Last month an American missionary John Allen Chau, 26, of Vancouver, Washington (pictured above lower left) was killed by members of the Sentinelese tribe as he landed on the beach of their remote island in an effort to “convert” them to Christianity.
This is one of those blogposts wherein I want to pay my respects to the family and friends of the deceased and recognize the loss they are suffering as well as the intense emotional pain they have endured. I don’t wish this loss on anyone.
It’s for the very same reason that I also feel deep frustration at what this young man was trying to do, no less in the name of a faith—which I practice—whose central principle is love. Although Chau may have had good intentions, his actions were frightfully misguided and misaligned with the beliefs he professed.
I’ve been to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. I was there working for CARE as part of the rebuilding efforts after the devastating 2004 tsunami. The Sentinelese are not the only isolated tribe in this island chain. The Jarawa are another and they were not so “lucky” to be isolated on a tiny island of their own.
The Jarawa did their best to avoid contact with outsiders, for centuries. However, as India took a greater interest in the island chain, especially because its strategic importance just off the coast of Myanmar, contact became harder to avoid. With the completion of the “Great” Andaman Trunk Road through the Jarawa’s territory in the 1970s, more frequent contact became inevitable.
The Jarawa suffered for it.
As a tribe, isolated for centuries, the Jarawa have no immunity to many of the diseases we carry. Measles and flu can be fatal for them—as they were along with small pox for so many Native Americans. Aside from the disease outbreaks (which become an immediate threat to life after every incident of outside contact) the socio-cultural impact of contact can have similar effects on indigenous people. This leads to the collapse of traditional social structures. In the eighteenth century, different waves of colonial occupiers (British and Japanese) tried to exterminate the Jarawa population through the introduction of alcohol and opium and encouraging overuse. This at all different from the introduction of alcohol and the “gifting” of small pox infected blankets by the US government to Native Americans in the nineteenth century. It was nothing less than a conscious attempt at genocide.
Substance abuse is still a threat today among the Jarawa. I saw this first hand and I witnessed the heart-breaking impact of the Andaman Trunk Road on the Jarawa’s way of life. From the window of my white Land Cruiser, that ubiquitous vehicle of international NGOs everywhere, I saw Jarawa teens stumbling around jetties at ferry crossings, mothers begging for handouts from passing vehicles, and children playing with trash discarded on the side of the trunk road. I saw just over 20 Jarawa during my trip through Andaman-Nicobar. Considering that their numbers are estimated to be around 270 surviving individuals, I realized that I had “seen” nearly 10 percent of their total population.
Human rights groups have called for the closure of the trunk road for decades. A Supreme Court ban against “human safaris” has been implemented and then lifted, amid controversy, in 2013. Today, Survival International reports that hundreds of people travel along the truck road daily, many throwing biscuits at Jarawa in hopes of making them dance for pictures.
Witnessing what I did along the trunk road led me to openly question within CARE whether or not it was even right for CARE to help Indian nationals rebuild their homes and schools after the tsunami, especially in light of the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling that the encroachment of the trunk road on the Jarawa land was unconstitutional and human rights activists calling for its closure. (To my knowledge this was never honored and CARE India continued to work in the region years after, despite a stated commitment in their founding principles to respect and protect indigenous people).
All this brings me to Chau, this young American missionary who decided to try to land on Sentinel Island.
Anyone who visits the region will hear about Sentinel Island and how it is completely isolated. After the 2004 tsunami, when helicopters flew close to the island to investigate if any of the people needed “help,” warriors emerged from the forest shooting arrows and throwing spears as if to say, “We’re doing just fine, thank you. Please take your help/interference and bug off.”
Today, the regional and national governments have done their best to honor this. Sentinel Island is off limits by Indian law. It’s common knowledge that outside contact with these tribes can lead to huge disease outbreaks, loss of life, and possible destruction of their entire society.
So why did this young man want to make contact?
We’re told, by the words of Mr. Chau’s own journal, that as he set foot on the beach he cried out, “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.”
I read these words and cringe. As an American and a Christian, I feel shame at the peril Mr. Chau’s actions posed to these people. And for whose benefit? I feel that deeper introspection, self-reflection, or better spiritual mentoring might have revealed to Mr. Chau that his efforts were more about his own gratification than the benefit of these people—whose death sentences he was signing by setting foot on that beach.
There is simply no doubt that prolonged contact and Chau’s presence on that island would have led to the deaths of people. So I’m a little gob smacked that he would attempt it, especially as a follower of a faith based on love for others. It’s misguided at best, selfish at worst. While it feels callous to be writing these words so shortly after news of Chau’s death, as his family is experiencing a sorrowful holiday season facing an empty place at the table, and contemplating many more. But I feel like we also have to point out the even more massive loss of life that would have ensued had the Sentinelese not defended themselves.
