Safeguarding – if it’s God’s business, it’s all our business
Here is the text of a talk I gave at an event to celebrate the roles of our parish safeguarding co-ordinators.
‘God is our strength and refuge, our very present help in time of trouble’. That’s how Psalm 46 starts and it was those words that first sprang into my mind when I was thinking what to say today as we think about safeguarding – and indeed as we think, as we must, about abuse. Today, I want to thank you so much for caring about this issue. It is just so important, and I’m really grateful to you. I hope in particular, today, I can help you see just why safeguarding is really important from God’s perspective: from the perspective of our God who is, as Psalm 46 says, ‘our strength and refuge, our very present help in time of trouble’.
I started my thinking with those words from Psalm 46, and then I began to think where else God reveals himself in the Bible as one who cares for the vulnerable; who provides safety and security and stands against domination, exploitation and abuse. What, I wondered, is the earliest example of God standing for that in the Bible? I wonder if you’d like to suggest what that earliest example is…
It’s a really tender moment when God makes clothes for Adam and Eve and covers their shame. Someone once told me that fig leaves are actually an irritant to the skin, so fundamentally not a good clothing material. And if that’s right it just adds a further poignancy and tenderness to what God does here, in clothing his shamed children.
And actually what God is dealing with here is an abusive situation, and he’s intervening to mitigate the effects of the abuse. He is, in other words, acting as Adam and Eve’s safeguarder. I think you can argue very fairly that the serpent’s seduction of Adam and Eve (and I use the word ‘seduction’ quite deliberately) is an example of abuse. Here are just a couple of ways in which what the serpent does falls into the category of abuse.
First of all, he twists reality to suit his own ends. He creates a new, fake version of reality to suit his own ends. ‘Did God really say…?’ he asks. In fact what he suggests God had said he never actually said at all. God did not ban Adam and Eve from eating all fruit, just one fruit. But the serpent is rewriting reality to suit his own ends: and that is just what abusers so often do. Just like so many abusers he portrays as good and positive and beneficial something that is really very bad indeed.
Second, his motivation is entirely selfish. He seems to be promoting Adam and Eve’s welfare, promising them a better life – again, as abusers so often do – but he is actually serving no-one’s agenda other than his own. He exercises coercive control over Adam and Eve to suit no-one but himself. He is entirely self-interested and self-serving. And like so many abusers he has no interest at all in the welfare of those he abuses. In fact he despises them.
And thirdly the result of his abuse is shame. Adam and Eve came to know that they were naked, and were ashamed of it. And so many who are abused feel the most appalling guilt and shame when they are in fact simply the victims of others’ abusive behaviour. And that is truly tragic.
I wouldn’t want to push the analogy too far: God clearly holds Adam and Eve culpable along with the serpent, for what happens, so the parallel only holds up to a limited degree. But nonetheless there are parallels. And I think a key parallel we can draw is how God himself responds to this situation and the way we ourselves are to respond, as those who have specific responsibility for safeguarding.
Here God deals very tenderly with Adam’s and Eve’s shame by making them clothes to cover them. In fact one of the serpent’s lies turned out to be truth – not that he knew it would. He had said to them that, despite what God has said: ‘You will not die.’ Probably he thought God would keep his word and would kill them – that’s the situation he’s lured them into, after all. But God doesn’t kill them. He spares them. Why does he do that? He spares them because in the end his mercy triumphs over wrath. His mercy, you might say, gets the better of him, and he spares them. He spares them simply because it’s in his very nature to do so, to be merciful. It’s in his very nature to care for them and to protect them. It’s in his very nature, in other words, to safeguard them.
And all through the pages of the Old Testament you can see this tendency of God to safeguard his people. He leads Abraham to a good land and promises him many descendants. All through the twists and turns of Joseph’s life he sticks by him and his faithful to him. He rescues his people from slavery through the waters of the Red Sea in the Exodus. He sends his people judges, prophets, priests and kings to protect and guide his people. He brings them home from exile. And no doubt you can think of many other ways in which he safeguards and protects his people.
Our God is a safeguarding God: he is a defender and protector throughout scripture: he wants the very best for all his people and for all of his creation. ‘A Father to the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families. He leads forth prisoners with singing, but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land,’ says Psalm 68. Our God is a safeguarding God: he wants the very best for all his people and for all of his creation.
And that brings us straight to the pages of the New Testament. The good news of Jesus Christ is about human flourishing in its deepest sense. ‘I have come that they may have life: life in all its fulness,’ says Jesus. The good news of Jesus Christ is about human flourishing in its deepest sense: and it is that which God has enabled and made possible for us at the greatest cost to himself, through the death of his Son upon the cross, where he defeated all the powers of evil and darkness, the serpent included.
The good news of Jesus Christ is about human flourishing in its deepest sense: and it matters so much to God that human beings should flourish that he sent Jesus to die for us. Now abuse in all its forms at its heart denies people that opportunity to flourish. It robs them of that right. Abuse is therefore a fundamental denial of the gospel, and a fundamental denial of all that God desires and purposes for us: which is why our God is so implacably opposed to it. And his judgment falls on abuse no less severely today than when it fell upon the snake.
Abuse of any kind is antithetical to the gospel. It is not only incompatible with the good news of Jesus Christ; even more than that, it is an outright denial of it. If the gospel is about the free, open and uncoerced entry of human beings into fullness of life in Christ, abuse is its direct opposite: its currency is secrecy and coercion and it is fundamentally life-denying. It cannot therefore be tolerated in any form.
Safeguarding – abuse on the one hand and human flourishing on the other – are matters of the deepest concern to God. So they must be of the deepest concern to us. You can say that these are matters of core business for God – so they must be matters of core business for us too.
I realise this has been a real challenge to the church in recent years, and it has involved real culture change, but we must just never think that safeguarding is some kind of bolt-on extra to the church’s ministry. This is core business. If the gospel is about human flourishing, and abuse is a denial of that flourishing, then we can never say safeguarding is a sidebar issue. It’s core business.
And if it’s core business then it’s all our business; if it’s God’s business it’s all our business. It’s not just a matter for safeguarding co-ordinators. You have a specific role but it’s an issue for the whole church to take seriously. And while your PCC and vicar may delegate responsibility to you, they can never abrogate that responsibility. And if ever you feel they are trying to, tell them I said not to. Safeguarding is all our business. It’s core to our business because it’s core to our God.
And for me, too, I want to say, it’s personal: the bishop has a particular charge laid upon him or her – ‘to serve and care for the flock of Christ’. And as chief pastor of the whole diocese, I take that prime responsibility very seriously.
Our God is our ultimate role model in providing care, protection and support, and in binding up the broken-hearted and caring for their wounds. So none of this is optional – not safer recruitment, or proper risk assessments or careful implementation of policies or prompt reporting of any concerns. None of this is optional: ultimately it’s not because safeguarding matters to our God who is our refuge and strength and a very present help in time of trouble.
So we must make this our new normal – because in the deepest, theological and spiritual sense this IS normal. It is normal – or it should be – that we reflect in the way we think and behave what at heart matters to our God. That is the true Christian normal: to reflect his mind and his heart in who we are and in what we do.
And remember that at heart we are partnering with our God not on only in preventing abuse. More than that, in preventing abuse we are enabling and allowing the deepest and most wonderful human flourishing possible, through the ministry of the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. And absolutely nothing could possibly be better than that.