Playing the savior card

Taylor Walters Denyer wrote a few weeks ago about the way people who raise money for developing nations play on the dark side of “first world” do-gooderism.

This week I saw advertisements for a new HBO movie called Mary and Martha. United Methodists were encouraged to host parties to watch the film, which was publicized as something that would raise awareness of malaria. I clicked on the website and watched the trailers. Ugh. My stomach felt sick. Please don’t be another Great White Savior film. I clicked to read the reviews, since I don’t have access to the movie here. Sigh. “The malaria story, it seems to say, is filmable only if the central figures are white and it is larded up with the kind of button-pushing that television dramas thrive on. The Africans in this film are largely props for Ms. Swank to hold; we learn little about them beyond the happy choruses of welcome songs they shower on white visitors.” (New York Times)

If the movie critics at the New York Times can instantly see what is fundamentally racist about this movie, why can’t the folks leading Imagine No Malaria?  Perhaps they do, but they think such an approach is the only way to open the pocketbooks of middle America (I’d rather believe this than think they are completely blind).  Many years ago I took a class in grad school called NGOs and Development led by a former higher-up at World Vision. He talked about the tension that exists in the big development organizations between the fundraising department and the folks working out in the field. Experience has taught them that there is a huge chasm between what development approaches are effective (supporting local agency, for example) and what generates donations (campaigns that play to the savior fantasy).

At the end of the post, Denyer urges us to get off the sidelines of amateur do-gooderism and start doing real work for change. She calls into question the mission efforts that many of us do in our churches.

Her blog is a good prod and a source for a different perspective on things I thought I understood.


3 thoughts on “Playing the savior card

  1. For many years, I gave ALL of my charitable gifts to and through the church. When someone phoned me or asked me for help, I would reply, “I give through my church.” However, I am no longer sure this is the best way to help the poor. There is too much overhead–even in the church.

    In recent years, I have felt led to give more directly to people in need. Giving is a whole different experience when I reach into my own pocket (not the pastor’s discretionary fund) to help someone. I NOW feel called to help the wounded who I happen to stumble across in my daily life (like the Good Samaritan did). I also believe I am giving “Wesley-style” as I do so. I don’t recall JW EVER tithing to the Church of England, do you? If EVERY United Methodist person gave directly to the poor (even the poor in our own congregations) it would make a considerable difference. As it is, we tend to pass by the wounded ones God would have us help.

    Here is a link to a recent study by the Harvard Business School that I find enlightening

  2. Is this a critique only of the Mary and Martha movie or of Imagine No Malaria in general?

    1. I can’t speak with authority for Deyner, but I believe there is concern over both.

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