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What is the Savior Complex?

The savior complex occurs when individuals from higher socioeconomic backgrounds directly or indirectly approach a marginalized group with a patronizing attitude, seeing themselves as the saviors who will rescue the poor from their misery. The savior complex is most commonly associated with short-term mission trips from predominantly white, developed nations meant to assist those in the developing world. In such instances, international development becomes a unidimensional experience that gives way to privilege, as the individual’s personal experience takes priority over understanding and meeting the needs of the local community. By being oblivious of the history, culture, and unique context of the community they are working with, individuals externalize existing prejudices and assumptions and consequently fail to recognize the strengths and the potential that the local community has to flourish on its own.

The savior complex shows itself in many forms, across many faces. Just like a white short-term missionary can act like a savior to a black resident of a developing nation, an educated man residing in an urban area of a developing country can act as a savior to a poor, illiterate woman residing in a rural part of the same country. An individual’s skin-color, education, gender, and income are some of the many factors that can contribute to a hierarchy in development work.  Under such dynamics, those who are “saved” often internalize feelings of inferiority and become dependent upon the “savior.” In this way, recipients of development work lose their autonomy and interest in learning from and relying on each other, and consequently fail to recognize their own potential and utilize their resources to improve the lives of their own communities.

Acknowledging the savior complex as a problem in international development is crucial, but moving beyond it to work and serve together is the first step to practice inclusive development and create God’s kingdom on earth. Working and serving together implies a change of mindset in which rather than being a hierarchical relationship between the savior and saved, development work becomes a reciprocal relationship based upon equality, solidarity, love, and mutual understanding. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 supports this claim, as it states that, “two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” Such a verse challenges one’s conception of superiority and self-sufficiency, as it calls one to rely on the other for help and be ready to lend a hand whenever appropriate.

In addition to moving from hierarchy to partnership, the theme Beyond the Savior complex: Working and Serving Together, implies a relationship built upon selfless love. 1 Peter 4:8-10 stresses this by asking us to practice hospitality and to use our God-given talents to serve our brothers and sisters. Love empowers and creates a standard of personhood that can change the course of our lives. By treating one another with love, respect, and grace, we will be better equipped to tackle international development problems to find effective, relevant, and sustainable solutions together.  

Recognizing and moving beyond the savior complex may be a hard concept to acknowledge, but as followers of Jesus, we are confident that when we fall short in our earthly calling to bring peace and security, His Grace is ever-present, eager to pick us up, dust us off, and set us back on the long road toward working together to restore His earth.