by Phil Hissom

Every non-profit tells a story and in that story there's always a hero and a villain. Sometimes it's explicit and other times it is more subtle but it's there if you listen for it. And you should listen for it because it will tell you a lot about the paradigm in which the non-profit operates. It's not just organized non-profits - any call to action to help someone will reveal a villain (prompting sufficient outrage to get personally involved) and will show you a hero (prompting belief that getting involved will actually make a difference).

This language frames the issue using epic storytelling dynamics. The hero/villain dichotomy will likely have a thread of truth to it. Told well, the story will also engage participation and loosen purse strings. The problem is it may also sideline the very people most needed in the situation. Let me give an example. Two of the most common villains in the ever present saga of under-performing schools are: 1) parents and 2) teachers. When these two groups are villainized in the education story it is often done to promote the hero of a tutoring/mentoring program. "The parents and the teachers are failing our kids! We stand in the gap to make sure all kids get what they need."

The most important people educating children are their parents/guardians and their teachers. When these groups are villainized in order to promote a third party's interests, we weaken a child's fundamental support system. Our aim should be to strengthen these systems and find ways to celebrate parents and teachers.

Recently, I shared this thought with a Dignity ServesĀ group. One woman, who had been helping kids from an impoverished community for many years, took exception to my comments. She said, "I've been tutoring kids for 20 years and I can tell you from my experience that most of these parents just don't care about their kids. It's hard to understand but it's true. And we can't just sit by and watch these kids get neglected." With uncaring parents as the problem-causer, her non-profit was positioned as the problem-solver. Several other people in the group nodded. We are all very familiar with this story.

The purpose of this post is to suggest that whenever we try to help people, we should regularly ask ourselves, "What is the cost of the stories I am telling about why things are broken?" We should do this with every issue we are trying to address. Education just happens to be one of the more contentious issues. And the cost of making parents and teachers the villains in the education story is very high. It discourages parental involvement, promotes disrespect of teachers, and it sends a message to children that their caregivers are untrustworthy.

When we reinforce a simplistic hero-villain narrative, we become less creative in our attempts to address complex issues. We start treating symptoms instead of addressing root causes. We may also resort to gross generalizations like "most of these parents just don't care about their kids." That is just not true. Most parents care a lot about their kids regardless of their economic situation.

We avoid simplistic hero-villain stories by learning from those who have the primary responsibility to address the issue and discovering ways to partner with and support them. We will only do that if we have not emplaced them in the story as the bad guy. And we will only be able to do that if our worldview supports compassion for all people. If we believe that the world is made up of good people and bad people, then we will be looking for the heroes and villains in every significant situation. And most of us will assume we're in the good people camp.

In the Biblical narrative, Jesus is the hero and Satan is the villain. Jesus' tools are love and sacrifice. Satan's tools are deception and shame. Regular people are neither the hero nor the villain of the story. We are called to trust the hero, not be the hero. We are called away from deception and shame towards love and sacrifice. We are called to love our neighbors, not villainize them.

Let's stop sticking people in 'hero' and 'villain' camps because it is not serving us well. Neither our false heroes nor our false villains can stand up to the monikers. We all deserve to be viewed as we are - imperfect image bearers of the living God. We have dignity - God gave it to us. Let's embrace our worth and expect good things from one another. Most people try to do their best. Let's try to do our best together.