This is a convoluted but necessary topic to discuss, especially as those called to be salt and light to the world. Here’s the original request as I received it: “I would like to hear your thoughts on humanitarian aid, including animal aid, sponsoring children, and how the “white saviour complex” as some call the desire to help plays into aid. How can we help people struggling with poverty without appropriating their struggle or committing cultural genocide, or treating them badly, in the way Native Americans were “helped” in the 18-1900s, by being removed from reservations.”
I really appreciate the passion for helping, the concern for justice and the cry for equality I hear in this question. The desire to help is a precious but complicated drive and, to begin to address the above question, I’m going to start in what might seem an unlikely place: the theology of disability.
In her book, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Nancy Eiesland posits that the main disability that persons who have physical disabilities suffer from is social. It is the judgment, the isolation, the stigma and even the patronizing “help” that is offered persons with disabilities that is more disabling than inaccessible buildings, lack of subtitles or brail, etc. She does not claim that there are no physical challenges or that physical disability isn’t in many cases painful or debilitating in its own right. She simply wants us to recognize the enormous role social stigma plays in disability.
So why start with disability in answering the “how we help” question posed above? I’m certainly not saying that Native Americans or the poor are “disabled,” except insofar as the prejudice and judgment of the general public renders them so (and in the ways that it does, it is not their fault but the ones who hold or perpetuate the judgment). Eiesland proposes in her book that the Church should allow persons with disabilities (she specifies that she’s talking about physical disabilities) to speak for themselves. Instead of the able-bodied making decisions about what people with disabilities need or how best to include or help them, we need to make room for all voices in the conversation and let each person say his or her own name, and name his or her own need. I think this should be applied across the spectrum of humanity. When we listen first before presuming what another needs, we do not falsely identify another’s struggle, we do not objectify another’s struggle into a “cause” (which can be dehumanizing) and we do not automatically assume that we, whoever we are – able-bodied, wealthy, white, etc. – necessarily have “the answers” to the other’s problems. It seems that the best place to start when offering aid is to listen for names and needs before imposing our own.
Of course, this can’t easily be done with animals. It’s not impossible: animals can and do communicate with us when we’re patient enough to learn their language. In general, the “do no harm” principle works…as long as you can define what “harm” means. This can be tricky because the deeper you look at something, the more it tends to pixelate – we ultimately don’t really know how the world is meant to be. And this is why, when we want to offer aid, the best starting point is listening when we can, treading lightly when we can’t and being in constant prayer that we are following the Lord’s lead, not attempting things our own (that’s how such things like the white savior complex come to exist in the first place). If we want to help, we must first remember that we are helpless: our power is far too poor to heal or save anyone on its own. The help we offer is only effective when we have help giving it and that help can only come sustainably from God.
Thanks again for such a passionate, bold question! This is a discussion that definitely bears continuing and requires multiple voices and perspectives so I welcome thoughts, comments and pushback!