Most folks would have heard about a young American missionary who went to a remote island to evangelise an unreached people group. For his efforts he was killed with bows and arrows and buried by the tribesmen. All sorts of discussion and heated debate has erupted over this. We have not just Christians and non-Christians heavily weighing in on this, but conservatives and leftists as well.
A number of issues all come together in this tragic case. Let me try to unpack some of the matters of debate and disagreement. First, the story is this: Chau was a 26-year-old missionary who had a passionate desire to reach this primitive people. He was killed when he went to North Sentinel Island, around 1200 kms east of India, on November 17th.
At least three big debates have arisen:
1. Many atheists, non-Christians, and even some Christians are saying things like this: Should missionaries even be allowed to share the gospel anymore? Is this not religious imperialism? Should it not be banned altogether? What about religious pluralism?
2. Christians are asking – and debating – issues like: Was he wise? Was he foolhardy? Was he running off half-cocked, lacking maturity and godly wisdom? Was he a martyr who should inspire more of us to be courageous for Christ?
3. A political debate also has erupted here: Should people just be allowed to waltz into someone else’s nation without prior permission? Should not a nation’s borders be respected? All this ties in with current debates on immigration, migrant caravans, and the like.
Let me deal with each of these issues. As to the first, we of course live in an age of “tolerance,” relativism, pluralism and subjectivism, in which any claims of absolute truth are viewed as arrogant, bigoted and hateful. So this is really an older debate.
Indeed, the first disciples of Christ also met with such objections. They were seen as narrow-minded and intolerant. Paul could speak of the offence of the gospel. It is indeed offensive to everyone who refuses to bow their knee to their rightful Lord.
So this is a long-standing debate, and we can expect those in the world to harshly condemn Chau. And plenty did. You may have seen all the hateful comments, tweets and remarks; “He deserved what he got” etc, etc. Plenty of folks were gloating over his death, and even celebrating it, claiming he got what was coming to him for being so evil to disturb these poor folks who were getting along just fine without him.
Of course the biblical Christian does not buy the myth of the “Noble Savage” and knows that every person on the planet needs to hear the gospel. Thus there is nothing new in wanting to share the truth with those who do not want to hear it. We share the good news regardless of how little people may want to hear it.
Sure, we can have lengthy talks about HOW we share the good news. We can discuss issues of tact, being wise and winsome, being sensitive to other cultures, and the like. And all of that leads us to my second point. Was Chau simply out of line?
Plenty of Christians – and not just liberal ones, but evangelicals – have slammed him. One simply needs to google his name to see how many are dumping on him: he was rash, immature, unprepared, arrogant, and just plain wrong to try to evangelise these people.
What are we to make of these claims? Several things can be mentioned. Could he perhaps have done things better? Maybe – just like all of us can do things better, but…. Those who actually know him say he actually did do things pretty well.
Sally and Floyd McClung set up the All Nations ministry. Sally said this in an email:
When Floyd and I first met he had been greatly impacted as a young man by the life of Jim Elliot – the missionary to the Huaorani Indian tribe in Ecuador. Jim and 4 others were martyred as they tried to reach the tribe in 1949. Jim had said “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” That became a motto for Floyd in his call to ministry. I remember him telling me that he/we might have to give our lives someday if we followed God’s call on our lives. We prayed and dedicated ourselves to Him.
That cost was never asked of us, but it’s one that John was willing to make. In a recent newsletter, John had said he was willing to do whatever needed to be done to make contact with this tribe. He journaled the night before he was killed, and asked his family not to be angry if he didn’t survive. John was willing to take on the hard challenges. He has been praying, planning, training, and preparing for years for this step. It wasn’t a light-hearted decision.
In recent years when Floyd preached on fulfilling the Great Commission by taking the Gospel to “every tribe and tongue,” he often said that all the “easy” places have been taken. To fulfill what God has asked us to do, we need to be willing to sacrifice, to lay down our lives. There is cost involved. And Floyd would always ask for those who would be willing to go.
