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The Saviour complex

By Mike Walker

Society, you may have noticed, loves to label things. Everyone and everything gets tagged with a neat label and categorised. There are people who are “hipsters” and people who are “nerds” and people who are “Goths” and people who are “high-fliers.” On a more serious level there are “the rich” and “the poor.” The media is ever too prone to this – there are “immigrants” and “refugees” and “asylum seekers” and any manner of other people groups who get labelled.

And, all too often, it becomes a case of “us” and “them.” Far removed from the people the labels attempt to describe, we fall victim to the comparison game. The “us” are people we relate to, mostly other fairly well off Westerners who share our interests, economic status, and so on. The “them” are people far away, geographically or socially or politically – the “poor,” the “oppressed,” the victim.

Because of this, it is ever so easy to fall prey to what we might call the “Saviour complex.” Our idea of charity can dangerously become a process of making the “people like them” into “people like us.” We see the victim – the poor, the disadvantaged, those less-well-off – and we want to save them from that, because we are under the notion that “our” lives are the standard by which all else is measured.

We strip human beings of their true identity, their God-given beauty, when we categorise people into groups.

You’ll easily call to mind the typical pictures used by the media to portray those in the third world – maybe advertisements displaying starving children, or people severely harmed by war or disaster. Unfortunately, so often this robs those people of their humanity. No matter how well intentioned these images and labels are, time and time again they only lead us to define such people by their scars, not as the infinitely beautiful, God-created human beings that they are. They are the “poor” and we are the “rich” who must help them, because in this system, we are above them somehow.

Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard famously said, “Once you label me you negate me.” In other words, when we define others by our self-imposed standards and labels, they become no more than another nameless face in a group called “them.” We strip human beings of their true identity, their God-given beauty, when we categorise people into groups. This affects the way we view the “poor,” because our good intentions can be fed by the lie that we are the saviour and they are a group of victims that only we can save. Our giving becomes more about making “them” like “us.”

Instead, we must see that behind the labels and the façade that there is no distinction. Paul writes to the church in Galatia, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). We are all equal, we are all one, because we are all infinitely valuable human beings created by the Father. If we look on those who are poor and oppressed with this in mind set, our charity will no longer be shaped by the desire to make others like us, but rather to enable them to live exactly as God designed them to live.

God’s vision of restoration and redemption is not limited by the narrow Western idea of making people materially or economically better off. He offers an eternal abundance of life (John 10:10) far beyond all that. Our giving must start from an assumption that we are all, as human beings, equal in God – the goal is not to “improve” people to our standard, but to treat them as brothers and sisters that we want to spur on to a greater abundance of life, to flourish, to live as God intended them to live.

This must be our view of the persecuted church. The aim of supporting our persecuted brothers and sisters is not, ultimately, to replicate the kind of lifestyle that we, in our cosy Western society, think is best for them. Rather, it is to equip them to best use their unique gifts, situations, and God-given talents to best live a life of abundance despite the harshest of circumstances.

There is no us and them. There is only one family, the family of us. So let’s support our brothers and sisters not as victims we need to heroically save, but as children of God, equal but individually beautiful and created to flourish in the way God made them to.

The Author
Mike is a first year Theology student at the University of Nottingham, far flung from his native seaside hometown of Plymouth. Between reading big books, he loves writing, adventuring with Christ, and drinking good coffee with good friends.

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