Should Faith Communities Use Trigger Warnings?

A growing number of college campuses are considering including “trigger warnings” on literature and writing that students may find upsetting due to past trauma. The Great Gatsby, for example, may come with warnings for students affected by misogynistic violence. Advocates of trigger warnings claim that they make classrooms safe and healthy learning environments for rape survivors, victims of abuse, veterans, and other people who have been exposed to trauma. Others claim that such warnings restrict academic freedom and may even be contributing to “a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense.”

But what about scripture used in faith communities? Within my own tradition, there is a wealth of material worthy of such warnings. The rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13), the destruction of Jericho (Joshua 6:17), the desire for revenge killings (Psalm 137), and the execution of John the Baptist (Matthew 14), among numerous other texts, might qualify for trigger warnings for sexual violence, colonialism, political oppression, patriarchy, or anti-Semitism. Should our bulletins and curriculums come with trigger warnings?

There are many reasons why trigger warnings are useful, if not outright necessary, within faith communities. First, faith communities strive to be inclusive in ways that go beyond the demands of a traditional academic classroom. If the church, by its own nature, is open to all people, its education, worship, and programming also needs to be welcoming and inviting. That welcome goes beyond “you can be here” to “this space is designed for you.” In the same way that our buildings have been adapted for people of varying abilities, our curriculum, teaching, and worship need to be constructed in ways that allow for the participation of all people.

Second, the inclusion of such warnings helps the church take the needs of all people seriously. Many trigger warnings come from groups or demographics that have often been excluded from the life of the church. The communities affected by colonialism and sexual violence, for example, have also too often been excluded from full sacramental inclusion. Acknowledging trauma is a necessary (but not sufficient) step towards inclusion and reconciliation. If everyone is invited to the table, we need to make sure everyone is given a place to sit.

Third, you don’t know everyone’s story. While congregational research and surveys may give the impression of comprehensive knowledge, our lives are far more complex than checked boxes allow for. There are abuses that go unnoticed and trauma that is carried in silence. Moreover, trans-generational trauma makes such sensitivity even more necessary, as trauma is passed through family histories. Trauma is never truly “over,” even though years or generations may have gone by. Moreover, faith communities should strive to create an environment that is welcoming not only to the people inside, but outside as well. We need to be aware not only of the traumas carried within our own community but also of those who might one day join our community.

Though trigger warnings are a necessary step in creating a welcoming, supportive environment, they can also be problematic if they are misused. Hopefully, trigger warnings could be helpful in approaching problematic or frightening texts in ways that are pastoral, supportive, and give the reader a sense of agency in their study. But we should not allow such warnings to cordon off such texts from our own critical examination and analysis. Even if we could take such texts out of our canon, we can’t remove the damage their misappropriation has done. The presence of such texts should serve as a humbling reminder of the shortcomings and failures of our own tradition. Just as we need to take the presence of such texts seriously, we must also address their effect on our own history.

Trigger warnings can be an effective way of building a more welcoming and inclusive faith community. But they are only a step in writing a history for ourselves free of warnings for trauma and exclusion.


Photo credit: flickr user Mark Stumme

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