When Christian compassion goes wrong (and what to do about it)

Samuel_Hall_Young_-_c._1879

“It is impossible to change a dirty, ignorant savage in a few months or years into a cultivated Christian gentleman, but progress is being made.”

          — S. Hall Young, 1920

S. Hall Young was a missionary to Alaska in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He established the first Presbyterian church there. He explored the southeastern wilderness. There are mountains and islands named after him. President Woodrow Wilson nearly picked him to be governor of the Alaskan territory in 1897. Young spent a decade doing missionary work among the indigenous population—a population he evidently despised.

A few years before his death, Young wrote about his first trip to Alaska, during which he met an executive with the Hudson Bay Company.

As we were nearing the wharf, upon which squatted a score of blanketed natives, most of them with faces blackened and tousled hair, he laid his hand upon my shoulder and said:

“Let me give you a bit of advice. Don’t become an Indian.”

I was nettled and I have no doubt my face flushed. Waving my hands toward the natives, I replied:

“Do you think I am in danger of becoming like those creatures?”

Young wasn’t sharing this scene from his past to highlight the naivete or arrogance of his younger self. He fervently hoped other missionaries would follow his example. To find anything good in native culture—that was naïve, according to S. Hall Young. To accommodate indigenous people in any way was to yield to what he called a “backward pulling.” It was “the most dangerous thing” a missionary could do.

Time—along with a justifiable sense of guilt over our ancestors’ colonialist tendencies—have rendered Young’s words less palatable than they were a century ago. Yet before you dismiss him as a crackpot or an outlier, it should be noted that Young was no fundamentalist. In the same article, he wrote approvingly about the work of Catholic, Episcopal, and Congregationalist missionaries in Alaska. He was not atypical. His writings reflect the attitude of many in his day.

We may wince at his reference to the “dirty, ignorant savage.” We might want to congratulate ourselves for eschewing such terrible language today. But Young’s sentiment is still very much alive.

Whether it’s evangelism or humanitarian work or some combination of the two, Christians have a tendency to see themselves as “coming to the rescue.” In other words, we’re still shaped by the same worldview that Young took to Alaska.

We tend not to think of those we serve as having something to offer, something to contribute. We tend not to think of ourselves as having something to learn from them. In which case, we’re not that different from S. Hall Young.

We may not use his offensive words, but we perpetuate his legacy in other ways.

I saw it in the pastor I met when I was representing a humanitarian relief agency at a youth ministry conference. He marched up to our booth and announced he only wanted one thing: to find out how to get himself on a trip to Africa. He wasn’t interested in the lives of the poor. He was after a bit of poverty tourism. It was just another notch in his youth ministry belt.

I saw it in the youth group on the flight to Haiti last spring. The kids and their adult chaperones wore matching shirts that read, “Showing mercy to the people of Haiti.” I don’t think they even considered what this conveyed to our fellow passengers—the majority of whom were Haitian. What made this group think the people of Haiti needed our mercy—let alone that putting this on a shirt to be worn in Haiti was a good idea? In light of that country’s troubled history (and our part in it), maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe we’re the ones who need mercy for our misdeeds.

I’ve seen traces of S. Hall Young in myself, too. The patronizing, condescending attitude toward those in need. The assumption—rarely stated in the light of day—that the end goal of compassionate work is to make others look and behave more like us.

Sometimes it makes me wonder if such endeavors are doomed from the start.

But then I see glimpses of another way. Reminders that we don’t have to perpetuate the legacy of S. Hall Young in order to serve.

I see it in Cindy Brandt’s article, “How I Kissed Evangelizing Goodbye.” She points out that we’re often so busy “evangelizing” others that we don’t see our own need to be “evangelized”—to sit at their feet and learn:

What I came to discover is how much the world craves a listening ear. The biggest problem I have with evangelizing is that you enter into a relationship with a prescribed intention, and that stands in the way of listening well.

You can’t listen well when you are carrying an agenda.

You can’t listen well when you are looking for ways to fortify your own position.

You can’t listen well when you are searching for what is broken in your conversation partner, in order to introduce the solution.

