The story of young American missionary John Allen Chau, killed by a Neolithic tribe on a remote island, is terribly sad. I find it repulsive that some people on Twitter are using his death to work out their loathing of Christians. If you can’t help yourself from being that kind of person, kindly do not post a comment on this thread.
Having said that, even though I share his faith, Chau had no business going to those people. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but I believe it. From the Washington Post‘s account:
“Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” he wrote in a diary of his last days provided to The Washington Post by his mother.
He left the 13 pages, written in pen and pencil, with the fishermen who had transported him to the island. The morning after Chau’s final trip to the island’s shores, the fishermen saw his body being dragged and buried in the sand.
Chau’s diary reveals a portrait of a young man obsessed with the idea of bringing Christianity to the Sentinelese, who number in the dozens and have lived largely without contact from the outside world for centuries, protected from visitors by Indian law.
It also shows that Chau knew his mission was illegal. He wrote of maneuvering to avoid the Indian authorities who patrol the waters near North Sentinel Island.
“God Himself was hiding us from the Coast Guard and many patrols,” he stated in a description of the boat journey.
If Chau had been a missionary trying to sneak into North Korea, I would have thought him insanely brave. But the law against visiting that island was there for a very good reason: this tribe has had no exposure to outsiders, and is enormously vulnerable to communicable diseases. There are only a small number of them in existence, and they could be wiped out quickly by common illnesses for which they have no immunity.
Chau could not have preached to these people. Nobody speaks their language. How on earth could he have witnessed to them? At best he could have settled down to live with them permanently or semi-permanently, and learned their language. Only then might he have been able to communicate the Gospel to these primitive people. Unless he had made plans to spend many years living with the Sentinelese, trying to preach to them was a pointless endeavor.
If that were the only issue, Chau’s attempt might have been merely foolish, an instance of the fatal enthusiasm of an immature young Christian. But Chau’s stunt not only had absolutely no chance of success, it also stood to bring sickness and death to this tribe. Can you imagine? He might easily have been an angel of death for this tribe! The vanity and hubris of that man is really something.
More from the Post:
Chau’s fateful expedition has caused widespread outrage in Hindu-majority India, where Christian evangelicals are often viewed with anger or suspicion.
So Chau’s act is now bringing pain and misery onto innocent Christians living in India under difficult conditions of bigotry and persecution. Great.
I want to be careful here. Chau’s killing is terribly sad. May God comfort his grieving family. Christians hold a special place in our collective hearts for those who are killed for the faith, especially missionaries.
Still, Chau ought to have left those vulnerable tribespeople alone. He had no chance of converting them to faith in Christ, but a good chance of giving them a disease that could have wiped them off the face of the earth. How could any Christian justify this? Even if the tribe somehow spoke perfect English, the best he could have hoped for is that they not get sick from having met him, and if they do, that they will go to heaven when they die.
The case does raise an interesting theological question for Christians, though. It is considered a divine command that we evangelize. This is not a matter of trying to get as many people on our team as possible. We really do believe that people’s eternal souls are at stake. What is the right thing to do in a case like these islanders? To do what it takes to bring the Gospel to them — live with them and learn their language — could kill them. How does it show love for them to put them at risk of death? On the other hand, how does it show love for them to allow their souls to risk eternal death?
I think the only reasonable way to resolve this dilemma from a Christian theological point of view is to pray for and trust in God’s mercy for them — but to leave them alone. It is one thing to be willing to lay down your life for these tribal people. It is cruel to expect them to lay down their lives so you can prove your love for God.
(Note to readers: I am willing to publish your critical comments of Chau, if you wish to make them. But I will not publish comments that I judge to be anti-Christian bigotry. Take care when you write.)
UPDATE: Here is a 1970s-era Indian government film that documents (briefly) an expedition’s attempt to make contact with the Sentinelese. They almost met the same fate as Chau. That part of the film begins near the 11-minute mark:
Here’s a story from the NYT last year, about an aged anthropologist named T.N. Pandit, who spent part of his career studying the peoples of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Very sad how the Jarawa tribe eventually was persuaded to make contact with outsiders, and ended up more or less ruined.
UPDATE.2: On the other hand, it’s fair to ask: if concern over exposing tribes to Western diseases was enough to halt any missionary efforts, how could any evangelization ever happen with these peoples, anywhere? I’m interested in a Christian argument about this. I perfectly well understand that non-Christians have no objection at all to halting evangelization. This is, to say the least, problematic for Christians.
UPDATE.3: A reader sends in this recent piece from Foreign Policy magazine, examining the ethical issues around attempting to change the ways of an Amazon tribe. If you are a total relativist in this matter, then you must accept infanticide. Excerpt:
More than a decade ago, Kanhu left the homeland of the Kamayurá, an indigenous tribe with some 600 members on the southern edge of the Brazilian Amazon. She was 7 years old. She never returned. “If I had remained there,” Kanhu, who has progressive muscular dystrophy, told Brazilian lawmakers last year, “I would certainly be dead.”
That’s because her community would likely have killed her, just as, for generations, it has killed other children born with disabilities.
The Kamayurá are among a handful of indigenous peoples in Brazil known to engage in infanticide and the selective killing of older children. Those targeted include the disabled, the children of single mothers, and twins — whom some tribes, including the Kamayurá, see as bad omens. Kanhu’s father, Makau, told me of a 12-year-old boy from his father’s generation whom the tribe buried alive because he “wanted to be a woman.” (Kanhu and Makau, like many Kamayurá, go by only one name.)
The evangelical missionaries who helped Kanhu and her family move to Brasília, the capital of Brazil, have since spearheaded a media and lobbying campaign to crack down on child killing. Their efforts have culminated in a controversial bill aimed at eradicating the practice, which won overwhelming approval in a 2015 vote by the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress, and is currently under consideration in the Federal Senate, its upper house.
But what may seem an overdue safeguard has drawn widespread condemnation from academics and indigenous rights groups in the country. The Brazilian Association of Anthropology, in an open letter published on its website, has called the bill an attempt to put indigenous peoples “in the permanent condition of defendants before a tribunal tasked with determining their degree of savagery.”
The controversy over child killing has raised a fundamental question for Brazil — a vast country that is home to hundreds of protected tribes, many living in varying degrees of isolation: To what extent should the state interfere with customs that seem inhumane to the outside world but that indigenous peoples developed long ago as a means to ensure group survival in an unforgiving environment?
What if the ethic of such a tribe included killing homosexuals? Would the mandate not to interfere with their customs be sufficient to keep you from interfering to save the lives of tribesmen who engage in gay sex, violating the tribe’s taboo?
It’s a complicated question. Personally, I would sooner see the Pashtun tribesmen who sodomize adolescent boys and make them their sex slaves die than be able to carry out their abominable, but deeply rooted, tradition. On the other hand, is it the business of the American government to wage war on people halfway around the world for the sake of eliminating a despicable practice? This is not the same set of circumstances as the Brazilian case, inasmuch as the tribes in Brazil fall under the authority of the Brazilian state. Still, the ethical questions are more or less the same.