How Not To Be A Savior

I recently came across the website of a North American NGO working toward access to clean water in the Majority World. Something about this organization’s website really struck me. Apparently, they were holding some sort of contest to win a trip.  Here is what it said:

2014 CONTEST FOR A TRIP TO AFRICA

Have you longed to travel to Africa?

Would you like to change people’s lives forever?

How about saving lives?

A six-night all-expenses-paid trip to Africa and a rainwater-harvesting tank with YOUR name on it!

Yes, people in many areas of the African continent, particularly south of the Sahara, do not have clean water. There are some stellar organizations that are doing incredible work to change this, work they have learnt to do well because they understand the particular contexts in which they are working and they partner directly with local leaders. I am not very familiar with the in’s and out’s of how the organization running this contest approaches in clean water projects. But their marketing strategy reveals a lot about the story we tell ourselves about Africa and Africans:  it’s a place of miserable poverty that needs saving. And that we can save it, all the while getting credit for it with our name put on the side of the water tank that we raised money for.This marketing material is playing directly on our deepest needs to be desired, to have meaning and purpose in our lives, even to love and be loved.

The message this organization is giving is “Hey, this is your opportunity to be the savior of Africa.” (The use of the word “Africa” to describe a place or a people is like using the word music to describe the Mozart’s 5th, it simply is lacking—but that is a whole other issue for another post). Maybe then we can finally feel good about ourselves. Maybe then we can finally feel safe, have a sense of meaning and purpose in our empty lives. Maybe then we will matter. Maybe then we will feel good about ourselves.

And it’s all a façade. A water tank with our name on it cannot fill our deepest needs.

We can’t save lives here in North America. We can’t be a white savior in our own white culture. The nagging sense of purposelessness that haunts us is given the analgesic of the opportunity to rescue, to save, and thus to matter. It makes us feel better about who we are. This advertisement is doing what any other form of good advertising is doing: touching a deep human need and promising fulfillment of that need through the product being offered. Except in this case, it isn’t that drinking a certain type of beer will make a man desirable to a beautiful women or the new car that will bring a sense of adventure and freedom from the daily grind.

The words here are far more dangerous. They promise that we can attain a sense of self-worth through becoming a savior of Africa.

What do you think about our unconscious attempt to gain self-worth by rescuing others? Join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comment section. I’d love to hear from you.

The (other) Great Commission

Most of us have been taught that mission work has something to do with saving, one of the three commonly used evangelical mission categories (what I like to call “The Three S’s”—serve, sacrifice, save). We go to a place where people are in need in some way, in need of saving. Depending on our theological paradigm and stance toward mission, that may mean a lot of different things. For some of us, it may mean evangelizing so someone’s soul will be saved from forever and ever punishment. For others, it might mean using medical skills to save people from disease, or helping people get clean water, or rescuing girls who have been trafficked. Global mission means many different things to different people. In general, most mission work holds saving as a primary category. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We all need salvation, and none of us can save ourselves. But what do the Gospels have to say about where the rubber (of mission) meets the road (of salvation)?

The author of the Gospel of Luke suggests that Jesus can be understood as a prophet who was concerned with reversal of the structures of society that kept people locked in oppression. The essence of the book of Luke is that God came for the poor, the outliers, those living in the margins. This sounds like what a lot of us missional type Christians are always getting our underwear in a bunch about, which of course can be a very good thing indeed!

Luke reveals his stance about who Jesus was through his narrative of Jesus’ ministry. In this section of the text, Luke continuously uses language surrounding the idea that Jesus came for the outsider. Over and over Luke uses words like “rich and poor” to show that Jesus is proclaiming a radical message of reversal to the marginalized. Luke is concerned with salvation insofar as it has to do with reversing the oppression of the marginalized in society, a very present sense of being saved in the here and now.

Luke presents Jesus as someone who is for the poor and oppressed, which he used as a means of illustrating the reversal of oppressive structures he saw Jesus catalyzing. Luke writes, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Salvation for Luke was all about freedom for the orphan, the prostitute, the widow.

