This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "When Helping Hurts" by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What is cultural superiority? Why are some cultures’ values made to feel inferior?
In When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert believe that some Christian mission trips are based on cultural superiority. This means that they’re trying to help others, such as the poor, but believe their own culture is more important than those they’re helping.
Let’s dive deeper into the concept of cultural superiority to better understand it.
The authors point out that every culture has a system of values that govern people’s behavior within that culture. So what is cultural superiority? A cultural superiority complex consists of failing to respect another culture’s value system when you interact with people of that culture. Whether you disregard the other culture’s values because you consciously view them as inferior and unimportant or you’re just oblivious to the differences, such disregard will cause misunderstandings and hinder relationships.
Cultural superiority complexes can be a problem any time Christians minister cross-culturally. The authors observe that the effect is greatest on mission trips to countries with very different cultures, but even different ethnic groups or neighborhoods within the same city sometimes have sufficiently different cultures to cause misunderstanding and friction.
Addressing Allegations of Hypocrisy
Corbett and Fikkert affirm that the Christian worldview is objectively superior to other worldviews and that teaching the Christian worldview is a crucial part of alleviating poverty because of the advantages that the Christian worldview provides. Does this mean that they have a cultural worldview superiority complex? And since they point out the problems that superiority complexes can cause, does this make their position hypocritical?
Not necessarily. Although they don’t take time to explicitly refute this concern in the book, we can infer that they don’t see any hypocrisy in condemning cultural superiority complexes while maintaining the superiority of a Christian worldview because they believe Christianity (and thus a Christian worldview) can flourish in a wide range of cultures. They thus distinguish religion from culture: No culture is above another, but Christianity is above all religions.
The authors assert that collaborating effectively with local, indigenous churches is a key element of ministering effectively to the poor. And to drive this point home, they emphasize that if you want to help a particular group or community, you should start by learning how and where God is already working in that community, not by assuming that you need to bring God to that community. This approach stands in contrast to approaching a community with a cultural superiority complex.
Thus, while the question of whether the authors’ faith in the superiority of the Christian worldview constitutes a superiority complex could probably be argued both ways, their views are at least self-consistent.
Classifying Cultural Values
Corbett and Fikkert identify four key values and the spectrum of perspectives that different cultures take on them. Let’s consider each of them in turn and the ways that a cultural superiority complex can be counterproductive to building relationships between the missionary and the poor of another culture (which is a prerequisite for helping to heal the poor person’s relationships with God, others, self, and creation).
Cultural perspective on power over circumstances: The authors observe that Western cultures tend to postulate that people control their own destiny, but people of some other cultures view the circumstances of life as being largely beyond human control. This can lead a Westerner with a superiority complex to regard others as apathetic and undeserving of assistance.
Cultural perception of authority: The authors note that Western culture tends to value giving all individuals equal social status, while some other cultures value certain hierarchies of social status. A Westerner with a superiority complex may ignore the social hierarchy of another culture, insulting people at the top of the hierarchy and asking others to do things that aren’t culturally acceptable in that context.
Cultural perception of time: Corbett and Fikkert explain that Western culture is strongly “monochronic,” meaning that Westerners view time as a limited resource. Meanwhile, the authors describe many other cultures as “polychronic,” meaning that they view time as an unlimited resource. A Westerner with a monochronic mindset and a superiority complex may become impatient or even offended when people show up late to meetings, fall behind schedule, and don’t seem to respect their time.
Cultural perspective on individuality: Corbett and Fikkert point out that Western culture is individualistic, emphasizing the unique value of each person and her contributions to a group or cause. By contrast, collectivist cultures emphasize the value of membership in a group and commitment to that group. A Westerner with a superiority complex may fail to grasp the significance of organizations such as the local church in a collectivist culture or the depth of relationships that people in that culture require for establishing trust.
The authors point out that the Western culture from which most North American missionaries come tends to land at one extreme on most of these issues. Coming from an “extreme” culture exacerbates the effect of a cultural superiority complex when dealing with people from cultures that lie toward the middle or near the opposite end of the spectrum.
The Spectrum of Cultural Perspectives Within the Christian Worldview
We noted before how, in the authors’ view, believing a Christian worldview is superior is not a superiority complex because the Christian worldview deals with universal truths that are applicable in any culture. To further illustrate this point, let’s consider how the cultural differences that the authors describe are all present within Christianity.
For a Christian ministering cross-culturally, understanding how these differences play out within Christian theology could provide a starting point for breaking out of cultural superiority complexes and connecting with fellow believers of other cultures.
Power over circumstances: There is a long-standing debate in Christian circles about how much free agency God gives humans. As Corbett and Fikkert point out, today it is commonplace for Western Christians to believe that they have considerable control over their circumstances, and, of course, over their actions. But this has not always been the case. For example, in the 1500s, John Calvin argued that God’s omnipotence and man’s fallen nature implied that humans have no power to choose to accept God’s forgiveness—rather, it is God who chooses to enlighten and empower people, enabling (and compelling) them to follow him and receive forgiveness of sins.
For a time, this “Calvinist” perspective was the majority view in Western protestant Christianity. Some people even extrapolated Calvin’s logic from salvation to the rest of life and argued that all human actions are predetermined by God: Free will is an illusion and humans have no control over themselves, let alone their circumstances. This extreme view is known as “hyper-Calvinism” or “Christian Fatalism.” While hyper-Calvinism has never been a majority view, it illustrates how Christian theology can span the entire spectrum of perspectives on how much control you have over your life, simply depending on how you interpret issues like the omnipotence of God.
Perception of authority: Consistent with the idea of individual equality, many evangelical protestant churches have a very flat hierarchy: Individual believers are accountable directly to God and only to God—the pastor and any other church officials serve more as advisors to teach individuals about God and provide wise counsel than as leaders of a coherent group. But Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches tend to have a much more hierarchical structure, with priests having authority over lay believers, bishops having authority over priests, and so on.
Perception of time: On one hand, the Bible does mention the importance of using time wisely, but it also teaches the availability of eternal life and even equates eternal life to having a relationship with God. So both monochronic and polychronic themes are reflected in scripture. Specifically, as Corbett and Fikkert point out, the New Testament makes a few references to “redeeming the time.” Arguably a better biblical reference would have been Psalm 90, where Moses reflects on the brevity of human life and prays that God would teach us to “number our days.” Meanwhile, in John 17:3, the Bible equates knowing God with eternal life, and the availability of eternal life is a major theme throughout the New Testament.
Perspective on individuality: Biblical passages like Romans 12:4-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:13-27 compare the church to a human body composed of many body parts, each with a unique function. Again, this seems to encompass the entire spectrum of cultural perspectives, emphasizing both the unique value of each individual (as individualism does) and the unity of the church as a whole (as collectivism does).
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- How many Christian church missions actually do more harm than good
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