You Can’t Empower Those You Pity

“The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”~ Teju Cole

It was after we had been in Pakistan a week that I realized, despite the bleak surroundings of still present flood waters, mud and brick homes that would have to be rebuilt from the foundation up, and scarcity of basic supplies of food, that not one time had I felt pity for anyone we met.

I had come back to Pakistan after seeing my childhood home, Jacobabad, devastated by flood waters in the fall of 2010. Seeing the New York Times picture did a number on my soul and a few weeks later I was on the ground in Pakistan, and my heart was in Heaven.

IMG_4874Every day we were surrounded by women and children. Women in brightly embroidered shalwar/kameez with dupattas gracefully draped over their heads. Children of every shape and size, some picked on by older siblings; others naughty as can be, into all sorts of laughter and mischief; older teens, slightly more self-conscious but curious and eager to ask questions and observe.

Their resilience was remarkable. Their ability to withstand this devastating flood courageous. They were so much better than me – there was nothing to pity.

We laughed until our sides ached; cried until our souls felt crushed; raged at poverty and injustice; got excited at seeing a mom learning how to care for a wound; felt joy as we watched women and children gather around when we arrived; and each day at the end of a long, hot clinic, we were satisfied. We were not leading – we were being led by a dedicated and gifted team of Pakistanis. I had been on many trips to serve in the past – yet this was the first time I had been on a service trip where I was led by someone from the country where I was serving.

And not once had I felt pity for those who came into our lives.

Maybe that’s why this trip was going so well — because pity doesn’t help. You can’t empower those you pity.

Pity insults. Pity humiliates. Pity sees others as ‘less than’ not ‘equal to’ or ‘above’. While compassion is a vital part of love and moves us to action, pity looks on as a superior bystander.

In the last few years a conversation has started about what is termed the “white Saviour complex” – when people like me get on planes and go to places like Pakistan, thinking they are going to save the masses from starvation, devastation, and Hell, trips that are sometimes made of pity for the less fortunate. And there is merit to what has been said. Teju Cole wrote a challenging and provocative piece about this last year soon after the Kony 2012 video went viral. It was a piece that first made me cringe, then made me angry, and finally made me nod in agreement.

Too often we go with heads and egos held high. Too often we want to serve instead of to learn. Too often we pity those around us. Too often we decide what those around us need – instead of asking them what they need.

So what do we do – just stop going? No – I don’t think so. But asking ahead of time what is needed is imperative. Realizing that we don’t hold all the answers is critical. Humility of heart and body must be present in all we do.

If we go with pity and seeing ourselves as doing any ‘saving’ then several things happen: We burn out, unable to last long. We subconsciously want to be thanked and praised. We fail to respect the very people we have come to serve, instead seeing them as incapable of being partners and leaders. We don’t acknowledge the bigger problems behind those that are visible. We don’t acknowledge God as God – and us as human.

I know a post like this just begins the conversation about service. It’s a big topic, but as churches and other organizations around the country get ready for summer service projects, gear up to ‘go’, it behooves all of us to dig deep and ask the hard, but important question – Why, really, are we doing this?

And If we go? Our charge is to go in humility, with a heart to learn; never to go out of pity and above all, know we are not, will never be, the Saviour.

“There is much more to doing good work than “making a difference.” There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” Teju Cole in The White Saviour Industrial Complex

28 thoughts on “You Can’t Empower Those You Pity

  1. This discussion dovetailed beautifully with a discussion in a facebook group about this article: Letter to a Short-Term Missionary

    I went to Haiti as a student in 1984. We hung out with orphans and taught them a little English, and then helped with the construction of a building at a hospital for a couple of weeks. I was “bit by the bug”, so to speak, and went on to teach MKs in Southeast Asia and Central Asia for four years over the course of my teaching career. I think by the time I went to Central Asia in 1993 (in the midst of the fall of the Soviet Union), I finally began to understand how I could be supportive of people who had problems and issues that they would have to resolve for themselves. Only then did I have more questions than answers.

    Interesting to me is the fact that by American standards, I was poor when I went to Haiti, and poor when I went to Southeast Asia, but financially stable by the time I took a leave of absence to go to Central Asia, and yet I probably had more of a “white savior complex” when I had less. Experience and maturity taught me what nothing else could. My time in Haiti was what it was. I did no harm, helped expedite the process of some people getting medical help that they needed, and my own transformation began. We can only begin where we are. It’s GOOD.

