Mis-speaking seems to be almost as endemic in Western society as the COVID virus. Retractions, corrections, additional information and apologies [both abject and ambivalent] are common occurrences in the public sphere. One form of mis-speaking that rarely gets emended is incorrect use of the English language. One misuse in particular has drawn my attention, reflection and irritation.
I first recall this particular error back in the 1980s. Various authorities starting using the expression “safe sex” in the struggle to overcome HIV/AIDS. The correct phrase would have been “safer sex”, but I guess “safe” had a sexier sound than Safer. Regardless, the improper use of the phrase left the false impression that practices such as condom use would eliminate the spread of STDs or prevent pregnancies. “Safe(r) sex” would reduce the risk, yes, but eliminate it, no!
Of course, for months now the same word has been similarly misused with respect to COVID as in “We are imposing these measures – to make you safe, to make our schools safe, to make society safe.”
The correct word would be safer. And again, the improper use has left the false, and to my mind dangerous, impression that there are measures that can keep you and your loved ones uninfected (though definitely not unaffected).
I then began to consider why this particular improper use of words was churning away inside me. I think in the 1980s I felt the misspeaking might encourage some to pursue behaviours that would prove to be harmful, whether or not pregnancy or STDs resulted. Today, I’m more stirred up by the false worldview advocated by the misuse.
Our world and our life in it have never been safe [at least since the Fall]. Accidents, disease, natural calamities and human arrogance have made life on earth risky, even in the best of times. Therefore, a safe existence this side of eternity is not possible. Leaders who promote “a life without risk” are offering false hope. Speaking falsely in an emergency is very dangerous.
For the follower of Jesus, it is also an idolatrous temptation. The symbol of our faith has nothing to do with a safe life; rather it is all about the risky life of personal sacrifice. If the cross doesn’t convince you, read Paul’s testimony in 2 Corinthians 11:24-28. So, this chafing with the misuse of safe is, I believe, at least in part, a spiritual reaction.
Safe and safety occur 32 times in the Bible. Two meanings dominate. One affirms God’s reliability – it is safe to trust in God. The other recognizes our need for deliverance [restore me to safety] as we live the risky life of faith in a world that has many threats and dangers and is generally hostile to the one seeking to live for God’s glory. Safe, even safer, has seductive appeal. However, neither is a priority for faithful living. Foolish risking is not faithfulness, but faithful living embraces risk in obedience to the leading of God’s Spirit.