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A Critique of Christian Volunteerism

What if volunteering doesn’t save our soul? What if it doesn’t save anyone? In this world or “the next”?

Volunteerism was given a nice sense of direction and encouragement by my editor and fellow writer, Josh Tikka the other day. I want to provide a critique to his argument, and advocate for activism over volunteerism, and discuss the problematic elements of volunteerism that hold true social progress back.

I don’t intend to rely on anecdotal evidence, but rather hope to build a critique on the basis a psychological and sociological examination of Christian volunteerism. I don’t believe that the stories provided by Mr. Tikka hold much weight in this discussion. These are micro-events and the best of the best, make the most of the opportunity at hand. But I don’t think volunteering is usually much of an opportunity, and I don’t think well-intentioned humility, compassion, and direction can counter the fact that Christian volunteerism solidifies social hierarchies and negates political action. Moreover, it seems like the major motif of Mr. Tikka’s argument is that while there are drawbacks to volunteerism, the potential positives are worth the risks that volunteerism poses. I strongly disagree with this sentiment, as it is really only a sentiment.

Christian volunteerism stems out of the book of James. With cries of caring for the poor, orphans, and widows, Christians are challenged with the task of looking after some of the most vulnerable populations of 1st century Judea. But what about 21st century America? Who are the victims of social injustices and the evils of life today? And how are Christians addressing and serving these people? Is it simply that Christians are making disciples of all nations? Saving souls?

Let’s get one thing straight: compassion does not translate into social good. People’s noble intentions are confined to their societal world view. And in American society, white supremacy reigns. It percolates every aspect of our culture and society. Including volunteerism. There is a thing called the white savior complex. I’m sure Mr. Tikka is familiar with this idea. Treju Cole says, in the linked article above,

“The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”

Mr. Tikka, in your experience of working with people struggling with housing, how many of your volunteers saw what they were doing as “helping”? Moreover, how many of those volunteers voted for or supported policies that you and I both know devastated the very communities these volunteers were “serving”? Volunteerism is perverted because of white supremacy and classism. The overarching themes of American Christianity and society are rooted in white supremacy. You cannot cure this through volunteering and hoping for an open mind. The civil rights movement did not achieve social change because of volunteers, nor will people find housing because volunteers “feed the homeless”.

To quote Henri Nouwen:

“Somehow we have come to believe that good leadership requires a safe distance from those we are called to lead… Someone serves, someone else is being served, and be sure not to mix up the roles! But how can we lay down our life for those with whom we are not even allowed to enter into a deep personal relationship? We are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for. The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God. Therefore, true ministry must be mutual.”

Volunteering inherently undermines the humility necessary for building solidarity and integrated community because it operates on server / served basis. Now, this is not server as in waiter, but rather a person with the power giving scraps to the person without power. This is the definition of trickle down economics. It is trickle down social justice. And it does not work to alleviate the suffering of the poor or oppressed. This is not to say it allows the poor to grow dependent and complacent, rather, it allows the powerful to solidify their power over those they serve by reinforcing social hierarchies of race, power, gender, and class. The powerful server, moreover, allows their needs to be fulfilled through this “service” thus using the poverty of those they “serve” to existentially benefit themselves.

Instead of sharing in weakness, volunteers advertise their strength in the face of weakness. Jesus told his disciples not to pray on the street corners like the pharisees who wanted to be seen as good people. What does this mean in 21st century America? 21st century America doesn’t place the same value on praying on street corners as 1st century Judea did. But perhaps we can transpose this command to facebook and e-volunteerism. Have you ever noticed when a white person goes on a trip abroad or on a missions trip, or anything of that nature their facebook is flooded with pictures of them with black or brown people, often children. This is praying on the street corners. This is boasting of your adventure into a world of exotic “others.”

When you, Mr. Tikka, went to New Orleans for Katrina relief did you sign petitions or advocate for a more reliable FEMA? Or did you simply repair a few houses and conduct some homeless outreach without examining why Katrina was so devastating and why homelessness exists? Even in Chicago, how politically involved was your organization, Chicago’s Beloved? Did it look to address the underlying social ills that create homelessness? Lack of affordable housing, lack of social structure for mentally ill and physically disabled, the war on drugs/ prison industrial complex, and the other symptoms of American individualism, capitalism, ableism, and racism?

Volunteers, NGO’s, non-profits, fair trade programs etc. are all band-aids on the cancer of capitalism. The solution to homelessness is not rooted in church volunteerism, but in centralized governmental agencies providing a solid foundation for the poorest and most marginalized in society. The energy of volunteers will not solve homelessness, and it will not save the souls of those volunteers. Rather, it merely makes people in positions of power, privilege, and authority feel good about where they sit in terms of power hierarchies. It is not God working through people to create social and spiritual change, it is a placebo effect triggered by a flawed perspective of “Service.”

 

If you want to see God change the world, Mr. Tikka, don’t rely on the volunteers you work with, rely on the revolutionaries and activists looking to solve the systemic issues that create the problems volunteers hope to treat.