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White Savior Complex and Free Will in Missions

No one would consider me woke. I’m so busy with my work, being a Mom, and trying to keep up with life, that lots of new fads and technology seem to pass me by. I’ve never had an affinity for technology, likely due to be raised on a missionary compound with little access to it, and to my "old soul" personality.

I DO read a lot, but that doesn’t keep pace with our modern world. I’ve accepted that every other family member holds out their palm for the TV remote because I take too long and make too many mistakes getting to the desired end. This past week I tried to play some video games because I knew it would mean a lot to my family who really enjoys them. I drove rally cars, straight into the bystanders and trees. I wiped out epically and repeatedly in the new Tony Hawk skate game to my children’s great delight. Par for the course.

SO, I shouldn’t be surprised that I'd never heard of the White Savior Complex ‘til this last year. But, I am super annoyed because it deals with everything that I’m interested in…cross-cultural relations, politics, and religion. I stumbled across a podcast called Failed Missionary and was delighted and surprised to hear former missionaries conversing about many problem areas in missions…the types of things I think about but have never heard others discuss so candidly!

Then came the series of episodes on the White Savior complex. One of the individuals interviewed on the podcast is also a BIOLA University alum. He discussed the treatment and experiences he had at the mostly white, Evangelical university in Southern California, including the massive white Jesus mural painted on the Science building.

I’d never really considered the impact of this mural on non-white students and visitors to campus. This Ugandan student minced no words regarding how he and other minority students felt about it. What I DID relate to was the discussion about white, often Evangelical, missionary or development workers, going to foreign countries to preach the Gospel or “help” impoverished communities, and the many harmful actions and messages they convey…resulting in long-term problems such as dependency, unemployment, attachment issues for the children visited at orphanages, and so much more.

Ironically, I’d already written about this very issue while working on my (yet to be published) book. I’d titled the section Western Imperialism and Pride. Yeah, White Savior Complex sounds much better!

I intuitively understood the concept because I’d observed it growing up, without knowing this is something about which many others have studied and written. The conflation of American or Western values with Christianity is often overlooked. Many missionaries and agencies literally believe that individuals in other countries are not true Christians unless they live and practice their faith as taught in the West. This is greatly offensive to Christian communities in the Middle East whose churches were founded by the 12 disciples and who have practiced Christianity far longer than Western Europeans. You may think this sounds outlandish, but why else would American churches and mission agencies insist on spending huge amounts of money on training Westerners to go and set up churches in foreign countries, ostensibly handing over control to the indigenous leaders once they have proven that they will teach and practice the faith according to those Western beliefs and standards, instead of funding and encouraging local Christians to “reach their own?” During my time in Panama, I observed a lot of racism and pride amongst missionaries who, while declaring a love and desire to serve, still considered themselves better equipped to guide and make decisions for those they were trying to save. I remember with great clarity the many denigrating aspersions cast on Panamanians and indigenous peoples due to their cultural beliefs and practices. I believe a fair number of missionaries truly are racists, believing themselves superior to those they are “evangelizing.

So, what do these believers consider salvation? The primary form of salvation as taught by NTM and many similar Evangelical groups is that an individual must say a prayer, acknowledging their sinfulness and inability to attain salvation without accepting the forgiveness and Christ’s FREE sacrifice, acknowledging that there is nothing they can DO to attain salvation aside from accepting Christ’s free gift. All individuals who have not accepted Jesus as their personal savior and trusted in Him for the forgiveness of their sins, are condemned to hell. In the NTM view, once a person is saved, they are always saved…meaning there is no way to lose one’s salvation.

Individuals who subscribe to this theology will do whatever they deem necessary to share the Gospel with unreached groups so that they can be saved and not go to hell. Those who subscribe to this theology often hold themselves and their fellow “believers” accountable to either pray, fund, or go to reach these remote groups with the Gospel. I was taught a literal belief in hell as a place of fire and brimstone, eternal damnation, and suffering, for those who did not “get saved.”

Now you may be asking yourself, why do these people believe God would eternally punish and send people to hell who had never heard the Gospel (as preached by Evangelical missionaries) and converted? That seems cruel and unfair. No worries, we were taught to counter this argument that God has made Himself known to all, even through nature. NO ONE has an excuse to not “get saved” by this definition, but many more will understand the Gospel and more readily accept it if we only go into all the world to tell them.

I recall a specific Intercultural Studies class at BIOLA University that addressed this issue.

We were directed to verses such as Romans 1:20 - NASB

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

We examined parts of the Psalms that acknowledge God as creator and the one to be worshiped, furthering this idea that individuals who did not have our view of salvation would be condemned to hell.