What choice did Mr. Chau leave them but to use force to turn him away? I’m pretty sure the Jesus Chau claims to follow would not want to kill the Sentinelese with disease or threaten their civilization with collapse. Not in His name. In Matthew 10:14 Jesus even cautions against converting people against their will and encourages his disciples to move on and find more receptive listeners, listeners you don’t have to force to listen—as such coercion is antithetical to the spirit of the gospel.
So we’re left with this tragedy. A young man, with an earnest heart and good intentions, is dead. His family and community are in mourning.
This is not the first time I’ve felt this toxic mix of emotions: horror, anger, sorrow, shame. As I have described in my memoir Two Years of Wonder, in 2003 I was working for an NGO focused on pediatric HIV/AIDS in Nairobi. We had set up a mobile clinic in an impoverished slum in Nairobi and were immediately flooded with patients. The line was out the door while a volunteer doctor from the UK worked tirelessly to administer what care he could to people who otherwise had no other access to health care. We could not even provide the patients much privacy. We examined them in a classroom with dirty floor and without curtains while other anxious patients waited in child sized chairs against the walls.
Our nurse that day was an American missionary, driven by kindness, compassion, and her need to bring Jesus into people’s lives. When there was a break between patients the nurse asked me if she could try to “convert” some of the people while they waited. She opened a bag and showed me a clutch of Bibles she had brought for parents and toys for children. I was shocked. According to the demographics of Kenya, and personal experience, I knew most of our patients were already Christian. But what struck me most was the coercive nature of the conversion and her obliviousness to it. Here was the only medical attention these people could receive. Some of them were seriously ill. Some of their children were dying. I imagined they would tell us they believed in Baal, Zeus, or Thor, if we—the ones holding power over their health and their children’s health—asked them to.
I would say and do a lot of outrageous things if the only doctor available to treat my child asked me to.
I said “no” to the kind nurse. Whenever we are presenting others with a choice between “Christ” or death, or (in Chau’s case) Christ and death, it doesn’t seem to be an action grounded in a message of love in the least. Chau might not have known the risk he posed to the Sentinelese, but if he had done his homework, he would have. To what extent his earnest faith and zeal for helping others overrule knowledge and good judgment? How often do we see other Christian’s acting in similar ways? How often do we?
And this is where Chau’s actions on that beach feel so personal for me. As someone who was raised Christian, who is a deacon in a Christian church, I’m horrified at what some people are willing to do, what people are willing to risk, in the name of the spiritual teacher and moral genius—Jesus—whom I attempt to follow. This is compounded by the fact that both these instances I’ve shared (and as often is the case) the perpetrators are Americans and this is another identity that is deeply meaningful and personal to me.
So the coercive conversion of oppressed, impoverished, vulnerable people, I hope, will never be done in my name (and I’m fairly certain the Jesus I’ve read about wouldn’t want it in His name either). And if He truly is God, as Christian’s believe, I’m willing to believe He can orchestrate a way to get the gospel to the Sentinelese without decimating their population with disease.
Furthermore, this flagrant disregard for the rights and lives of others that I see all too often among “Christian” missionaries, is powerfully linked to a cultural and national arrogance that is endemic in the west. I feel remiss in not calling it out, criticizing, even condemning it from within, in hopes that it will stop. It must.
I can’t help but ask where were the leaders in Chau’s faith community, “The Way,” or his associates at Oral Roberts University? Isn’t it the role of elders in a faith community to speak wisdom to young people such as Chau, whose misguided impulses could otherwise cause serious harm to themselves and others? My wish is that this tragedy prompts deep and honest self-reflection and humility among those who counseled him. I pray his death does not inspire copy-cats who endeavor to go out and complete his “mission.” We should do everything we can to prevent another tragedy like this. No one should come to the end that Chau did and no family should have to bear such a tremendous loss of a young man who, despite making a poor choice, had so much life to offer the world.
I imagine some readers might counter, in sincerity, “What of the Sentinelese? What if they live their whole lives without hearing the name of Jesus? What if they are not ‘saved?’”
While I admire your piety, I’d answer that by leaving the Sentilese alone—which is obviously their preference—they will remain protected from influenza, measles, and pertussis. Given the choice, I certainly would prefer this outcome for myself. As for the Sentinelese people’s souls, I’m inclined to reference one of the pastors at my church who recently posed the same question in respect to a hypothetical Tibetan shepherd. His answer: “We always want to know ‘who is in, who is out, who is saved, who is not.’ It’s such a western question. How about this: it’s none of our business.”
In other words, if you believe in an all knowing, all powerful, all seeing God, who exists outside of time, well, He, She, It (whatever you want to call your deity) can sort it out. That question is above our pay grade, so we can relax. As my friends in AA say, “Let go and let God."
So consider, if you can’t spread your “gospel” without the recipients dying, then don’t. Please reflect on the fact that your methods might invalidate your message.