    However, I desire to do a better job of raising my kids to not operate out of a pity mindset by being intentional, and I think the church can and must do the same. It’s not that we have evil intent, it’s that our ideas are often misguided. We don’t realize that we consider ourselves superior, and we might argue all day that we only think Christ is superior. It takes a long and sustained look in the mirror. The church will only accept this challenge if it isn’t villainized in the process.

    I love the quotes you chose from Teju Cole’s piece, and now having read it, I think they represent his main points well. I admire his candor, and the fact that he points a finger right back at himself.


    1. I appreciated this comment so much. This shouted at me “We can only begin where we are” – and identifying where we are is an important part of the process. Their is something else at play, though, as well – and that is being able to communicate what we’ve learned to others. I’m glad you liked Teju Cole’s piece – I agree, I feel like he is able to perhaps draw a sharp sword – but willing to turn the sword around and pierce his own motives.
      I was so glad you linked up the article on Short term missions – I hadn’t seen that and appreciated the links between the two. Thank you!


  2. I do not know much about this so will not comment on it just that I was here and read it and that i find from the write and the comments that it is multi faceted and that different people have gone into this work with different feelings. Though the complex you write about might be true for a number of people there are also other sides to it, as many sides as there are people it seems, and it should be addressed in a balanced way.


    1. You’re absolutely right – As I said to Sophie – I’d like you to read the original article as well. It didn’t really inspire my post as much as give more to think about.


  3. It’s a very strange topic this. Growing up, I wasn’t aware of ever feeling the White Saviour. I think sometimes people get unfairly labelled when they are simply wanting to do what they can to help a fellow person in need. If they have skills that are lacking in an area as when you did going to Pakistan, why should they be accused of going and being patronizing? Is it a case of a small minority of people who do go to feel superior muddying the waters for other people who most certainly do not? When there is a huge disaster like a hurricane in the US, people don’t accuse the rescue workers of superiority, they know that people are helping fellow human beings clear up the devastation.


    1. You bring up some great points – the thing is though – the rescue workers are rescuing fellow Americans and so there is an equality unspoken. Although with Hurricane Katrina perhaps not so much. Your comment did make me realize that in many ways we can’t win if we go and we can’t win if we don’t go. Both come with criticisms. I want you to read this article – I think you’ll feel somewhat like me – vacillating between anger at the author and grudgingly shaking your head at the truth he brings up. Because no matter – it is important to go in humility, willing to learn. Wow – Sophie! This one needs a cup of chai!


      1. Good points about Americans rescuing Americans but what if a country just simply doesn’t have enough resources to rescue their own people? I will read the article! As ever these things don’t have a straightforward answer. Definitely one for a POT of chai!!


      1. Interesting article Marilyn. Some of the quotes that stood out to me are these:

        “There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: ”

        “There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”

        “And we also agree on something else: that there is an internal ethical urge that demands that each of us serve justice as much as he or she can.”

        “How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives”

        I’ve just watched half the documentary Half The Sky by Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn. I can understand Cole’s criticism of Kristof as he does tend to simplify things and ask leading questions in Half the Sky, aiming for his ‘story’ rather than what the person truely wants to say, assuming that he knows what they need rather than consulting them about what they want. I do think though that Cole is confusing the issue of what we do personally, individually, and what governments do on behalf of their nation. Does the fact that our government are being irresponsible and sly in their funding of other governments dodgy activities, funding wars when they could be putting pressure on them to feed their people or become more democratic, does that mean that we as individuals shouldn’t volunteer to help out on medical missions, help teach English or volunteer to plant trees? Is our sole involvement limited to putting pressure on our governments? Surely the two go hand in hand. Surely we need people who are meeting immediate needs and others who are lobbying politicians to make real change.

        Sorry, I should be telling Cole all this!!


  4. I have to frame my own growing-up experience as an MK (in retrospect) as being an “apprentice of the poor.” I cannot understand the missionaries role as the ‘older, wiser, benevolent parent’–which is so often how the missionaries came across to my national friends. It is too easy to assume a position of privilege and superiority… a tenuous position to try and hold at best–one which always falls short of the mark (hamartia).