My take- away was that this one-time event, the moment of conversion was referred to as justification, when our sin is merely "covered", and righteousness imputed. This is possible because Christ was perfect and when he sacrificed himself on the cross, his righteousness was enough to cleanse all the rest of us sinners and impute salvation. Justification was the first step, to be followed by sanctification. Sanctification was the ongoing process by which we were to obey Christ’s teachings and become more like him.

I’m no theologian and do not attempt to espouse a completely new missiology. Rather, I will start from a place with which all Christian groups agree, the need to participate in the Great Commission.

Whether you are Orthodox, Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Charismatic, or anything in between, these churches universally affirm the need to participate in the Great Commission which was Christ’s final command to his disciples before returning to heaven after he was crucified, resurrected, and bearing witness to himself amongst his disciples. If you are not familiar with this teaching, here is the passage from the New Testament.

Matthew 28: 16-20 – NSAB - The Great Commission

But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you [f]always, even to the end of the age.

The way in which Christians have sought to fulfill this last commandment of Christ is varied and fraught with pride, violence, and erroneous teachings. Think about theological wars between Catholics and Protestants, the Catholic inquisition, the crusades which utilized military force to fulfill the commission, Puritan witch hunts in New England and the current conflation of Evangelical and Republican “values based” advocacy.

NTM MK’s were raised to praise and emulate the story of Jim Elliot and his four companion missionaries who attempted to evangelize the Huaorani (sometimes referred to as Auca) which is the Quichia word for “savage” people of Ecuador. On January 8, 1956, while attempting to make contact with the unreached Auca’s, Jim and his four other companion missionaries were killed by Auca warriors. They were lauded as modern - day martyrs, willing to live out Luke 9:24

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. Elliott reportedly followed this verse in his journal with, “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Elliot left behind a new wife and daughter who was not quite 1 year old. Jim’s wife, Elizabeth Elliott, is extolled for returning to evangelize the Auca successfully after her husband’s death. This raises many questions for me. Is it selfish or even moral for a person planning to engage in a dangerous missionary enterprise to marry and conceive children while knowing full-well that he may die in this effort, and abandon them?

In this world view, missionaries should sacrifice everything to fulfill the Great Commission. Those who sacrifice the most are considered the most deeply spiritual. This missionary belief is not relegated to the 1950’s. We have a recent example in “would- be- missionary” John Allen Chau who was recently killed while trying to forcibly contact a remote Indian tribe in North Sentinel. While Chau certainly wasn’t white, he was educated at an extremely conservative Christian University (Oral Roberts), and joined a US mission’s agency, All Nations, based out of Kansas City, MO. The influence of primarily white, Evangelical missions is clear in his writing and actions. One of his last journal entries said, “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”

According to an article by the Washington Post:

Chau spent years planning and training to travel illegally to remote North Sentinel Island on a mission to convert its residents to Christianity, including learning emergency medicine, and studying linguistics and cultural anthropology, his missionary group said. Though he knew the islanders had long violently resisted outsiders, he conducted a covert mission to the protected island this month. Police said that shortly after he arrived at the island this month, the tribe killed him. Indian authorities say they have yet to recover the body.

The death of the 26-year-old missionary from Washington state — who broke a raft of laws and put the health of the indigenous people at risk — has sparked international outrage, a heated debate about the protection of tribal communities and at least two investigations by authorities in India. It also has prompted soul-searching in the U.S. evangelical community, which has been debating whether Chau was a martyr, a fool or was afflicted by a messiah complex.” ~ The Washington Post

Within this worldview, the indigenous individuals and their beliefs do not matter, much less are respected. Why? Because the missionaries, believing they have the truth of salvation, have decided that their “truth” and beliefs trump the free will of the indigenous people they decide to reach. As with the North Sentinelese peoples who knew they were at great risk from foreign viruses, Chau decided that his mission of evangelizing them outweighed the very real threat of him bringing about their physical death through disease. Chau is no martyr, but rather a perfect example of an Evangelical with the White Savior complex.

This type of missiology strikes me as simplistic. Individuals are to have "free will," to choose whether or not they want to become Christians. But, Evangelicals override people's free will by trying to force them to hear their Gospel such as in cases of Eliott and Chau. Even if missionaries get permission from a tribal group to move in, they are still operating from a wildly unbalanced position of power, in areas such as nationality, race, education, and resources. If tribal leaders accept missionaries, it could very well be for these material benefits, and much like the child who "gets saved" to avoid hell, indigenous peoples may convert for the socio-economic benefits. In countries where national governments provide few resources to these indigenous groups, missionaries can easily play the role of white saviors. It's high time Evangelicals re-evaluate their mission models and engage long-term, independent research to evaluate the impact of their interventions.


Photo Credit: Scriptorium Daily

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