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In the helping professions or in volunteer roles, where people fight injustice or alleviate pain, how can we avoid falling into the trap of acting like a savior?
Psychologists also call that savior idea—the grandiose delusion that only our individual actions can make the world better—a “messiah complex.” You can probably see why.
So what attitude should we evince when we try to help others? This passage from the Baha’i teachings describes serving others as trying to mirror the love of God:
God has created all, and all return to God. Therefore, love humanity with all your heart and soul. If you meet a poor man, assist him; if you see the sick, heal him; reassure the affrighted one, render the cowardly noble and courageous, educate the ignorant, associate with the stranger. Emulate God. Consider how kindly, how lovingly He deals with all, and follow His example. You must treat people in accordance with the divine precepts—in other words, treat them as kindly as God treats them, for this is the greatest attainment possible for the world of humanity. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 291.
Without pairing this quote with an attitude of deep humility, some could view it as a call to impose our own definition of education, healing, and well-being on others—in other words, trying to act like a messiah.
This sort of “saviorism” is probably most popularly understood in the context of the “white savior complex”—the paternalistic beliefs and attitudes associated with white folks swooping into black and brown communities to “fix” them. It includes preconceived assumptions that people of color are not intelligent or motivated enough to address their own needs, so white people have to take the initiative to “save” them. At the core of it, people want to display to others that they are “good” people, but in the process of trying to “save” others, usually wind up imposing Euro-centric standards of well-being on cultures with different expectations.
This complex links directly to a history of white supremacy, but saviorism also shows up in other populations. Other forms of social privilege, like being a part of a higher socio-economic class, having completed certain levels of formal education, or even one’s gender identity can give us a false sense of superiority when we work to address another community’s problems.
Since savior-like ideas can emerge from a genuine desire to create a better and more equitable society, sometimes it’s easy to miss the signs. But if we aren’t vigilant in resisting these kinds of ideas, we risk them playing out in our work and our relationships. While a savior-like mentality and its effects are most commonly discussed in the context of volunteer work or helping professions, the implications of paternalism are relevant across the board.
For example, say you are a white American woman who is friends with an African woman. One day, your friend vents to you about how family drama is taking over her life, how she has so much she has to do to take care of her family, and how she is exhausted and struggling to get her own career on track because of it.
Rather than asking your friend what she wants to do, you tell her that it sounds like her family is taking over her life, and that she should just cut them off. With that advice, you make it clear why you don’t understand why she can’t just create some space between herself and her family—clearly, they are clearly creating problems for her, so she should just get it together and move away. Your friend protests, but you speak over her, sure that your advice is correct.
While we all naturally lend each other advice from our own perspectives, in this case your perspective might be affected by the belief that you know best, and that your friend doesn’t know how to lead a fulfilling and purposeful life.
But your advice is bound up in your own cultural values—in this case, the very American, Euro-centric belief that the individual comes before the collective. In African cultures, the opposite is often true. So while your advice may seem right in your mind and for your cultural background, it may not prescribe a better path forward for your friend.
Also—was she even asking for advice, or did you just jump in because you assumed you knew best? Maybe she already knew how she wanted to approach the situation, and only needed to vent.
The Baha’i writings say that we should try to emulate God in our service. But what does that really mean? To try and emulate God, shouldn’t we ask people for what they need, rather than condescendingly pushing help on them?
If we see a problem, maybe we can open a conversation with those involved rather than assuming we alone know the answer. In the same way that we have a humble conversation with God, we can have genuine open conversations with each other. This passage explains how we can show humility to each other:
He must never seek to exalt himself above anyone, must wash away from the tablet of his heart every trace of pride and vainglory, must cling unto patience and resignation, observe silence, and refrain from idle talk. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 193.
When we think of emulating God or showing love to one another, what if we tried to make our actions like gentle prayers—open, honest, reflective, and genuine? A true prayer doesn’t include demands or assumptions. If we want to help others, we can first explore what they need and then offer what we can, rather than jumping to conclusions and accidentally disempowering people in the process.