Should Missionaries Just Stay Away?

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?

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