    In the denomination in which I was raised, the church sent “work and witness” teams for short term mission work, and they always commented “I went there to work and witness to the Gospel. I came home having worked and instead of giving witness to Gospel, I witnessed the Gospel.”

    If we could understand ourselves as never having arrived, as always in need of an education, we might better understand Jesus’ comment that the poor (those in need) are blessed…


  5. As another commenter posted, so many little nuggets of truth. Thanks for sharing this perspective, which I hadn’t heard explained in such a way. Are you going to post a link to Cole’s article when you do your weekly recap? Sounds like a very thought-provoking read.


    1. I am going to. As I said – it’s provocative but it makes you really think. He is a really interesting guy. His first novel came out this year called Open City and I read it a couple of months ago. It definitely has some good descriptions of belonging (or not belonging as is often our case!) Recently I read something by him about the empathy gap – how we care more about life when it is American life…which is interesting because that is a worldwide phenomenon – Israelis care more about Jewish life than Palestinian life, Indians care more about Indian life than Pakistani life etc. But back to the topic – thanks for your words. I’ve been wanting to write about pity for a long time based on my reaction at one point to someone’s sentiments on going overseas for the first time to do a service project. I was so put off….


  6. This is a wonderful discussion. I lived with my husband and 4 small children in West Africa for several years, up until civil war broke out in that country. It is one of the least developed countries in the world. Yet, I don’t believe our children ever even noticed that their playmates were destitute and poor…..because they didn’t think of themselves as poor. Only we in the West project onto others that we are so much better off because we “have” and others do not have. Did God make a mistake by allowing a large percentage of the world to be born into poverty? No, I think we in the West are, in a sense, worse off, because we never learn to accept that fact that struggle, work, death, illness and deprivation are as much a part of life as golf, travel soccer teams, ridiculous mortgage debt and more clothing and food than we know what to do with. I pity weak Americans, not those who have acquired wisdom beyond their years by being born into a life of material simplicity and learning from day one to accept life’s griefs alongside its joys.


    1. What an amazing comment Sandie, I applaud each word. often plenty itself can be a kind of poverty. Death and disease and deprivation are not limited to those who are poor in wealth. They do not discriminate. Deprivation comes in many forms and not all of them are material.


    2. Wow – there is so much truth and wisdom in this comment! “Did God make a mistake by allowing a large percentage of the world to be born into poverty? No….” That is so well put. The comment about “thinking of themselves as poor” is really interesting. My husband and I talk about that all the time. As daughter of missionaries I never felt poor – yet compared to North Americans we had very little. Would love to continue this discussion.


      1. Some people suffer from the moment they are born from physical defect or disease, some suffer from daily hunger, some from the emotional trauma of war visited upon themselves, family members or villages, or perpetually suffer the loss of half their children, where infant mortality rests at 50%. Then the remainder of us seem to rejoice and praise God that we are NOT those other people–that somehow we are and deserve to be exempt from suffering. May we never adopt the arrogant attitude that we have done something extraordinary to deserve being born into health, wealth and earthly and KIngdom citizenship.


  7. It reminds me of Paul’s plea to the western churches to help the extremely poor church in Jerusalem. The people in Jerusalem were not pictured as objects of pity, but as equal brothers and sisters in Christ who happened to have a major financial need. None of us are self-sufficient. We may have more money but they may have more wisdom and we all need each other. I think a key element in a successful short-term trip is to encourage participants to see what they can learn from the people they are visiting. Not just what they can learn from seeing poverty for the first time, but what can they actually learn from listening to the people.


    1. Love this reminder of Paul’s plea. It’s so perfect for this discussion. And yes – Giving up a role of expert and being in a role of student is so critical. Your perspective makes this discussion live longer – thank you.


  8. Thank you for writing this, Marilyn. So many nuggets of truth in here. I read this blog post via my email. When I go to view it in my FB, I get a ‘warning’ prior to me opening it. It says something like ‘this site has been reported to be abusive’. Do you know what that means? I haven’t seen that before. I wanted to ‘like’ this piece of writing on FB but I didn’t because of that warning.


    1. Thanks so much for this comment. I’m concerned about the FB message! I don’t know why it’s doing this so have contacted WordPress. So frustrating!


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