Scholars tell us that Luke was referencing the Gospel of Mark as he wrote these words, somewhere between the year 75-100, that later became part of the New Testament canon. Luke ends his Gospel with what has come to be widely known as The Great Commission—except it looks much different from the same text written in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels. In Matthew this text reads, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” The same text written in Mark reads, “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned’” (Mark 16:15-16). But Luke saw it a bit differently. His emphasis was on something distinctive than that of Matthew and Mark. These three authors were thinking very differently from one another about the locus of Jesus’ identity and message, and thus how mission and salvation were related. The same passage in Luke reads,

“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high’” (Luke 24:45-49).

Matthew and Mark emphasize immediate movement into the world: Go. Make disciples. Baptize. Preach. The passage in Luke curiously omits these words. Instead, Luke puts emphasis on remaining, on staying, on witnessing.  Luke was on about being over doing. He was convinced that prior to the disciples heading out on their mission, they needed to be transformed, and that this would be the work of the Spirit who would soon arrive. Perhaps they needed to further journey into the process of salvation prior to offering the message of Jesus to the world. Maybe they needed their community a bit longer. Maybe they had something more to learn before they could go teach.  And unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke doesn’t mention condemnation. He doesn’t discuss belief.  Maybe he wasn’t convinced that it needed to be talked about. Because something else mattered more to him, something having to do with

Witnessing to life in the spaces of death

Remaining in the resurrection space

Staying present with people

Expecting transformation from the divine breath of God

It makes me wonder if reading Luke can shape the ways we are thinking about mission and can form the questions we are asking about what it means to serve down the street or across an ocean. Like Luke, a lot of us believe Jesus was—and is—all about reversing the structures that catalyze suffering and death, especially among the economically poor. And as we think about what it means to be reversers of oppression, perhaps we can also enter Luke’s invitation to remain, to expect, to witness, to be transformed.

The Call is Not Enough

A few years ago I visited a project in Haiti started by an American doctor. He had quite a bit of experience living in different areas of the world, using his medical skills to treat the sick. His desire to serve was clear and forthright. Yet, his project in Haiti ended up failing after a short period of time. There are innumerable instances such as this, where someone goes off somewhere to help solve a problem or alleviate some form of suffering. They make their best effort and try all they can, their hearts on fire for the place and people in need. But what was meant to help ends up hurting, both themselves and those they hoped to serve. They return home in anger and confusion not long after, their hope and vision having gone to pieces.

Mission falls apart.

A few years back I had a therapist who often spoke of vocation. I remember him saying, “The need does not necessitate the call.” In essence, he was saying that the existence of an issue—be it social, political, humanitarian—in the world does not mean a certain individual is called to engage it or help solve it. The unique ways in which we are each made informs how we are designed to be in the world, how we are meant to live and serve. And just as the need does not necessitate the call, the call does not necessitate the readiness. Or put differently, even when we are we called, it doesn’t mean that we are prepared to go.

The call isn’t enough.

There is no doubt that many of us experience an authentic draw within ourselves to engage in service with vulnerable people in the Majority World, whether it be in the context of short-term mission, community development, global health projects, human trafficking or some other form of justice work. Our desire and willingness to travel to difficult places inundated in poverty is a great place to begin pursuing these opportunities overseas where our hearts feel drawn to. But it is a starting point, not an end point. It is the leading edge of a journey, both inward and outward, that is meant to be a catalyst for mutual transformation of the self and the other. The call activates something deep within that pulls us forward to pursue this vision of healing and restoration.

Whether we are going to participate in a ten day mission trip to Haiti or move our families to Cambodia to advocate of behalf of trafficked girls, this call we feel is a beautiful and essential thing. It is the space from which mission flows. It is also an invitation to reflect deeply within ourselves. But the call into mission is about way, way more than just buying a plane ticket. It is an invitation into the psyche, the heart, the soul. The call to mission bids us entry into our own pain, to engage with our own brokenness and wounds that have remained untended. If we haven’t engaged our own pain, we cannot be fully present with another in their pain.

The call is an invitation into the self as much as it is an invitation into the world.