Anyway, I'd never seen anyone I ever spoke before more affected than this little white college girl. She demanded right up in my face, "Don't you believe there are any good white people?" I didn't want to hurt her feelings. I told her, "People's deeds I believe in, Miss -- not their words." "What can I do?" she exclaimed. I told her, "Nothing." She burst out crying, and ran out and up Lenox Avenue and caught a taxi.
-The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Malcolm X would later recall this fateful exchange with some regret. Nevertheless, I think that his response here (and the young lady's reaction) expose the ethos of what Teju Cole has brilliantly described as the White Savior Industrial Complex. While Malcolm's eventual change of heart does reveal that "doing nothing" is not the end of the story, I think his initial response helps reveal that relinquishing control is a prerequisite for "helping" others.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in many ways, saw how this problem played itself out in the spiritual life. In Life Together, he talks about the ministry of listening:
Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.
Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.
This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.
As Christians, we are often told to be the "hands and feet" of Jesus...but very rarely his "ears."