Ed Stetzer added this:
The Washington Post reported Tuesday night that Chau also undertook linguistic and medical training to prepare for the outreach. These new reports at a minimum challenge the simplistic image of an adventure-seeking zealot willing to recklessly risk the lives of a remote group of islanders….
It is clear that Chau was a committed Christian and wanted others to be the same. His last entry says, “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people.” From the perspective of much of Christianity through history, and millions of believers today, his motivation was good….
I grieve for John Chau and his family. He made his choices because he loved the North Sentinelese. You might see it as a waste. You might point out his mistakes, even after learning that he had worked hard to prepare for his mission. But, as I write this, less than 100 feet away is a letter Jim Elliot wrote. As a Wheaton College graduate, he has a special place here. As Elliot wrote (and Chau experienced), “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
And at least one more thing needs to be said. I have little time for armchair critics. Those who do nothing for the kingdom but are keen to attack those who are doing something – even if rather imperfectly – are not those I prefer listening to. Yes, concerned critics can add their voices to the debate, but those who just love to attack others while doing nothing themselves really need to zip the lip.
The Christian satire site Babylon Bee recently ran a piece on this with this headline: “Man Who Has Never Shared Jesus With Anyone Criticizes Slain Missionary’s Lack Of Wisdom”.
And I often share this story about the great American evangelist D. L. Moody:
One day a lady criticized D. L. Moody for his methods of evangelism in attempting to win people to the Lord. Moody’s reply was “I agree with you. I don’t like the way I do it either. Tell me, how do you do it?” The lady replied, “I don’t do it.” Moody retorted, “Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”
The third issue which has gotten plenty of attention is the issue of border protection, national sovereignty, and the like. Right now we are having big debates about all this – in the US, Australia, Europe and elsewhere. This is a major debate between left and right.
Debates about intruding on this island have already raged. As but one example, the secular, more or less conservative Australian politician Pauline Hanson sided with the islanders. As one news report puts it:
Sen. Pauline Hanson, of the country’s One Nation Party, filed a motion on Tuesday calling for the Senate to “support the desire of the Sentinelese people to protect their culture and way of life,” Australia’s ABC News reported. “I for one will not be condemning the Sentinelese as racist for keeping their borders closed, nor will I condemn them for their lack of diversity,” Hanson said.
Obviously as a conservative I have often made the case for the right of nations to have secure borders, to decide who they let in, and so on. But of course I am also a Christian, and the truth is, issues of worldwide evangelisation are not the same as issues of immigration, refugees, and asylum seekers.
While national sovereignty is important, so too is allowing people the opportunity to hear the gospel. Sydney church leader Reverend Michael Jensen looks at both political and spiritual aspects of this. He said this in part:
Perhaps without realising it, Chua was transgressing something sacred. Not just in the sense that he was attempting to intrude into the Sentinelese way of life, whatever that is. We know as little about them as it is possible to know about an existing human culture.
Rather, Chau stumbled into one of the greatest unresolved moral tensions in our Western way of looking at the world. On the one hand, he was violating the liberal doctrine of the inviolability of cultures. This of course comes with several lashings of (often justified) guilt about 19th century imperialism and its interaction with indigenous peoples. We know too well about the human suffering caused by the wholesale destruction of indigenous cultures.
On the other, even in his recklessness Chau was declaring a version of what we also believe to be true: that there is such a thing as a universal humanity. The Sentinelese are not wild animals. They are not game for us to slaughter, nor are they an ecosystem that needs to be preserved under a glass jar so we can study them. Neither are they aliens – however weird they may be to us.
No – that unknown people, who speak an unknown language and worship unknown gods, are our brothers and sisters in being human. Which means that they, like us, have rights and responsibilities, from which they cannot simply be exempt. “Thou shalt not murder” applies to the Sentinelese as it applies to us….
