Avoiding a "White Man's Burden" Tendency

In my experience, there seems to be an observable path in which Christians involve themselves in missions.

They begin with an awakening of compassion, and proceed to travel on a short-term mission trip (or something along those lines) as somewhat of a Christian adventure, and move to a new tier in their Christian discipleship. After going on a Christian mission trip adventure, a strange thing happens. God legitimately burdens hearts with the pressing needs of the world. Going to broken places can serve to jostle us out of our slumbering, comfortable and sleepy existences. There is a world—some would call the real or majority world—out there. When this happens, we can become saddened, burdened, broken, shaken, indignant, etc. This is often good and right.

However, a stranger thing can happen. From these experiences, our inner handy-man is awakened, too. There are so many things to fix. We’ve got so many ideas, methods and resources that no one has ever thought of, right? Get resource A to place B. How simple is that?

Surely we can tinker, adjust, provide, accomplish and rescue. Just give us control and we’ll take it over and fix it. North Americans are the total solution to the difficult problems there, right?

Wrong.

I want to be clear. Very few people would think of it in these terms. Very few people are conscious of this thought process. I know it creeps up in my head all the time. I’m a learner here. These instincts are well-intentioned. As leaders, we have to push further.

I’m also not saying that North Americans cannot offer anything in the work of mission, or any attempt to do so is necessarily unhealthy, dangerous and wrong. But, we have to be careful.

“White Man’s Burden” is a loaded phrase. I know. Originally, “White Man’s Burden” was a poem by Rudyard Kipling. Lots of different interpretations have been proposed in an attempt to analyze Kipling’s thought. I’m not attempting to delve into the baggage of the colonial/post-colonial debacle. I’m not trying to push it to that level.

Instead, I’m using it more in the sense of William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Penguin Books: 2007).

North American/Western takeover in the field of international mission doesn’t have a very good track record. North American takeover in the field of Christian Mission doesn’t have a very good track record, either.

It may seem as simple as “fixing,” but I can promise you things are much, much, more complicated than that. As one example, I’ve heard stories of how well-intentioned North American Christians nearly put a solid, healthy, employing-locals, Christian-owned Haitian business out of business.

We need to take the right and healthy sense of burden and channel it in a different direction.

For now, a quick set of thoughts:

1. When we’re burdened, try to be burdened for the right reasons. For example, spending hours hand-washing clothes is often considered to be a rich community-building cultural practice in certain cultures. Don’t offer to supply washing machines. Don’t be burdened about that. We must distinguish legitimate needs from developed world conveniences.

Try to buy local goods or hire locally in ministry/mission projects. If a building needs to be built, what makes more sense? To bring a North American team, or hire locals? The answer may be different in different places. Ask the questions.

2. Let local Christians lead and set the terms of engagement and set the agenda. Let’s clearly position ourselves in service of local Christians. Let’s really mean this. Then, let’s demonstrate that we mean this in our actions. Further, set things up so that local Christians get the credit for anything accomplished.Building on this, try to accomplish what they ask you to do, rather than what you think will be a meaningful experience for your team.

3. Think carefully about how we should define efficiency and accomplishment. Make sure we are thinking concretely and locally in our decisions. What is needed here? What is efficient, here? What will fly in one place/culture, does not in another place/culture. (As a side note, we need a better theology of place anyway, don’t we?)

4. First, visit a location, culture or ministry. Build relationships and friendships before you try to accomplish something.

5. In your reporting back to your congregation, embody a healthy sense of Jesus’ “don’t let your right hand know what you’re left hand is doing…” principle (Matthew 6:3). Perhaps, Jesus meant for this principle to be lived quite tangibly. This will be hard, by the way. So many difficult tensions to hold in how we go about doing this.

Let’s shepherd, lead, push, and prompt.  

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Joel Busby
I live in Birmingham, AL and serve at University Christian Fellowship, the college ministry of Mountain Brook Community Church. I just finished an M.Div at Beeson Divinity School. I also help lead a ministry project in Haiti. More than these things, my greatest source of joy is my wife, Mandy and our new little boy, Henry. My blogging/thinking interests lie in the realm of practical theology. Very interested in how the truths of our faith become lived and embodied in the ordinary moments of life.