Every couple of months, I’ll notice a pattern of pictures on my Instagram feed. In some variation, the posts depict my white classmates posing with African children. The caption reads something like, “Wish I could go back to [insert developing country here],” followed by a long paragraph detailing their unforgettable experience serving others — most likely in the name of Christ. While I know such posts have good intentions, I find them frustratingly tone-deaf.
It’s an increasingly common opinion that philanthropic trips with the underlying motives of conversion are icky. These are real people, with real problems, and a couple of Americans pulling up to work on a construction project for two weeks “to save them from hell” isn’t going to make all that big of a difference.
Afterwards, they’re back in their cushy, suburban homes, posting photos with young, impoverished children as props to emphasize their righteousness and piousness. More often than not, it seems that these missionary trips are glorified exotic vacations with the bonus of self-gratification.
Religious conversion is not a new thing by any means, but nowadays, the most well-known missionaries are Christians. While there are many different reasons people follow this path, the majority cites a passage in the Bible’s “The Book of Matthew” known as “The Great Commission,” in which Jesus implores his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations.” And thus, throughout the past few centuries, numerous European nations, and more recently, America, have attempted to encourage the love of Christ in other countries.
The problem lies within the blurred lines between missionary work and the aim to “civilize,” because the language used to describe both aims is often disturbingly similar.
Take a look at this quote from the late Belgian King Leopold II, who was imploring Belgian politicians, explorers, and others to join and fund his charitable organization for the Congo: “To open to civilization the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.”
“The problem lies within the blurred lines between missionary work and the aim to “civilize,” because the language used to describe both aims is often disturbingly similar.”
This spiel about saving “colored” people from their own ignorance is, at best, thinly-veiled racism — at worst, a cover for a genocidal colonization effort. As it turns out, King Leopold’s philanthropic endeavor was actually a guise for his wish to exploit Congolese workers and make big money off of rubber, which he certainly did — but only at the expense of around 10 million Congolese lives.
This is far from an exception. Colonial Europe was notorious for its treatment of non-white people, whether in India, numerous African nations, or North America. You may be familiar with the quote, “kill the Indian, save the man,” which was originally a speech that encompassed ideas about the importance of “civilizing.” Thus, “Americanizing” the Indian to assimilate them into the white man’s culture.
Such ideas were the basis of developing Christian boarding schools, notorious for cruelty for the indigenous peoples of America, Australia, Canada, and other countries undergoing colonization — all while white colonialists methodically claimed land through force.
They justified their actions by citing the “white man’s burden” — meaning, it was their duty to conquer the land to civilize the “savage” nations. Despite resistance from Indigenous populations, the presumed “saviors” subjugated them and rejected their deeply rooted beliefs as primitive without bothering to understand Indigenous culture.
While perhaps not as blatantly racist as before, missionary work today is still problematic.
There have been various mission trips where funds have been mishandled, and where missionaries ended up being more of a hassle than anything. The recipients of missionary work have to spend time painstakingly teaching their customs and their work to people who, for the most part, aren’t planning on spending a ton of time helping out.
In general, short-term volunteer work isn’t as helpful as people would like to think. The Guardian wrote of a scathing study on “aids orphan tourism” in South Africa that revealed how short-term volunteer projects lead to many harmful effects. Wealthy “voluntourists” prevent local workers from getting crucial jobs and cause hard-pressed institutions to waste money and time looking after them and abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments to visitors who exacerbate their trauma by disappearing soon after arriving.
“But missionary work is still heavily polluted by its past, in which the “help” being offered was used as a pretext to exploit a country and simultaneously feed the “white man’s burden” narrative.”
Another issue is how missionaries gravitate towards isolated tribes, in hopes of bringing them into contact with the rest of the world — and Jesus. One particularly infamous story is that of John Chau, a 26-year-old travel vlogger and evangelical missionary. He attempted to spread the gospel to the Sentinelese, the uncontacted hunter-gathers that inhabit the North Sentinel Island — the risk of deadly contagion be damned.
After a few days of attempted communication, in which he preached from Genesis and sang worship songs from a distance, he was killed. Another example is that of the Akuriyo people in Suriname — after being approached by missionaries in 1969, 40 to 50 percent of the Akuriyo population died due to respiratory diseases and what some suspect to be the stress of culture shock. In general, isolated tribes have little resistance to common illnesses, and there are historically numerous examples of catastrophic consequences when contact is forced upon them.
I’m not making the claim here that every person going on a missionary trip is an oblivious dolt doing more harm than good. Many liberal and younger missionaries have personally grappled with “white-savior” connotations and focus less exclusively on converting people. They’d instead work on doing good for the community and hope their actions speak louder than words to inspire others to join their faith, according to George Washington University professor Melani McAlister.
But good intentions aren’t always enough, especially in the case of missionary trips. The quest to save people from hell by spreading Christianity everywhere possible, even where people are reluctant, isn’t okay. Just because it’s your faith doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right faith for everyone, and refusing to accept that is perpetuating supremacist rhetoric.
You might think I’m being too harsh here. Missionaries have admittedly done good work — they’ve acted as doctors and aid workers, built schools, hospitals, and established other important infrastructure in communities in need. Much of the younger generation is focused on helping communities without pressuring locals to convert. But missionary work is still heavily polluted by its past, in which the “help” being offered was used as a pretext to exploit a country and simultaneously feed the “white man’s burden” narrative.
The idea that people desperately need some random foreigner to save them is often harmful and frankly, narcissistic. And with all the credible international relief efforts out there, there are better ways to ease your conscience.