“Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
This is just one of the many bible verses in which Christians are instructed to serve the poor in order to receive blessings from God. Many in that religious tradition take these messages to heart. Thousands of Christian individuals and organizations worldwide do fantastic work for the community—and do it because they genuinely care. However, there is a harsher reality at play, as well. When it comes to some Christians’ drive to serve others, it transforms to a tenet to “save” others.
This kind of individual is commonly referred to as a white savior. According to the Urban Dictionary, a white savior refers to Western peoples going in to fix the imagined problems projected onto “struggling nations or people of color without understanding the history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs.” An individual with a so-called white-savior complex can detrimentally affect the community that they are serving.
Religious organizations have been working to “save” the developing world since the dawn of religion. However, some Christians often do not understand their actual impact on a community because they fail to include voices from those communities, and end up unilaterally deciding what is best for said community from an outsider’s perspective. This is one of the consequences the white-savior complex has on the developing world. Unfortunately, this is prevalent at almost every level of many religious organizations, both locally and internationally.
One such example of the white-savior complex would be the organization Operation Christmas Child—which continuously does not consider its impact on the community. Furthermore, as The Washington Post puts it, the organization continuously fails to recognize that the “real problem of poverty is a problem of access and opportunity, not stuff.”
Another example are religious organizations that allow individual sponsorship of a child. Sponsorship might seem like a good way to give back, but this type of sponsorship can lead to cultural confusion and increased tension in the child’s family, among other detrimental effects.
Furthermore, some individual Christan missionaries go into a community knowing nothing about the people. Instead of learning about the culture that they are trying to serve, they choose to remain ignorant and close-minded to learning more. This leads to missionaries under-serving the community, since cultural context really matters in fostering relationships and healing.
Another detrimental effect of the white-savior complex is how it makes the savior the hero of someone else’s story, instead of allowing them to be their own hero. An example of this is the Christian adoption movement.
In 2007, Christianity decided to have a rebranding moment and move away from purity culture to instead start encouraging the adoption of children from developing countries. The hope was that they could identify as child advocates claiming the moral high ground, and establish themselves as the saviors they believed they were.
Sadly, this movement went from an admirable mission to child kidnapping shockingly fast when it was discovered that many of the orphans adopted from developing countries actually had living parents—some of whom desperately wanted their children back. Of course, this example is extreme, but the belief that these children’s souls would be saved and the children would be better cared for halfway around the world with complete strangers is a direct result of the aforementioned white-savior complex at play.
So why is this happening? One could blame ignorance, stating that Christians were and are unaware of the detrimental effects of their actions. But ignorance can only be blamed to a point. One has to accept some blame when research and information become available and are willfully ignored.
Another factor that must be considered is the religious context from which the white savior is often born. Christianity can be seen as a rewards-based system on a good day—and a fear-based system on a bad one. Do good deeds, and you will be rewarded in an afterlife—or put another way, do good deeds and you will not spend eternity being tortured in hell. Both of these elements lead to what can be labelled Gold Star Christianity. Instead of considering what is actually good for others, Gold Star Christianity is when supposedly Christian people only do good deeds to keep up appearances.
Gold Star Christianity works hand-in-hand with the concept of the white savior because the focus of both is not on impact, but rather on being noticed for your actions. While the white savior explains what the individual is doing, Gold Star Christianity acts as the foundation for the motivation—one instills a willful ignorance and condescending power differential between the saved and the savior, while the other allows people to get points without understanding the ramifications of their actions.
If an individual is able to say they sent $20 to a child in need in Africa each month, or even dubiously adopted an orphan from China, they can claim to be a good person. However, this exposes a fundamental issue with systems based upon fear and motivated by rewards. Without accountability, one learns to care more about their status and less about the actions that hurt people along the way.