in within the souls of the people and then the church? Perhaps both.

          I just don’t see high platform, white powerful men willingly laying down, much less questioning, anything that benefits them. Thus, I wonder if the power that they could lay down will have to be wrested from their clenched fists. Perhaps the movement that is necessary is that of a whole bunch of not-so-platformed white leaders doing the work to interrogate & renovate (alongside non-white colleagues) white-centered theology, white-centered preaching, white-centered discipleship, & white-centered mission.

  5. Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, as to your comment on my post and your insights here, I have very, very little exposure to undergraduates on Christian universities. I just finished an academic history on Cru, and Cru as an organization has tried to retain its theological conservatism (for good and bad) while maintaining an active engagement with culture and the campus. Experience ranges across the country, where some students joke about “majoring in Cru,” while others have a more robust view of living counter culturally. Brother, your question of “how White American Evangelical theology is contributing to a dangerous intellectual fragility that is accelerating xenophobia and racism within the movement” is worthy of time, thought, and commitment.

  6. Chris Pollock says:

    Safety sells.

    What do you think about Michael Corleone’s encouragement (reflecting on the embarkation into enemy territory), ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer’?

    This is a very unsafe thought. I remember my dad encouraging me like this when I was a kid. I just didn’t get it. And, Judas was so close with Jesus, that it was with a kiss that his betrayal was exacted.

    Perhaps, we can learn from our enemies? I wonder if we can even be honest enough with our enemies, to call it what it is and, to talk about that engagement. What vulnerability!

    There’s a new education that, it seems, we need to break into, explore, expose. That which takes courage to explore the uncomfortable, unthinkable, other side of the boundary-line. Thanks for standing and encouraging the school into being a ‘incubator of a restorative revolution’ through sweet opportunity and perspective of Global Immersion. So cool!

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