“whites in shining armor”

alas, i cannot take credit for the delicious title of this post. so let me start off by giving credit where credit is due to a post from “good intentions are not enough.” the post and the blog are both worth reading.

the good intentions are not enough blog mainly focuses on discussion regarding development/development practices/relief work, a lot of which (in my opinion) intersects with mission trips or other faith-based travel. (sometimes called voluntourism.) this particular post helped to attach a very vivid image to some squeamishness i feel in regards to “traditional” and historical missions in the christian tradition.

two works of fiction come to mind when contemplating “traditional” or historical missions by christians. the first was one of those books darn near everyone was reading many summers ago thanks to oprah’s book club: the poisonwood bible. and one from the american christianity course i had in seminary, a terrible novel about a terrible missionary called “no graven image.”

both of these narratives of missionaries feature a “whites in shining armor”  (WISA) protagonist cropping up in foreign fields, a bible in one hand and magical-white-person-western answers in the other. (and if s/he had a third hand s/he would have a hymnal in it.)

my inner feminist shouting about knights in shining armor being a hoax is just barely muffled by the trying-to-be-faithful christian who seems to be banging her head against a wall at this common pattern or model of christians interacting with others through missions. just as i, a mere female, do not need/desire/care for a knight in shining armor to come swooping in to “rescue” me; the people of the world do not need white westerners swooping in to “rescue” them.

the father, nathan, in “the poisonwood bible” is a classic example of a white in shining armor. he is an american pastor. educated and qualified for pastorhood, he “gives up” and “sacrifices” the comforts and familiarities of home to take the answers to “dark africa.”  in full WISA fashion he swoops in and immediately plants a demonstration garden. however, nathan has put his cart before his horse. while his garden grows large and healthy plants, there are no vegetables to harvest from these plants…he has a pollination problem.

nathans mistake, and the same mistake made by his wife and his daughters, was assuming possession of sufficient knowledge.

margaret, the main character in “no graven image” somewhat more meekly finds herself in a foreign country with all the answers one could need stored between her ears.

many times (most?) when white people swoop in to places foreign to them, be it a country or a neighborhood they would never usually enter, do not tend to think of the potential danger or harm their presence/lack of knowledge of place/people can be.

some dangers posed to local people because of a “whites in shining armor”, as illuminated (in brief) in these two novels:

the poisonwood bible- the dear father and reverend really wants to save these people’s souls, and the best way he knows to do this is to baptize them by immersion in their convenient local river.  now, don’t get me wrong: i’m not against baptism. or against being baptized by immersion or even in a river. the issue here is his crazed insistence that it must be done! this way! now! he doesn’t realize that the people fear that river and the deadly animals that lurk within it. it is his lack of knowledge and arguably his lack of desire to grow in knowledge, that keeps him held at arms length by the people.

he also provides an amusing illustration of acting without knowledge: the good reverend plants a vegetable garden. this is not a harmful move, and could really be one the most endearing things this fellow does throughout the whole narrative. it is arguable that his intention (to SHOW the people how to eat) is “whites in shining armor”-esque and it certainly shows that his attitude is one of  having more knowledge about a place than the local people do.

the results of the vegetable garden are fantastic! huge leafy green plants! but there is a problem…no fruits or vegetables are on the huge leafy green plants as there was nothing to pollinate his foreign varieties. oops. a nonhurtful (other than to his pride) example of how ignorance of a place can lead to results that are not exactly fantastic.

switching gears a bit, in “no graven image” margaret commits the same sin as many missionaries/aidworkers/random foreigners in places that aren’t their own: she practices medicine with no medical training. at first, this kind of works out for her- she has some good luck and her little practice becomes quite busy–and she sees this as a good way into the “hearts of the indians”. but, as most quacks usually do, she messes up. and someone dies.

i’m not going to even insult your intelligence by telling you why this is bad.

some people metaphorically “practice medicine” without training.
some people really do practice medicine with no training, armed with “where there is no doctor” and good intentions.

the same things are done today by missionaries and aid workers across the planet. the “whites in shining armor” swoop in with their seeds, their bibles and their answers not taking a hot-minute to even ask if the people they are there to help even want their help. we bring our answers without knowing the true questions. we practice medicine without knowing the difference between tylenol and advil. and this is terrifying.

and this “whites in shining armor” sickness or delusion of grandure is what i’m trying to work against. skin color does not denote wisdom. or truth. country of origin does not denote personal value or potential.

at least it shouldn’t.

we need to rethink how we interact with people, who we think we are, and where the “answers” come from. don’t be a “white in shining armor”. be someone who is compassionate. someone who listens to what people say and don’t say, to what they truly desire and need. be someone who is humble enough to admit being wrong. be someone open to new experiences and different ways of doing things.


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