30 Days of Anti-Racism: #9 Paternalism

When I entered seminary at age 22, the average age of a seminary student was 42. That generation gap followed me into conference relationship. After 30 years later, I am just now approaching the “average age” of a UMC clergy member.

Many of the relationships formed in this journey were with people closer to the age of my parents than my own age. Some of these persons became dear friends, encouragers, mentors, role models, and guides.

In Mark 10:29-30, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

I have been blessed to be loved as a spiritual son or grandson by older church members and clergy, many of whom Black and Hispanic. Fifteen retired pastors and a retired bishop relate to my current pastoral charge. The love, the support, and the wisdom provided through these colleagues have a paternal and maternal quality that witnesses to the truth of Jesus’ promise.

In this regard, paternalism should not be confused with parenting. Adoption, mentoring, nurturing, apprenticing, and other loving and inter-generational modes of professional, personal, and spiritual formation are aspects of parenting, not paternalism.

With paternalism, the children never grow up. They are not allowed to grow up. The paternalist decides what is good for the inferior person. The recipient, the client, the pathetic person is unable to choose or obtain what is in their best interest. The child may be fed, clothed, housed, protected, rescued, and even given some chores to do, but she is always a child. There is no pathway to adulthood, no development into autonomy, no empowerment, no way to say “no” to what is offered. Children must obey parents, “without reserve.”


Perhaps the most popular, pervasive, and persistent form of paternalism is that of philanthropy. Philanthropy distributes material resources to the less fortunate according to the interests of the philanthropist.

In professional non-profit work, the recipients of donated goods and services are often called clients. In order to provide help without coercive ulterior motives (bait and switch), a great deal of humanitarian work seeks to be “disinterested.”

Humanitarian work in itself is not structurally racist. It can mean life or death for oppressed people, for refugees, for immigrants, for victims of natural disasters, and others. Its use as a tactic, however, emerges when one realizes that all the work among people of color has become disinterested, detached from any interest in forming bonds of solidarity and accompaniment.

In a disinterested ministry, clients remain clients rather than companions, congregants or colleagues. Churches may devote millions of dollars into humanitarian work even pastors of color struggle without salaries or housing, their churches at risk of becoming mere beachheads for distribution of disinterested suburban philanthropy.


Paternalistic philanthropy will often rule out efforts of advocacy and solidarity as “divisive” or “controversial,” too likely to offend wealthy funders or stir up conflict.

When the U.S. government began imprisoning unaccompanied minors at Lackland Air Force Base in 2014, I was offered an opportunity to enter and minister to the Central American youth inside. The Christian non-profit in charg asked me to sign a non-disclosure agreement that included the obligation to not engage in public criticism of U.S. immigration policy.

I refused the offer.

Philanthropy cares but does not love. Its help is a transaction, from top to bottom with publicity flowing back to the top. Fundamentally disinterested, it falls short of seeking a lasting relationship between equals. This strategically prevents the investment from having an impact on the long-term constituency of the church.


Paternalism has a prominent role in Methodist Missions, with decisions over what is best for communities and churches of color being made by Anglo-dominant boards or Anglo missionaries.

One of the worst examples of such paternalism is the 1914 Cincinnati Plan, where representatives of several Protestant denominations with missions in Mexico met in Cincinnati, Ohio to address issues of competition and proselytism between their missions and churches in Mexico. Without representation or consultation with Mexican church members or leaders, American church leaders decided to geographically partition denominational identity throughout Mexico, giving each U.S. based denomination its area and forcibly changing the religious identity of existing churches and missions to conform to the arbitrary partitions.

I often encountered this form of paternalism among volunteers in mission working in poverty stricken areas of the US – Mexico Border. In one instance, an entire program was set up to build sub-standard housing out of wood prone to decay, flooding, and infestation. The volunteers would call these homes casitas. When asked why sub-standard homes were being built, a coordinator plainly told me, “Our teams need a project they can finish in less than one week.” The needs of the missionaries took precedence. The poor were a means to providing their teams with a spiritual experience.

In another case, beans and rice were distributed in such quantities that it undermined the local, indigenous merchants. A local Mexican pastor complained of this, charging the American pastor with distributing the packages of beans to children “like peanuts to a circus animal.”

At one point, the Oklahoma Conference was sending so many teams to the Rio Grande Valley that they launched a plan to purchase land in the McAllen District and Mexico to establish their own base of operations.

As tensions grew between Oklahoma, local and Mexican church officials, a bilateral conference was convened addressing matters of paternalism. Mexican Bishop Ricardo Esparza, speaking through his Anglo interpreter (me), spared no one’s feelings as he challenged the American volunteers to sleep one night in the “outhouses” they were building and schooled them (and me) on the paternalistic history of American missions in Mexico.

Consequently, Mexican pastors were given a role in the prioritization of volunteer projects. Where no church existed to provide this spiritual leadership, a new church would be built. The Border Friendship Commission is a lasting testimony to the success of that anti-racism effort.

The paternalistic structures of power that created the Cincinnati and Oklahoma plans mirror similar structures that still govern the denominations responsible for those plans. Within paternalistic hierarchies, decisions about healthcare plans, premium costs, whether to direct-bill or apportion costs, how to invest resources, the setting of minimum standards for salaries (often higher than average incomes), housing policies, liturgical resources, curricular resources, and other important decisions are often made without any consultation with those at the margins and on the front lines of mission. To their credit, UM Communications has recently launched feedback panels involving local leadership in choosing mass-marketing themes, but in most cases, decisions about structure, finances, methods, and governance are determined and imposed from the top-down.


