Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Doctors Without Borders, Christian Mission, and White Supremacy

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

A couple of weeks ago, NPR ran a story entitled "Doctors Without Borders Responds To Charges Of 'Racism' From Its Staff." The article detailed microaggressions against and the marginalization of staff of color, especially non-Western staff of color, by white Western staff of the international secular aid group. The article also noted that Doctors Without Borders is aware of some of its challenges with regards to race and colonialism and has been taking steps to address them.

What was most interesting to me about the article, though, were remarks by Christos Christou, president of the international board of Doctors Without Borders. The article says of Christou, "[H]e says there is no question the organization is built on a problematic model." Christou referenced the notion of the white savior as a problematic aspect of the current model of humanitarianism. The article goes on to directly quite Christou saying, "Being clearly anti-racist in this organization is not just about dismantling and overcoming all these barriers that may have been created over all these years. It's about rethinking the humanitarian model: The whole way of distributing the decision-making power and also the resources."

What made these remarks so interesting to me is that they could equally apply to many Christian mission organizations. There has been a critique of how the white savior complex applies to Western missionaries and mission agencies, and discussions about how best to incorporate all relevant voices and distribute power and resources among all partners are a basic feature of missiological conversations, as indicated by this blog.

Like Doctors Without Borders, many mission organizations are aware of their issues and seeking to do better. For instance, over the past ten years, Global Ministries has significantly diversified its staff and missionary corps and has adopted a structure with regional offices to address just these concerns about decision-making power. The organization has by no means "solved racism," internally or externally, but it is making some progress in practicing equity.

Yet if the professionals who spend significant amounts of time thinking about such issues are still wrestling with them, one might imagine that one-time or occasional volunteers, which do not have the luxury of extensive learning or reflection, may not always even be aware of the issues. And Western mission is currently predicated on the participation of just such volunteers as short-term missioners. Stories of microaggressions toward and marginalization of local mission partners by white American short-term mission practitioners abound.

This is why it is so important that those of us who do have the opportunity to study and reflect on mission and mission practice to commit to anti-racism as part of that practice. Racism may be a distinctively American problem with particular negative impacts on American society, but racism does not stop at the country's borders. White supremacy is a global phenomenon, and practices and beliefs that originate in white supremacy, even when white supremacy itself is consciously rejected, perpetuate inequalities among mission partners.

I find that I myself (as a white American man) frequently have to stop and reflect on my language choices in my writing to see whether they portray the equality among believers that I desire for God's church or whether they unthinkingly draw on racist tropes that I have absorbed from the American cultural milieu. I know that I do not always get these choices right, either.

There can be no true progress toward some of the ideals of mission (mutuality, partnership, reciprocity, friendship, etc.) without progress in mission anti-racism. And as the Doctors Without Borders story shows, that work towards anti-racist practice and language needs to be undertaken by a wide range of partners. This work is not something that one organization or even just Christians can do alone, because the system of white supremacy applies across all organizations and to Christians and non-Christians alike. Christians may have unique contributions to make to anti-racism, but those contributions must be offered along with others' contributions, which we as Christians must be willing to in turn receive. White supremacy may be a strong spiritual force of wickedness, but it is possible to make progress in dismantling it, together.


  1. David,
    A reminder / rejoinder.
    Your perception of progress by GBGM becoming an anti-racist organization is only that until there is engagement by affected communities of color.
    Robert Harman

    1. Fair enough. And by that standard, I think Global Ministries' progress has been uneven around the world and across different groups. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. only a brainwashed marxist would spend energy demonizing CHARITY by white people as a problem. Equity is actually a marxist idea meant to tear down individuals and turn everyone into identity politics. You are racist to view people by their skin color and demonize whites trying to help.

  3. You have missed the point Anonymous--which is an example of the point, and not easy for anyone to apply, which the author acknowledged for himself also.