Missionaries and the Savior Complex

How a “divine” arrogance is hurting our global fabric.

Being neither a nihilist nor fanatic, I walk in an area of skeptical grey regarding religion, unable to commit to any single doctrine. This mindset makes me particularly prone to delving into matters of divine influence, and inspires particular passion and intrigue around the following discussion that has a strong bearing on our global culture: savior-driven missionaries.

All predominant religions have origins in evangelism and proselytism, with these roots becoming a platform not only to spread the word of the divine and convert, but also to improve education, health care, and economic development in hopes of bringing about a more Godly society. The latter is undoubtedly moral, and as history has shown, immensely beneficial to millions. Yet a shift has occurred in the form of a growing savior complex, best described as the conviction to “save” others, often in a non-consensual manner, due to sheer hubris. This, paired with intolerance, has led to certain missionaries, across many religions, being the cause for potently cruel cultural robbery.

Christianity is far from the only religion guilty of these acts, this corruption of the missionary cause is well exemplified by the actions of fringe evangelistic religions — among them, Pentecostalists, Apostolics, and Jehovah’s Witnesses — in much of Africa. The reason the continent is so riddled with these groups stems from colonialism and civil wars, both of which left thousands of Africans lacking a sense of community and tore asunder their native belief systems. American churches by offering this community and giving a greater sense of purpose, filled this void. However the ramifications of this savior displacement are far more troubling.

The 2013 documentary God Loves Uganda, which followed Evangelist missionaries as they traveled through Africa, brought these concerns to light in a vivid manner. While providing much needed goods, the missionaries resorted to the odious practice of mass conversion and implemented extreme dogmas into the Ugandan environment. This indoctrination led eventually, among other things, to an extreme and heretofore novel, hatred of sexual preferences and practices; killing someone based on perceived sexuality was now sanctioned. Uganda’s missionary problem is the most publicized, but many other nations face the same threat of cultural and human rights losses. In 2007, groups of Nigerian Pentecostalists, who belong to the Redeemed Christian Church of God, destroyed ancestral idols after meeting with American missionaries who implied that making all Nigerians convert to Pentecostalists would be the only salvation for the nation. For the past decade, the darling of Televangelism Pat Robertson and his American Center for Law & Justice have been working in Zimbabwe to imbue their breed of Christianity in the nation’s constitution. Robertson and the ACLJ gained credibility in Zimbabwe after opening a multitude of schools and medical centers. This use of power and good of missions to deeply entwine doctrinal Christianity into vulnerable governments seems the most manipulative form of religion.

This kind of “saviourism” also feeds on and thereby detracts from the generosity of the gullible devout in the wealthy countries. Late-night TV, for example, is full of calls from unscrupulous missionaries persuading the relatively vulnerable in the U.S to part with hard-earned money to support dubious projects in developing countries.

Centuries after the Crusades, we’ve moved on from conversions, at the point of a sword to arrive at a more passively dangerous mission concept, which finds vulnerable populations, tempts them with aid, and then uses carefully adapted dogmas to turn recipients into devout and, oftentimes bigoted, followers. Its subtlety, often masked by the good it does, makes the call to be a missionary appealing to most, because who wouldn’t want to help those in need?

Of course there’s an entirely different view that contrasts with this idea of missionary evil. My father attended a Jesuit school for most his early life, and assures me that despite being Hindu in a Catholic school system, he never felt caged into a way of being. To him, the mission served a purely functional purpose of democratizing high-quality education where it was often not accessible. This is the ideal missionary: that which helps without infringing upon the basic human choice that seems so evident in most religious texts.

There is a single difference between the two situations described, a deafening notion that has both marred and glorified centuries of human existence: saviorism. When one group decides it has the morals and knowledge, and perhaps even the obligation, to dictate to another, society devolves into the most tumultuous of hubris, a rationale that can become the cause for wretched colonialism and genocide. The savior complex is truly dangerous, and while it can manifest itself in people, even subtly, it is exacerbated and amplified by the deafening power of religion, giving meaning on a higher level. I believe it is the notion of saving and salvation that bisects missionary work from the benevolent to the treacherous. From Evangelists to Islamic Dawahs, religious texts speak of a higher self-actualization and connection to God gained through charity, yet in a country that becomes increasingly segregated, isolationist, and nationalistic by the day, this spiritual charity has been adulterated with a hubris that seems to scream, “they need you!”

Last spring while attending the World Food Prize’s Iowa Youth Institute, a peer commented that the best way to solve world hunger was to do what her church was doing and send filtration systems to developing nations. I stood agape at this solution, which reduced an inexhaustible, global interdisciplinary issue to one that could simply be solved by a church in Iowa. She later added, “You just need to let Jesus lead the way”. The problem is not that religion empowers such people to help end suffering in the world (that’s actually a beautiful byproduct), but that it cannot be ignored that such suggestions indicate how indoctrinated young minds are with saviorism. To them, hungry nations are hungry because they haven’t mobilized their efforts to welcome the “correct” form of God, and thus require the help of the righteous to let them live.

Religion is a beautiful concept — and most likely the reason humanity has survived this long — yet the entitlement and false authority it places on people ends up becoming an oppressive force. Let’s not stop missionaries, but rather bring them back to that romanticized ideal, one that is guided by principles of philanthropy rather than heroism, enabling people to achieve their highest potential rather than forcing lifestyles upon them and destroying rich culture. This issue is one deeply rooted in American ideals, and humbling missionaries might truly alleviate intertwined issues, from over-militarization to terrorism, all of which find their roots in the deep egoism of the savior.

Missionaries ought to empower people to find the “light”, not shine an ill-fitting bulb upon them and tell them it’s their gift.