Just as self-interested elites gathered in Cincinnati, Ohio to partition Mexico along denominational lines, a similar group has devised a plan to partition the United Methodist Church. Euphemistically named the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, their plan proposes a church split at all levels, regional and local, around the question of same-sex marriage and the exclusion of gay people from the clergy.

Although this split promises to remove discriminatory language and create more safe spaces for gay people on one side, without appointment security a true “full inclusion” will not happen. Biased churches and cabinets on either side of this dividing line will still be able to blackball clergy into unemployment for any arbitrary reason.

Under their plan, the church will partition into two camps, evangelical and progressive, with no concern for communities of color that are both.

Division will force these churches to choose between two political factions that will no longer have a cultural counterweight. One will be Southern, White, and patriarchal, following the current trends in the U.S. Republican Party, and the other will be coastal, elite, White and privileged, following trends in the U.S. Democratic Party. No long bound to church law prohibiting undermining of clergy, both sides will free to enter into a more open and destructive conflict.

For White progressives and conservatives, structural separation claims to be “reconciliation and grace.” For communities of color, the proposal forces an absurd choice between faith identity and hospitality, rule by White power or White privilege.


Within the paternalistic structures of mission, the White Savior takes a prominent role. The White Savior is often associated with the White Man’s Burden, ideals expressed in Rudyard Kipling’s racist ode to paternalism and U.S. colonialism in the Philippines (in the meter of “Lead On, O King Eternal.”)

The White Man’s Burden
Source: Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States & The Philippine Islands, 1899.” Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Definitive Edition (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1929).

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child

Take up the White Man’s burden
In patience to abide
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit
And work another’s gain

Take up the White Man’s burden—
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah slowly) to the light:
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
“Our loved Egyptian night?”

Take up the White Man’s burden-
Have done with childish days-
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!

An archetype cast into heroic roles in many stories and films, the White Savior seeks to intervene and help communities of color on his own terms, with his agenda, without first surrendering assumptions of White supremacy. White Saviors may act out of pity, out of loyalty to empire, for purposes of personal redemption, or merely for publicity, but the action is uninvited, imposed, and treats those in the community of color as mere props or extras in a White hero story.

Structurally racist church organizations love spotlighting White Saviors. As such, White Saviors often exploit the poor for purposes of creating self-serving propaganda. Such exploitation is sometimes referred to as poverty porn.


With historic racism, the language of paternalism is often found within the justification for slavery. Enslavers argued that slavery helped Christianize Africans, helped transition them into civilization, and that their living conditions would be better as slaves than as free people. In 1844, MEC Bishop James Osgood Andrew made paternalistic arguments when General Conference ordered him to free his slaves. He claimed his slaves were safer in his possession, and that he had purchased one slave to free her from another cruel master. The entrenchment of his paternalism in the Southern churches contributed to the MEC, MECS schism.

Paternalism was a feature of Spanish colonial society. In the Spanish colonies and Southern United States, the relationship of Patrón to Peón became normative. Writing in the journal Social Forces (Vol 41, No. 1, Oct 1962), C. Knowlton describes the patrón as “a person who is able to provide employment, social and economic security, and leadership to those who must work for a living.” The peón is the person working under the patrón. In Knowlton’s analysis, this arrangement led to the following psychological features among peons:


Wikipedia defines a peon as:  a person subject to peonage: any form of unfree or wage labor in which a laborer (peon) has little control over employment conditions. 

Widespread among Spanish colonies, patronage and peonage also defined the relationship of Black sharecroppers to White landowners in the Southern United States.

In contemporary use, paternalism solidifies the inequity of power between management and labor. It dismantles transparent, competitive, inclusive hiring practices and centralizes this authority in a privileged few. It elevates those who distribute opportunity, diminishing the autonomy of those who receive it and amplifying patterns of bias.

When employment relationships move in the direction of patronage and peonage, the pathway into authority will be jealousy guarded and protected from merit-based encroachment. Peons will be locked out of processes for leadership development as the “deciders” determine what is best for themselves first and then for their favorites. A system of patronage cannot tolerate the multiplication of patrons.


The patrón becomes the actual owner of needed resources rather than a facilitator or intermediary between funders and beneficiaries. As I heard one official explain to an anxious group of pastors whose scholarships were cancelled during a structural change, “If you need help, come to me. I am the source. I am the fountain.”

I encountered this when students in my former ministry offered to write cards to thank local churches who contributed to the student ministry through apportionments.

The proposal drew a swift rebuke. “The bishop has already thanked them!”

I then asked, “so who should the students thank?”

“They can thank the bishop.”

Patronage concentrates the power to distribute or arbitrarily withhold resources. When authority is concentrated in this manner, a simple change in staff can end support for a historic mission or ministry and throw political cliques of favored peons into chaos. Patronage may seem benevolent, stable, easy, efficient and reliable, but there is always a chance a Pharaoh may rise up who “knows not Joseph.”

Within the last ten years, I have seen staff changes (pastoral, staff, and episcopal appointment changes) result in the undermining of Hispanic church development, conference camping ministry, a lay institute for Hispanic church leaders, a mission in housing projects, and campus ministries. Each of these ministries was dismantled without any consultation with the annual conference delegates or those impacted.

Paternalism, patronage, and peonage, attempt to make racist structures seem benevolent even as they treat those served as “half devil, half child” and intentionally prevent humanitarian efforts from changing the demographic constituency of the church or its governing boards.

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