We do not give a moral leave pass to traditional cultural practices like female genital mutilation or infanticide or suttee. They are either always wrong, or our insistence on stopping them is merely imperialism by other means. It’s patronising to think otherwise. But how could we (the rest of the human race) possibly connect with the fragile Sentinelese culture without destroying it utterly and without obliterating their right to walk their own way on the part of the earth they call home?
Chau may have been naive, but at least he did not come to the island wielding a gun or wearing a uniform. He made undoubtedly clumsy attempts to speak in the local language. He was not attempting to steal their land or to “civilise” them. He came in the name of one who was killed by those he came to save, and like him, accepted death as the price of reaching out.
The left, as is so often the case, is all over the place here. On the one hand they are condemning Chau, while also insisting on the principle of open borders. As my friend Daniel Secomb put it on the social media: “Think about this. Remote Indian tribe kills outsiders coming into their land, the Left praises the tribe. Trump tightens border security and uses non-lethal action to prevent ILLEGAL entry, the Left loses their minds.” Yes quite right.
I do not know all that much about Chau, and certainly the various debates will continue. But all things considered, I applaud him for seeking to share the gospel in hostile lands. Many have preferred to slam him. One missionary was quite critical of what Chau did. His headline and subtitles were these:
“John Chau’s Death Was A Missionary Failure Nobody Should Emulate”
-Did God Give Him a Mission to the Furthest Place on Earth?
-Mission Work Is Not an Instagram Adventure
-Making Yourself a Martyr Isn’t the Goal
-Mission Work Is Important, So Do It Well
-Doing Missions Poorly Doesn’t Glorify God
While some truth is found in his criticism, others were less hostile toward him and what he did. Let me offer a few concluding reflections on all this. Having just finished reading again the book of Acts, I am reminded afresh of just how often we see many incidences of divine guidance via the Holy Spirit in the apostolic mission.
The Spirit would guide the early disciples in where to go, but sometimes he would guide them where NOT to go. Consider Acts 16:6-10:
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
And then we have Acts 20:22-24:
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
Notice how the Holy Spirit basically warned about trouble ahead. Those who heard him were sorrowful, “most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again” (v. 38). Many would have had the same misgivings when Chau said he was heading out to do this work.
One Australian missionary director, Wei-Han Kuan, had an interesting interview on this. He said in part:
I want to challenge the myth of the noble savage. This the idea popularised in eighteenth century literature but with a long history that somehow, human beings who live close to the land, in their natural state pre-colonisation were happier, healthier and wiser, and living in more perfect communities. Now, that’s an exaggeration, but the basic idea is that tribal peoples are better off without the corruption of modern civilisation. At its heart, the idea of the noble savage is a doctrine of original good in humanity instead of the Bible’s picture of original sin.
Quite apart from the ethical functionality or otherwise of Sentinelese society, Christians, like John Allen Chau, believe that eternal life and true good is found only in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have a Great Commission that we need to work out how to apply in their case. Leaving them alone, out-of-sight, out-of-mind to pursue a convenient myth of a noble savage tribe on an idyllic island is not an option for mission-minded Christians….
I’m praying that John Allen Chau will indeed inspire much prayer, reflection and action that the most unreached people in the world might have the opportunity to be introduced to life in Jesus Christ.
I pray that his family would be comforted and encouraged, and not discouraged or dismayed by the range of responses to John’s actions and death.
I pray that the Indian government would depart from the myth of the noble savage and their don’t-ask, don’t tell policy and actually take real responsibility for all the tribal peoples that God has put under their earthly sovereign rule. And that they would govern for every Sentinelese or Jarawa or Dalit man, woman and child’s good in every sense of that word.
I pray that all this publicity would engage hearts and minds towards love for the Sentinelese, just as John Allen Chau evidently loved them.
Yes please pray, and keep in mind his convictions. As Chau once said in a letter to his family: “Rather please live your lives in obedience to whatever he has called you to and I’ll see you again when you pass through the veil. This is not a pointless thing – the eternal lives of this tribe is at hand and I can’t wait to see them around the throne of God worshiping in their own language as Revelations 7:9-10 states.”