On the other hand, if you are wanting to be evangelized, you learn to listen deeper, because you are trying to uncover truth. You search for the beauty in your neighbor to find points of connection — you are seeking to be saved by them. You become the student, longing to learn from, instead of preach at. You voluntarily place yourself in the inferior position of need and find that your own vulnerability compels others to shed their masks. Your courage to admit uncertainty disarms, until all that is left is raw honesty and frailty of our common human condition.

I see it in my friends Nathan and Abby, who are getting ready to move their whole family to the border between India and Nepal (where Abby grew up). They’re going to offer counseling for at-risk women and young people, as well as leadership development and theological training for indigenous ministry leaders. A few weeks ago, they shared their vision with our church. It was very different from the one that drove S. Hall Young. To paraphrase what Nathan and Abby shared:

We believe the people we’re going to serve are good. Their culture is not bad; it’s good. We’re not going halfway around the world to bring light where there isn’t any already. God’s glory fills the earth. It’s already there.

No, this isn’t feel-good pop psychology masquerading as ministry. Abby and Nathan also observed that the region they’re moving to is affected by high rates of human trafficking, illiteracy, and violence against women. But they know this is only part of the story. There’s also a deep hunger for justice, a rich and vibrant culture to be honored instead of dismantled. They know the people there understands things about God and the world that we don’t. They have as much to teach us as we have to teach them.

Abby and Nathan are committed to a very different story than the one S. Hall Young told. Or maybe they just have a different starting point. Young began his story at Genesis 3. At least, that’s where he started whenever he looked at the indigenous peoples of Alaska. “Savages,” as he called them.

People like Cindy and Abby and Nathan begin the story at Genesis 1, with creation. The world as God made it is good. Very good. And not just the part of the world that looks like us. ALL of it.

Yes, there is sin. Yes, there is brokenness. But that’s not the whole story. That’s not where the story began, and it’s not where we should start, either. To quote something Nathan wrote a few years back:

God’s first speech-act of creation is what sets the trajectory and establishes our foundation for viewing humanity and doing theology… it establishes that we are to view all of humanity primarily through the lens of their creational goodness.

When you start with S. Hall Young’s view of the world, otherwise compassionate endeavors end up looking more like a conquest. When you start with a view of the world that’s framed by God’s act of creation, you understand that all you’re doing is discovering—and perhaps amplifying—the good that already exists. It exists because God put it there.

In the end, I believe this is a much more life-giving model for Christian engagement with the world. To quote Cindy Brandt, it’s time we “listen to other people’s stories as if [our] salvation depended on it, because it might.”

 —//—

Note: If you’d like to learn more about Abby and Nathan’s work in India and Nepal, watch the video below and go to their website, Under the Banyan Tree. They could use your support.

3 thoughts on “When Christian compassion goes wrong (and what to do about it)

  1. Pingback: Under the Banyan Tree | Ben Irwin

  2. Thanks so much for engaging with my piece here, Ben. There’s a difference between Christian compassion and pity. The latter condescends while the former demands respect for shared humanity. We need more Abby’s and Nathan’s in the world!

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  3. Entering “the mission field” I was mentored by the best, a young minister, who totally understood the culture, the fear, that we would be persecuted. We would experience “the hex.” They tried to kill the pastors dog, he didn’t die. They pulled the toe nails out of the little dog, he didn’t die. Then a grandma saw the cucumber, and said, “It is the hex!” Her daughter put her arm around the grandma and said, “No, it our cucumber, it feel out of my grocery bag.” To the Grandma, the HEX was broken. And the people began to smile, knowing somehow God had broken the spell of those who did not wish us well.

    Whatever we mentally “place” as the “hex” on God’s work, God can remove! It just happened the experiences in my family, included my mother facing the devil, when her sister died. Her words are, “Where the name of Jesus is, the devil can’t be.” You see the devil fears and trembles when we say, “I am saved by the blood of the Lamb, Jesus is my Saviour.” You see the devil goes on to those who don’t know, the devil was conquered at the cross, when he was behind the men who killed Jesus.

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