Americans have been raised on the stories of princesses and superheroes — stories that glorify saving others. It feels good to help others, but when dealing with cross- cultural missions, helping often hurts.
The savior complex, a term coined by Teju Cole for The Atlantic in 2012, is a mindset among Americans who think they have the ability, means and responsibility to bring economic and spiritual salvation to people in poverty. According to missionaries, this ideology is far too prevalent in their field.
Gary Jackson, instructor in the College of Bible and Religion, has seen the savior complex in his many years of cross-cultural mission work. He said the idea of the savior complex finds root in Jesus Christ, the savior and solution to the world.
“The savior complex, as I understand it, is when people begin to identify themselves in the same role that Jesus had,” Jackson said. “They think, ‘I am the solution to the world, I am God’s special gift,’ and so they begin to conduct themselves in that way.”
Jackson leads efforts of Harding’s Global Outreach programs. Students who participate in Global Outreach internships are taught the importance of going to the field with a learner mindset instead of a “savior.”
“[The savior complex] is this deformed way of thinking about how Christianity is growing and what is the impetus behind it,”Jackson said.“We put emphasis on individuals and their skills instead of how God is working in them. That misstep happens because we don’t emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit in us. We don’t emphasize the work of God in us.”
Jessica Markwood, 2016 alumna, recently returned from two years of mission work in Mozambique. There, she worked with a team of Harding alumni that has worked in Mozambique since 2003.
Living in Mozambique presented Markwood with daily opportunities to choose to serve people instead of trying to save them.
“In Mozambique it became quickly apparent how little I was able to do in the face of huge postcolonial problems like poverty, corruption and fatalism,” Markwood said. “I was able to make friends and find local mentors — not projects — who taught me that being present in a community is much more powerful than any ministry project.”
Markwood described the savior complex in intercultural missions as “white Western Christians believing that, regardless of their abilities, they have the responsibility to ‘take Jesus’ or ‘be Jesus’ to poor communities instead of joining what God is already doing there.”
As they prepare students for missional living, Harding professors and missionaries are actively working to combat this complex that is ingrained in Americans.
For students who choose to study abroad in Zambia, a course is offered to educate them on Zambian culture. The course, taught by Jessica Gardner, assistant professor in the college of nursing, reminds students that they are not going to save but to serve.
“One of the most significant things we spend time talking about is how we are not bringing God to Africa,” Gardner said. “God has already been there since the beginning of time. We are there to just serve people, and to really search within ourselves at how God can use us with the work that is already being done by local people.”
Jackson, Markwood and Gardner agreed that the self- serving aspect of the savior complex needs to be replaced with an attitude of service to the people around us.
“On the mountain of God, wolves and lambs graze together,” Markwood said. “They don’t abandon, ignore, subjugate or attack one another. They share space, share food, and learn to live in love.”