GQ has published a terrific story written by Doug Bock Clark about John Chau, the young missionary that broke Indian law to attempt to evangelize to an “uncontested” people on North Sentinel Island who were well known for being violently hostile towards most people who attempted to visit the island. Chau was killed by the Sentinelese and most of the public opinion about the situation appeared to have a rather negative view of Chau’s choices boiling down to three complaints:
- Chau probably exposed a population with no natural immunities to exotic (to them) pathogens.
- The Sentinelese have been well documented as being uninterested in visitors of any kind.
- Chau broke the law to bring an undesired religion to these people.
I am in agreement with all of those points. The GQ article doesn’t clarify if Chau spent even a second of time thinking that he might be bringing a plague on the Sentinelese, but it does tell a story of a man who researched, at length, the tactics used for bringing Christianity to remote and uncontested peoples. I would help that there would be someone with some science in their brain that would bring up the possibility of disease.
On the second point, modern evangelicals do like to swim in their largely, self imagined persecution complex, which is then extended to the word of God. If a people are hostile towards the message of Christianity, it must mean that you have to double down on it. Modern Christians will remember ancient Christians suffering under Roman emperors, but forget that way more Christians died for their faith at the hands of other Christians following the Protestant Reformation. Therefore, I think that I can understand John Chau’s mindset that this island being hostile to any outsiders was seen as a challenge to bring Christianity to the island.
On the third point, modern evangelicals love breaking the law to get to get Jesus’s message to places. Despite many American evangelicals claiming that they have no obligation to help the desperate people coming from Central America to their southern border because they’re “breaking the law”, those same Christians have no problem with smuggling Bibles into China (surprisingly those Bibles being smuggled into China probably were printed in the very country they are being smuggled into).
The article is a really good read and is written in a very even handed way that is somewhat sympathetic to John Chau’s mission, but doesn’t shy away from mentioning the obvious problems with the journey to Sentinel Island. I find the parts mentioning Chau’s father some of the most interesting parts.
His father, Patrick, wrote in an essay about him, the existence of which was first reported by Outside, “John became the victim when my [influence],” of a more moderate Christianity, “failed to counter the irrational religious and glamorized ambition of adventures of exploration.”
Patrick Chau, John’s father, was born in China, endured six years of forced labor harvesting rice during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, escaped to the United States, studied medicine at Oral Roberts University, which John would attend, and eventually brought John up evangelical. But during a weeks-long correspondence with me, Patrick described how over the past decade he had begun to find biblical truths in the Confucianism of his youth. He came to believe that the commonalities undergirding world religions meant that people “not following Western religious terms could still be following the teachings of the Bible.” In this context, he decided, “the theology of the Great Commission”—of missions—“is the byproduct of Western colonization and imperialization, and not Biblical teaching at all.” He wrote, “I have no common opinion in faith with my youngest.” John “was not there yet.”
I wrote back: “But it seems you think that he would have come to that realization, in time?”
“Eventually,” Patrick answered. “I hoped.”
The elder Chau strikes me as being one of the many level-headed Christians in the United States, while one of his children had been swept up in the grand adventure that many evangelical organizations sell to the young. TeenMania’s Acquire The Fire paid-to-attend marketing conventions for their week long mission trips was the organization that tried to get me to buy into the adventure of seeing the world in the name of Christ. Helping our fellow human beings was of a secondary importance in their sales pitch.
Chau also wrote about a theme that I had heard quite a few times.
He considered the Sentinelese to be living in “Satan’s last stronghold” and destined for hell unless he rescued them for heaven. To him, there could have been no greater act of love than risking his life to save them from eternal torment.
Which means, that these people on this island have been living and dying for thousands of years and every single one of them have been going to hell, because God’s system of salvation requires a two millennia long game of Telephone to stop that parade of Sentinelese into the gaping maw of hell. And, following that logic, they’re still all going to hell because Chau wasn’t able to get there to learn their language, translate what Chau thinks God wants them to know, and then tell them. I grew up around people who fully believed that this was the system set up by an All Loving God. Chau believing this isn’t a surprise.
Where some people saw a sensitive missionary prepared by years of training, others saw an overconfident, underprepared young American cheered to his death by his mentors.
I think this passage sums up the whole of it. Both groups listed in this passage were likely correct. And he was cheered to death by his mentors. The idea of getting into every corner of the world to try and stamp out any other religion at any cost is a core theme in the American evangelical church.
Although I think Chau’s choices were poor, I understand how he got there, being a product of his environment.