Social Issues

Law of Kindness: how Christianity affects my ethics

I’m a spiritual abuse survivor, fundamentalist cult survivor, abuse survivor, and rape survivor; I’m part of the LGBT community and, as a feminist, have experienced harassment, rape and death threats. Because I don’t have access to a decent therapist I’ve found myself dealing with all of that trauma primarily through online support groups. Over the past three years I’ve faded in and out of a variety of groups with a multiplicity of purposes, mission statements, and moderation styles.

Many of these support groups adopt the stance of being a “safe space,” a doctrine I almost always appreciate. I have to deal with biphobia, misogyny, and ignorant-though-well-meaning people who victim blame me almost everywhere I go, so it’s nice to be able to retreat into a bubble where that doesn’t usually happen and if it does the moderators deal with it so traumatized people don’t have to. I also take a firm stance in moderating my comment section here. Slurs , threats, or doxxing isn’t allowed, and if you don’t argue in good faith you’re going to be banned fairly quickly.

However, here and and in every other “safe space” I’ve inhabited, a question is inevitably raised: what does it mean to be a safe space? Each group defines their boundaries differently, and what I’ve seen happen is frequently not every member is going to be happy with those boundaries: either they’ll find them too constraining or not protective enough. For example, if I see someone comment on an article about a teacher sexually abusing over a hundred students with “that must be one incredibly promiscuous school” what should the standard of a purportedly “safe space” be?

Over the last year, though, I’ve been a part of a number of discussions about what constitutes a safe space, especially when the group in question has quite a cross-section of trauma survivors and individuals with different needs, such as being neurodivergent and/or mentally ill. Many of those conversations centered around what to do with people who are ignorantly reinforcing cisgender, heterosexist, misogynistic, racist, or allistic frameworks. A few main methods would eventually come out of that conversation:

  1. People who have the wherewithal that day should attempt to educate the individual in good faith using a calm, moderated tone. If the individual persists in bad faith, then more moderation may be required.
  2. Any space that claims to be a “safe space” shouldn’t be moderated at all, because no one should have their voice silenced by anyone. (I’ve seen this one usually appear in groups for spiritual abuse survivors, like The Naked Pastor and Stuff Christian Culture Likes.)
  3. Trauma victims who are a racial, sexual, or nuerodivergent minority should be able to respond in whatever way they deem appropriate. Encouraging oppressed people to be “kind” or “calm” is tone policing and is inherently harmful to liberation and equality.

To a certain extent, and depending on context, each of these arguments appeal to me. If you’ve been around as a commenter for a while, you’ve probably realized I favor approach #1 here: attempt to educate, then ban if necessary. Sometimes, though, I go with option #3, because hell no I will not tolerate someone referring to Syrian people as “rapefugees” and I’m not going to stop to “educate” them. I can understand the philosophy behind approach #2, even though I don’t think it ever works out in practice. #2 does insure that people that I might subconsciously want to ignore get to have their say, too.

However, at some point over the last few months I realized that I agree with approach #1 because I’m a Christian.

I talked about this concept some in my response to the GCN conference, and I’ve been struggling to articulate what I mean. Part of me recognizes the validity of approach #3, and I’ll continue to support people who are “raging against the machine.” I believe in #BlackLivesMatter, and I will continue to support their protests because they are disruptive. Shutting down traffic, disturbing mall shopping, sit-ins and marches and interrupting campaign speeches– all of it. Black men and women are being lynched practically every day by our police force and I would not dare to tell them that they are not responding to their rage and grief “appropriately.”

Or I’ll read “Nice Girls Don’t Birth Revolutions” and feel something inside of me exalting along with Alana Louise May when she says:

People are so conditioned they will die to defend the very system that has been abusing them,

Poisoning them

Plotting their death before their very birth

That shit is sick

That shit is fucked

And no I am not interested in your polite passive aggressive tea room debate

But then, a few days later, I’ll read “Words for Cutting: Why we Need to Stop Abusing ‘The Tone Argument‘” and nod along to Katherine Cross’s words all the way through it and then want everyone I know to read it, too.

I do believe that our involvement in systemic racism and misogyny and everything else needs to be communally repented of, that abusers need to be named, that victims like Nagmeh Abedini should be believed and protected and defended. That we should confront oppression when we see it, ignoring how the mere act of confrontation itself is enough for some to dismiss us as “abusive.”

But, as a Christian, I am personally called to a different way of being. Jesus asks me to put down my sword, to turn the other cheek (which is a radical act peaceful resistance), to embody the fruits of the spirit which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. If being a Christian means acting like Jesus, it means acknowledging that a soft answer turns away wrath, that I should have the law of kindness on my tongue.

There’s a mental separation I have to live with: as a public citizen, as a voter, as a member of interfaith communities and activism movements, I’m not a pacifist. I believe that mandating pacifism on oppressed peoples is another act of violence against them. I think that enforcing standards like “be kind” or “stay calm” or “tolerate ignorant shitheads” onto trauma survivors can re-victimize them all over again. I could not imagine a world where I would ever be kind to the man who raped me, and asking a victim to be “kind” or “loving” to their abuser is akin to sending them to the seventh circle of hell.

But, privately, I do not believe that I could take the life of someone else, even in defense of my own.

