Why Slain Missionary John Allen Chau Might Be a Martyr

[The following appeared this week via Religion News Service]

Now that many more details have emerged about how John Allen Chau prepared for his fatal foray onto the shore of North Sentinel Island, it has become clear that fair-minded people might agree on everything about his story — except the most important thing.

The “most important thing,” of course, is whether the gospel message he aimed to bring the islanders is actually true, and on that hangs the verdict as to the validity and value of his effort.

Chau first emerged to international attention as a kind of kooky kid missionary whose naïveté cost him his life. The huge smile beaming out from initial photographs seemed to combine both youthful enthusiasm and callow recklessness.

As journalists began to talk with the missionary agency that sent him, however, a different portrait appeared, a portrait of a young man, not a boy, with long dedication and extensive preparation.

He trained in both linguistics and missionary anthropology. He knew no one else spoke the islanders’ language and he was ready to try to learn it, even over years living among the islanders. (Missionaries have faced such linguistic barriers many times before, of course, and have often been the first to reduce languages to writing.) He even attended a boot camp that simulated first contact in order to learn best practices in such encounters.

Chau and his mission knew about the risk of infection by outsiders. He underwent a full range of inoculations and took time in quarantine to render himself as safe as possible. He recognized the islanders’ fierce protectiveness of their isolation, and he knew the history of missionary work being connected odiously with imperialism.

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