The death of a U.S. missionary: Was John Allen Chau's effort mere imperialism?

A few days ago, when news was dribbling out about a hapless American Christian missionary speared to death on an Indian island, I figured the story would be just a blip in the daily news flow.

Since then, a geyser of coverage of enveloped this story; not only about the slain man himself, but on the justifications used for missionaries being there in the first place. For some journalists, this has turned into another opportunity to bash missionaries, especially evangelicals, with one-sided stories that feature major holes, in terms of content.

Being that the John Allen Chau was from the southern half of Washington state, the Seattle Times (my local paper) has been full of coverage from the Associated Press.

SEATTLE (AP) — John Allen Chau spent summers alone in a California cabin as a wilderness emergency responder, led backpacking expeditions in the Northwest’s Cascade Mountains, almost lost his leg to a rattlesnake bite, and coached soccer for poor children in Iraq and South Africa.

But kayaking to a remote Indian island, home to a tribe known for attacking outsiders with bows and arrows, proved an adventure too far for the avid outdoorsman and Christian missionary. Police said Wednesday that he had been killed, and authorities were working with anthropologists to try to recover his body from North Sentinel, in the Andaman Islands.

“Words cannot express the sadness we have experienced about this report,” his family said in a statement posted on his Instagram account. “He loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people.”

Since his Nov. 16 death, everyone has gotten in on this story either to editorialize on what those stupid missionaries are doing in parts of the world that clearly don’t want them or to puzzle out what drove a healthy 26-year-old to face certain death.

Details of Chau’s death are running first in Indian media before they're released elsewhere. It looks like the Delhi bureau of the Associated Press has done the heavy lifting on this story. Here are more details:

The young American, paddling his kayak toward a remote Indian island whose people have resisted the outside world for thousands of years, believed God was helping him dodge the authorities.

“God sheltered me and camouflaged me against the coast guard and the navy,” John Allen Chau wrote before he was killed last week on North Sentinel Island.

Indian ships monitor the waters around the island, trying to ensure outsiders do not go near the Sentinelese, who have repeatedly made clear they want to be left alone.

When a young boy tried to hit him with an arrow on his first day on the island, Chau swam back to the fishing boat he had arranged to wait for him offshore. The arrow, he wrote, hit a Bible he was carrying.

“Why did a little kid have to shoot me today?” he wrote in his notes, which he left with the fishermen before swimming back the next morning. “His high-pitched voice still lingers in my head.”

Which brings up a question: What was he doing approaching a place where he had no grasp of the language? According to Christianity Today, he was connected with All Nations, a missionary agency based in Kansas City.

We learn here that no one knows the language of the island’s inhabitants much less how many of them there are. Anthropologists explain why the Indian government has demanded that they be left alone.

The New York Times came up with more of a timeline with what happened with Chau and why his decision to be left alone on the island the night of Nov. 16 was a fatal one. And now his body lies on a beach and it looks like the Indian government is going to have to send in a SWAT team to retrieve it. This is not the first time interlopers on North Sentinel haven’t made it out alive.

The South China Morning Post cobbled together this intro with the help of Washington Post and AP accounts to give us an idea of Chau’s last days.

‘Satan’s last stronghold’: diary of John Allen Chau, US Christian killed by Stone Age Sentinel Island tribe, reveals his terror and sense of destiny. The handwritten diary of missionary, provided by his mother, tells how he wept as he watched what he feared would be his last sunset. But Chau believed ‘God Himself’ was guiding his illegal mission to take Christianity to the Sentinelese tribe, who shot him to death with arrows

It’s fortunate for reporters that Chau left a detailed diary to provide grist for their reports, as I’ve seen nothing on Chau’s family from the nearest major newspaper, which would be the Oregonian. The Seattle Times likewise hasn’t ventured south to Vancouver to find the family, as far as I can tell. The Vancouver Columbian dug into its archives to find a few snippets about Chau that it had published 10 years ago. Wherever his family resides, they’re keeping their heads down.

One thing I have not seen mentioned –- except in CT –- is the eerie resemblance to another missionary outreach that went wrong back in 1956 involving five men who died in similar circumstances. Jim Elliott is the most famous of these men –- chiefly because his wife, Elizabeth, wrote two books about the incident -– who tried reaching out to the Auca Indians of Ecuador but got speared to death for their pains. Years later, the Aucas did come to hear the Christian message.