So while I do not think these standards– love your enemy, do good to those who hate you— should ever be something that is indiscriminately ordered from the top-down, I am becoming ever more convinced that I, personally and privately, should fully embrace these concepts. I should commit to if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, which I still hear in my mother’s voice.

Jesus confronted those in power. He was direct, and powerful. He boldly proclaimed that some of them were vipers and white-washed tombs with nothing but bones inside. He was forthright with the Woman at the Well. He argued with the Syro-Phonecian Woman (eventually conceding her point). I don’t think that having the law of kindness on my tongue means that I become mealy-mouthed or impotent.

But, if I am to love my neighbor, it must include people I don’t agree with. Who are misogynistic. Who are biphobic. Who say ridiculous, harmful things to me that have me sobbing in my partner’s arms, or that leave me fragile and triggered and shaken. I don’t have to be the one who responds every single time, and if I can’t respond without hatred bubbling in my heart, without the temptation to wound them like they wounded me, then maybe I shouldn’t.

Photo by Michael Coghlan
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  • Beroli

    I think a safe space for some people is inherently and automatically a not-safe space for others.

    So there need to be a lot of different safe spaces, each of which needs to have an answer to the question “whom is this a safe space for?” because the answer will not be, can never be “everybody” for any one of them.

  • Sheila Warner

    I hear you about the collapsing into someone’s arms and sobbing. I’ve been right there. I also choose not to hate. And. I choose to have no further contact with those who endlessly wound me. My problem is that it is my immediate family who does this to me. Choosing the high road comes with risk, as well as confrontation.

  • Jackalope

    I think for me the line is when someone is using language that is in and of itself abusive or threatening, I am against it (possibly also because of my Christian background). For example, in the link you posted arguing against “Abusing the Tone Argument”, an online troll repeatedly posted comments calling for other community members to be raped, beaten, abused, have acid thrown in their faces, and killed. I understand anger about unfair treatment, and while as someone raised as traditionally “nice” I am sometimes uncomfortable with “in your face” activism I can support it and get behind the protesters. On the other hand, if you are being a bully or threatening someone else with bodily harm then that’s out of line no matter what group you belong to. That’s the line I keep coming back to.

  • Nicole Chase

    I like this a LOT. “Everyone should not be made to XYZ, but I am personally called to” is, to me, a profoundly mature ethical statement.

  • I love this.

  • Lucy Moore

    I think that RealSocialSkills’ talk on “personal piety” versus “basic morality” more or less sums up the kind of philosophy you are demonstrating here. RealSocialSkills is a Tumblr blog that describes various social circumstances, often using well-chosen terms she makes up herself, along with advice on how to handle these situations. A lot of this advice has to do with autism and disability rights, but there is also talk of other concepts like the one both she and you discuss.
    The blogwriter for this, Ruti Regan, is Jewish, but I think she has a similar philosophy to you, and like you, she prefers approach #1 in this article.
    A quick Google search of “RealSocialSkills” should let you find her blog, and you can see her writings on “personal piety” by searching that term on her site. Mind you, she is talking about moral philosophy, not religious piety.
    Many of her insights apply to me as a nonreligious person, and I figure that they would apply to Christians too.

    • Ruti Regan

      I think you mean this post:
      http://realsocialskills.org/post/33164141817/social-skill-distinguishing-between-personal

      I actually wrote that with the religious concepts in mind: I’d been thinking about the difference between mitzvah and chumra, and realized that the concept also had secular applications.

      • Lucy Moore

        I did mean that post, along with your other posts on the same topic.

        By the way, I really like your blog and even one of my former therapists (a very kind and delightful lady) thinks it is useful. Keep up the good work.

  • oe_leiderhosen

    This this this this THIS. I feel this so much.

    I’ve had friends encourage me to be less “kind” in my activism, thinking it would be more effective, and I just can’t do it. This is why.

  • Northwoods Dan

    It seems to me that while there is a lot of overlap between love and kindness, they are not synonyms. If I am in a situation where cruelty is expressed toward someone, I think that it is more loving to try to calmly but clearly disagree rather than “kindly” remaining silent while gritting my teeth. Thus, I find love as my best guide for actions toward others. I do quite a clumsy job of employing love but I do think that it is a better guide than kindness. Incidentally, the loving response is almost always the same as the kind response but I try to recognize a distinction.

    I also think that I need to look at my response as both my own inward and an outward action. If I feel hatefulness welling up inside of me, I had better stop and try to reboot. Outwardly, if I am harsh in response to harshness, it seldom changes any hearts or minds. I may feel good with my harshness but that is my immaturity and is not love. At the same time, silence on my part isn’t loving either. It calls for no accountability on the part of the cruel words and utterly fails to support the target of the cruelty.

    Further, I think that I should only judge my own actions. Therefore, I think that method #1 in the post is generally the best option. However, I haven’t walked a mile in anyone else’s shoes so I am very cautious about taking issue with anyone who applies method #3. In short, I think that I need to focus on my own heart and also how my actions impact others. I need to try to do this in love as best as I can.

  • Eleanor Katherine Skelton

    Mmmmmmmmmm yes thank you so much for saying this. You put into words what I’ve been feeling for a while.