When I was in high school, I heard about South Korean churches that sent missionaries to English-speaking parts of the world in an evangelistic effort. I remember being offended and dismayed: who did they think they were, that they could think of the United States as unchurched? How could they possibly know our culture well enough to be missionaries here? We’re not “the needy.”
The irony of that reaction did not truly hit me until years later, when I became a fan of the vlogbrothers and watched their video about efforts for education and helping people in Bangladesh. In the video, young-adult author John Green discusses the use of guilt in promoting charities, and brings up a point worth considering: “The weird thing that those advertisements end up doing is making you think that the poor are somehow fundamentally different from us, that they’re a ‘them.’”
In academic parlance, this technique is called Othering. In charity and in the church, we often turn “the poor” into this group we cannot identify with on any scale larger than pity. And pity is a tremendously dangerous thing in the world of social justice. Pity can very easily function as a dehumanizing tool - it turns the pitied person into a helpless object that needs “saving,” rather than a fully functional human being who is caught in a system of poverty and oppression. Pity of a people group makes their life circumstances an inherent part of their being, rather than part of a system in which everyone is complicit. It not only erases the pitied, but it erases our own complicity in the issue.
It is within this tension that the recent viral video “Africa for Norway” is functioning. The video satirizes the idea of pity by creating an image of cold Norwegians as suffering, pitiable creatures. Africa will help these poor Norwegians by sending them radiators - never mind that radiators aren’t what Norway needs and Norwegians are perfectly OK at dealing with the cold!
The campaign is simultaneously hilarious and convicting. How often do we send things to “places in need” that don’t actually need the stuff we’re sending? Americans seem particularly adept at creating a narrative of pity and need, without any relation to actual causes of those needs or adequate solutions to follow through.
The Africa for Norway website states: “We want to see more nuances. We want to know about positive developments in Africa and developing countries, not only about crises, poverty and AIDS. We need more attention on how western countries have a negative impact on developing countries."
This is a question all (particularly white, American) Christians must wrestle with, especially during this season of giving: in what ways do our social-justice narratives create barriers to relationship? In what ways do our campaigns to “help the poor” actually do more harm than good? How are we complicit in the pain of the oppressed? When we begin to take these questions seriously we can we begin to see, as John Green says, “there is no them - there are only facets of us.”
Pity is a tremendously dangerous thing in the world of social justice.