The tale of Elliott and his friends is well-known among evangelicals. Was Chau aware of it and was it on his mind as he headed toward India?

There’s been a lot out there debating about whether missionaries should go where they are not wanted in the first place, particularly if it’s a place like North Sentinel where the natives presumably have no protections against modern-day diseases. A casual visit from an outsider could decimate an entire tribe.

This piece in a secular Indian publication trashes Christians for proselytizing up and down the island chain of which North Sentinel is a part. Several groups, from the Catholics to the Moravians, had also tried, then failed. Only when the Anglicans showed up — backed by British military might — was there any success.

The story gives a lot of interesting background about why Chau was so successful at penetrating a police blockade of the island — but still ridicules Christian missionaries for having the gall to try to convert this part of India.

This strikes me as rather hypocritical when you consider the vast numbers of schools and hospitals these nasty missionaries started up in India, including houses for the poor and dying founded by the famed St. Theresa of Calcutta. She was from Europe, after all. I didn’t see other religions reaching out to the untouchables, scraping the dying off the streets and providing first-time-ever medical care for lepers.

Also, the debate on cultural and religious imperialism that has been set off by the death of this missionary assumes that people can go on living in some kind of happy religious ignorance for millennia. But that’s not the way the world is going.

The worldwide religious marketplace these days is a place where you have to take sides. As for the Sentinelese, if the Christians don’t get to them, someone else eventually will. The possibility that any natives anywhere can stay as they are is a fantasy. Globalization means that everyone is getting ensnared –- like it or not -– in everything from McDonalds to cheap toys from China. Not everyone on the receiving end of western culture via their iPhones is happy to have it. But it’s here and religious change is part of that mix. Staying in a bubble isn’t an option.

Look at Africa, a continent once was filled with animists. These days, the religious choices are Muslim or Christian.

Foreign Policy said in 2010 that Abrahamic religions have taken over Africa, displacing animism. A century ago, 76 percent of Africans were animist. Now it’s down to 13 percent. Neutrality is a nice concept but it’s increasingly tough to stay that way.

So if you’re going to trash the John Allen Chaus of this world, then consider how Saudi Arabia has spent $75 billion in petro dollars building mosques all over the world to create an Islamic global footprint. Let’s not pretend it’s just the Christians out there going after souls.

Call it religious entrepreneurship and investment for future gain if you like, but a history of Christian missions –- and I’m waiting for reporters to talk about that -– involves people who took risks. Any religion that believes on waiting for seekers to come to them isn’t going to grow.

Look at Nigeria if you want to see the front lines of the world’s two largest religions battling it out for a continent. To pretend there isn’t a war out there; to say that territories aren’t being redrawn is to have one’s head in the sand.

Chau knew of the risks and failures others had endured in trying to reach this island and was hoping that he’d be the exception rather than the rule. So did the men who died in Ecuador. Sixty years later, some 400 of the Auca –- also known as Waodani –- are Christian and one is a missionary to India. I’m guessing Chau knew this.

What I’d like to see in coverage of Chau’s sacrifice –- wise or foolish as it may have been -– is some account of the bigger picture in it all. In the 19th century, British missionaries took coffins with them to Africa because chances were they’d return to the U.K. entombed in one. Thanks to those missionaries, Kenya went from 1 percent Christian in 1900 to 79 percent a century later.

It’s not just the West, either. More than a year ago, I wrote about a Chinese couple who were undercover missionaries in Pakistan, only to be killed by ISIS.

Articles on missionaries are notoriously difficult to sell on a freelance basis because missionaries of all stripes are a ridiculed and despised class of people in the minds of most media. Yet, there are those among them who are doing incredible work; who’ve improved the lot of those they live among and who deserve better coverage than being dismissed as imperialist carpetbaggers.

In some countries I’ve visited, I’ve found that missionary networks are far more valuable than journalistic ones. Missionaries know the facts on the ground better than many journalists. And missionaries have changed the course of many countries. It’s time reporters got with the program and took these folks seriously.

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