Last week, Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole wrote a compelling, provocative article in The Atlantic critiquing what he calls the “white savior industrial complex.” Specifically mentioning the viral KONY 2012 video from Invisible Children, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof and the popular TED talks (each of which, I should note, I’ve appreciated, perhaps uncritically), Cole argues that many efforts by white North Americans to rescue “victims” of poverty and injustice in Africa are more about the white North Americans—and their desire for a sentimental heroism—than they are about the Africans themselves, who are more nuanced than the helpless, innocent children or the maniacal evil warlords that make it into marketing materials.
Furthermore, Cole says these efforts often do more harm than good, at least for the Africans (because, as the “industrial complex” language suggests, some white development professionals certainly do benefit financially). If, Cole suggests, Americans really cared about Africa, they would have to acknowledge that some of their country’s foreign policies have contributed to the problems. White people might not be the heroes; they might, in fact, actually be part of the problem.
One of my first reflections as I read Mr. Cole’s thoughtful critique was a sense of gratitude that World Relief, where I work, has intentionally taken a very different approach to marketing than many similar organizations working in Africa and other parts of the Global South. Our mission at World Relief, to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable, means the heroes of our work are the women and men of local churches in the countries where we work. Rather than asking American evangelicals to adopt or sponsor a child—which might play into the savior complex of the donor, though it’s also an effective fundraising mechanism—at World Relief we invite American Christians to empower a hero such as a woman within a local church who, when trained and equipped, can positively impact not just herself or even her own family but dozens of others in her community. I’m not sure if it’s effectively funding our programs or not, but I’m proud of the story we’re telling and of the incredible, empowering work done by our staff, which, outside of the United States, includes very few expatriates.
My role at World Relief, though, is within the U.S., where we seek to empower local churches to serve immigrants. I do so, however, as a white male and as a non-immigrant. Needless to say, Mr. Cole’s essay forced me to do some serious soul searching. The reality is that I have a career because there are immigrants in our country who are undocumented and marginalized in our society (ironically, perhaps, given the many U.S. citizens who accuse immigrants of “stealing their jobs”). I speak on behalf of the rights of immigrants—but why not allow immigrants to speak for themselves? I’ve been told explicitly on a few different occasions—by both white and Hispanic evangelical leaders—what I’ve often suspected: that they thought that I, as a white person, would be better received by a mostly-Caucasian audience than someone who is Hispanic.
I don’t feel comfortable with that reality. It might be true, but if it is, it’s not right. What right do I have to speak on behalf of immigrants? (Though my co-author and frequent co-presenter, Jenny Hwang-Yang, is closer to the immigrant experience than I am—her parents are both from South Korea—she’s not an immigrant herself either). As I wrestle with those questions, I’ve tried to be more intentional about asking an immigrant friend to join me and share her or his perspectives when I am invited to speak at a local church. Particularly when I travel away from Chicago, however, that doesn’t always happen. While I hope it’s not been my intention to position myself as a savior or a hero, my wife will tell you that I’m usually pretty eager to talk to a reporter who wants to profile me. I tell myself that a media hit about evangelicals caring about immigration is strategic—and it is—but it’s hard to isolate my mixed motivations.
I’m still wrestling with these questions. I have also come to another realization: if anyone needs saving in the national dialogue around immigration, I think it’s the white church, the church that has nurtured my faith and which I’m a part of, which in many instances has been taken captive by a cultural and political narrative about immigrants that’s antithetical to the consistent message of Scripture. While Scripture insists that God loves immigrants and that we, as his people, are to as well, many within our churches speak of immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, with contempt. We know the biblical passages that define the role of the government in maintaining law and order, but many cite them only to advocate the mass deportation of immigrants, not to critique a system of selective non-enforcement of antiquated laws which our elected officials lack the political courage to change, which keeps undocumented immigrants vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking.
White evangelicals are more likely than any other religious group to believe that immigrants are “a burden on our country” and that immigration “threatens traditional American customs and values.” That’s because the views of the vast majority of white evangelicals—88%, by their own acknowledgement to the Pew Research Forum—view immigration primarily from a perspective other than their Christian faith. And when we let go of the authority of Scripture over our lives—because it doesn’t fit with what our preferred political candidate is saying on the issue, or because of our perception (probably inaccurate) of the effect of immigration on our personal finances—our faith is in great peril. We need immigrants—as instruments of God, who is the ultimate Savior—to help rescue us from this destructive path.
At the end of the day, I need immigrants a lot more than they need me. I—and the United States as a whole—need their many contributions to the economic wellbeing of our country. But more importantly, as a Christian, I need my immigrant brothers and sisters to help me understand what it is to be a follower of Christ. Scripture tells us that all of us are “aliens and strangers” on this earth (1 Peter 2:11) because “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). As an American citizen living in the United States, I can’t fully understand that metaphor, but my immigrant friends are helping me. They challenge me regularly with the radical idea that my core identity is found in Christ (not in my nationality) and explained to me in the pages of the Bible (not dictated to me by either Fox News or MSNBC). It’s easy for me and for white churches as a whole to think that immigrants need us, but in fact, as Asbury Theological Seminary president Tim Tennent observed recently, “immigrants actually present the greatest hope for Christian renewal in North America.” We need them more than they need us.
As a white guy, I’m not the savior, though I’ve occasionally fallen into the messiah complex that seems to plague folks who look like me. While they’re incredibly vital, immigrants won’t save us either. Ultimately—gratefully—Jesus saves. And my hope and prayer is that he’ll save us from an un-biblical view of immigrants.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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