Updated: Jul 17, 2022
The recent death of young martyr John Allen Chau has focused world attention on the legitimacy of Christian missions. Chau arranged with local seamen to get him onto one of the Andaman Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean, North Sentinel Island, in order to evangelize the native people there.
According to reports, he was killed by them shortly after he landed.
The islands and their inhabitants are officially protected by the Indian government against the outside world. Part of the concern is that the native people would be harmed by exposure to diseases from elsewhere against which they would have no resistance, as is widely thought to have happened to vast numbers of native peoples in the Americas, and elsewhere.
Part of the concern, also, however, is that shared by many anthropologists and activists on behalf of such people unexposed to modernity, namely, that contact with the contemporary world will only harm them and that they are better off left alone.
And part of the concern seems to be that the whole enterprise of missionary work is inextricably entangled with colonialism, with both the attitude that “we know better” and the agenda of exploitation.
Many Christians, even those whose parents were inspired by the similar story of Jim Elliott and his companions who were killed by the Auca (better, Waorani) natives of South America, have mixed feelings about Chau’s adventure. Was he an imperialist, determined to impose his religion on others? Was he a headstrong fool, leaping into peril without proper preparation? Was he in fact a danger to the Sentinelese, bringing deadly plague in his body and an alien religion in his message?
The worry about disease has to be established by experts, of course, not merely by activists. Missionaries have contacted remote tribes all over the world without bringing them germy death, so—at least to this medical layman—each situation would have to be assessed responsibly by those with the relevant knowledge. Chau and his sending mission, All Nations, apparently were aware of this prudent concern and had taken appropriate steps to protect the people they were trying to bless.
Beyond the disease question, however, there seems little to argue against Chau’s initiative—at least from the point of view of anyone not already hostile to Christianity. Christians believe—perhaps wrongly, but sincerely—that our message of salvation through Jesus Christ is the best news in the world, the solution to every culture’s fundamental problem, the hope of flourishing in this life and in the next. Nothing therefore can be seen as more important than hearing this good news, and John Allen Chau risked his life accordingly.
Those who deplore what he did as paternalistic, as thinking he knew better than they did, have to be careful, since the charge of paternalism cuts both ways. Who among these anthropologists and activists want to return to the Stone Age themselves? Who wants to give up aspirin, let alone anaesthesia, or give up cold and hot running water, let alone refrigeration?
Bach? Shakespeare? Democracy? Books? Guitars? Ice cream? Eyeglasses? Cotton fabric? Sewing needles?
Yes, of course, the modern world is full of its own problems, some of them awful. But who seriously wants to trade it in for the problems of yesteryear? Who actually does? To insist, therefore, that the Sentinelese be left alone is to insist that they not be given a choice in their own destiny—which will strike some ears as terribly condescending.
I once visited a native tribe in Panama, going ‘way upriver in dugout canoes manned by native guides. These people live in officially protected jungle and maintain an interesting blend of the old world and the new. They live in thatched huts, but they wear modern fabrics. They live off the land, but they have a radio in case of serious injury or illness. Their young people are given the choice of educational routes, including the opportunity to leave to strike out on their own in modern Panama.
I have no proper understanding of the deal these people struck with the government, having been given only the tourist’s view of things. But surely there is something just and right about negotiating with people rather than deciding for them—whether to impose modernity upon them or to withhold it from them.
And John Allen Chau clearly didn’t intend to “civilize” the natives anyhow. His diaries show that he had been trained to live among them in their way, not his, and that he intended to bring them, so far as possible, only Jesus, not the whole package of modernity.
So here’s to a brave young man doing what brave young Christians should. As for whether his body should be reclaimed, his family and the authorities will have to sort that out. But I hope it isn’t cavalier to say that John Allen Chau himself won’t mind either way, since he, like his fellow Christians around the world, looks for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.