“Until today, I had never heard a white man admit that he did not know everything-- that he did not have a solution to every problem he thinks I have.”
These were the words of a local church leader from Busia, Uganda, who had just attended a summit on entrepreneurship, sustainable development, and healthy cross-cultural engagement being carried out by researchers and graduate students in the field of International Community Development.
His remarks were concise, but they pierced the deepest part of my being -- not because his words were unfathomable, but because they so succinctly encompassed the long journey of unlearning that I had been on for years. I could see deeply the painful reality of their truth and could not turn away from my place within it.
In one swift statement, his words shot straight at what may just be both the most foundational and the most broken aspect of the International Missions schema as a whole -- as it is today and as it has been since its beginning.
Missional engagement, especially that which has been done outside of domestic borders, has been dominated by white people of affluence and has worked to secure their dominance over the people they are claiming to help.
The phenomenon is commonly referred to as ‘White Saviorism’ and its presence is unavoidable with any honest look into cross-cultural missiology as it has been understood and applied for centuries.
White Saviorism is the complex that has developed and thrived by creating a dichotomy where people of affluence and power (which has been historically white populations) exploit and disempower populations that they perceive and portray as being inherently inferior and in need of ‘saving.’
White saviorism serves to depict people of affluence as heroes for their devotion and care towards these ‘lesser people,’ though this viewpoint is implicitly (and absolutely) flawed and their efforts have resulted in great levels of destruction.
The complex of the white savior can only exist alongside dehumanization and a deeply ingrained belief of the individual's superiority over those they are ‘helping.’ Today, white saviorism can often easily be spotted in images and language shared on social media, where small brown bodies are used as props and individual's most vulnerable stories of their deepest hurts and traumas are exploited for the sake of the white savior gaining attention, looking impressive, and raising funds.
However, white saviorism was not born in the age of social media and the manipulation of the narrative of populations that have been made vulnerable as a result of the influence of nations with greater power is not new.
This dynamic can be traced directly back to the time of colonization, where, for the sake of attaining and securing power throughout the globe, nations seeking wealth, prosperity, and ultimate domination would obliterate entire communities of people and claim that was ultimately for their best interest. These nations would often simultaneously claim the work and mission of the Kingdom of Christ.
This may not be the full extent of how white saviorism plays out today, but the physical, emotional, psychological, and generational past lingers closer, and is more intact, than anyone would like to admit.
White saviorism is not limited only to Christian cross-cultural engagement and it is not a term that is limited only to white people, either. However, the truth that cannot be ignored is that this complex IS present within the standard model of American Christian missions, and the majority of participants in this model are white individuals.
According to data presented by Christianity Today, less than 1% of American missionaries are Black and the percentages represented by other minority groups are even smaller.
This reality is multi-faceted and complex to unpack. Is this reality a result of BIPOC communities being more heavily centered on serving and engaging with those around them? Is it a byproduct of generational wealth that allows a higher percentage of white populations to have the financial ability to participate in efforts such as these? Is it because of a justified level of discomfort felt around this model that has continued to serve, empower, and worship whiteness? Is it because the image of the white savior is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of American Missions that People of Color have no place and want no part?
These are complex questions to consider, but it is imperative we do so.
It is of equal importance to be willing to do the work of understanding how to move forward from this broken and distorted misrepresentation of the Kingdom of God.
Here are some questions we want to leave you with today for thoughtful consideration:
In what ways has my engagement with others cross-culturally been motivated by the underlying belief that their humanity is inferior to my own, whether consciously recognized or not?
Where have I made the assumption that I know best what another person’s problems are and that my solutions--what I think is right or good--is actually what is best for them? Where have I missed the opportunity to listen and to learn?
Where do I need to be willing to admit that I do not have all the answers without that admittance exempting me from engaging in life-giving, gospel-oriented relationships with others from contexts and cultures that differ from my own?
How have I cared more about the image of myself that is portrayed through my serving than I have about the hearts, lives, and well-being of those I have the opportunity to live in communion with?
What do I actually believe is my ultimate responsibility to God in the ways that I uphold relationships with those His heart is most deeply for?
How do I humbly and sacrificially show up and play a role in the multi-ethnic family of God that has never been about securing the position of the rich and powerful, but instead has always been about justice, providence, and empowerment of those the world has mistakenly made out to be the lowest and least?
May we be active participants in living out the counter-cultural gospel of Jesus Christ -- the dark skinned renegade from the margins of society who intentionally sought no earthly power or affluence, but devoted his life to relationship, communion, and unity with those disregarded by the religious elite.
May we be those who are committed to the long, challenging, uncomfortable work of not just actively learning, but also -- and perhaps more importantly -- unlearning where necessary.
May we be honest with the brokenness that is true and the role we have played within it -- through our action and our complicity.
May we be humble stewards of the Kingdom of God that is available to us and through us, throughout the earth, wherever we are, today.