The term “white savior” has come into vogue since we have been living in Africa. Because of its offensive nature (to someone who happens to be a white person ministering to black people), I have purposefully avoided learning more about what this term means. However, the mobilizers of our mission agency have told us that people are avoiding going into missions because they do not want to be labeled a “white savior.” Therefore, since this is something keeping people from the field, I will (reluctantly) address it.
What is a “white savior”?
According to Wikipedia…
“The term white savior is a sarcastic or critical description of a white person who is depicted as liberating, rescuing or uplifting non-white people; it is critical in the sense that it describes a pattern in which third world peoples are denied agency and are seen as passive recipients of white benevolence.”
When I read something like this, I understand “white savior” as a criticism against white people assuming their labors for non-whites are just a way to impose their “superior” viewpoints on those whom they perceive as “inferior.” In other words, the white man looks at problems in the third world, believes that his culture/worldview offers a better alternative, then moves to “save” those with the lesser perspective.
Whereas I cannot speak to the motives of every white person working in a third world environment, I can with confidence say that this mentality is not compatible with Christian missions. I propose that the Christian missionary is not a “white savior” for the following reasons.
Missionaries do not preach themselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord
To be fair, missionaries do come with a message of salvation. We do preach that there is a better way both to live and to believe. We do call people to turn away from their religions. We do teach that they are in need of saving and that we know the way that they can be saved. However, the salvation that we preach is not “white.” The rescue that we offer is not “American.” And though we bring the message of salvation, we do not save anyone.
Our leader is a (non-white) Jewish man named Jesus Christ. The missionary’s goal is not that people become like his or her culture. Instead, the missionary desires people come to know Jesus and be made like him. Our perspective is not that we are somehow great, but instead that Jesus Christ is great. In fact, the deepest desire of our hearts is that “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). We do not believe that our language or our way of doing things is better. In fact, “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake”(2 Corinthians 4:5). We come as servants of those that we live among and proclaim that Jesus is Lord.
To say that missionaries see themselves as white saviors is to say that they are living in direct contradiction to the very doctrines that define their religion. We believe that there is only one Savior, Jesus, and we labor to make him known. We dare not compete with the King of the Universe for a title that only he deserves and for people to say that we think of ourselves as saviors is blasphemous.
Missionaries come as slaves, not saviors
When we first arrived in Cameroon, Dave saw a disturbing painting on a wall by a well. It was of a white man on a chair which was being carried around by four black Africans. Is this what my neighbors think I’ve come here for? he thought to himself. Throughout the years, we have strived to live in such a way that would leave our neighbors laughing at the absurdity of such an accusation. We seek to have the mentality of Paul who said:
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:19, 22a)
Missionaries work for and with the people they minister to every day. They do not come with an air of superiority, but instead come with hearts ready to accept and belong to the people they live among.
Missionaries accept that their line of work will never be cool
“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)
Because of their time abroad, missionaries lose touch with what is cool in their home culture and they are perpetually trying to find out why people laugh when they do in their host culture. They know that they are not cool really anywhere. All this is to say that if people in the States (many of whom are not believers themselves) slander them and say that they see themselves as “white saviors,” they frankly don’t care.
If we were still trying to win the approval of armchair critics, we would have given up our faith a long time ago. We are servants of Jesus Christ and because he told us to make disciples of all nations, that is in fact what we will do. We will not let the skeptic dictate to us which commands of Jesus we will or will not obey.
Further, I would never encourage anyone to be ashamed of their skin color. In fact, I will never apologize for God making me white. I will never apologize for him commanding me to go and make disciples everywhere (including Africa). I will never apologize for having non-white brothers and sisters in Christ, close non-white friends, and for helping the non-white poor. I will not feel ashamed for taking selfies with the non-white people that I love. I think people who want me to feel bad for those things are seeing what is good and labeling it as evil.
Get in the ring my friend
The truth is, most of the people that are making the “white savior” argument are not believers. Most of them would be angry about Christian missions, no matter what the color of the missionary’s skin. These are not the people who should be defining how we live.
So, to those who are hesitant to pursue missions because you do not want to be labeled as a white savior, I leave you with a quote which I love from Teddy Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Get in the ring my friends and let the cold and timid souls call you whatever they want.