I had naively assumed that, when the story about the death of American missionary John Allen Chau broke, Christians would use it as an opportunity, especially as Chau’s death was so close to Thanksgiving so close to Thanksgiving, to reflect on our history of killing of native people in our attempts to Christianize them. Instead, I’ve been surprised by the number of people–including people whose thinking I admire–who have defended Chau’s effort to proselytize inhabitants of North Sentinel Island, a protected group off the coast of India.
I’m thinking about this with a lot of love for missionaries–and a lot of skepticism. I personally support missionaries (though non-Mennonite readers probably should know that “missionaries” among my kinda Mennonite means someone doing some kind of social good–education, agriculture, medicine, peace-making.). I also think that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, which means that people should be free to learn about and choose from themselves religions unfamiliar to them. I also think that when they do not consent to this, there is no religious right that the evangelist holds to preach to them. I think that humans are migratory animals and that the right to free movement across the globe is also a fundamental human right. At the same time, I think that when the presence of some bodies threatens the very existence of others, it’s reasonable to protect the vulnerable at the expense of the strong.
Others have covered the historical and biological reasons why Chau’s behavior was so troubling–perhaps even deserving of death. (Short version: The people he was trying to convert likely have no immunity to the germs he brings. He could have–and still could, even in death–wipe out the entire group. That’s genocide.)
Above, John Allen Chau, from his Instagram page.
I want to add only one point, from a faith perspective: the Gospel is to be good news, never bad news, and it should never harm those who are called to it. When Christianity kills–in war, in colonization, on the US-Mexico border, in missionary work–it betrays the model of Jesus.
I don’t mean that Christians will never suffer. I mean that they are never, in their mission work, to cause others to suffer for their sake. It’s fine for Chau to have risked his life; it is the anti-gospel for him to risk the lives of others as he did.
But isn’t it better to die hungry than unsaved? That’s the argument of Christians who dismiss missions work that focuses on alleviating suffering in favor of work that focuses on conversion. (This, by the way, is the philosophy of the Green family of Hobby Lobby. They regularly refuse to support work that is merely “good” (feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, houses the homeless, etc.) in favor of work that is “great”–that seeks a born-again experience as the goal.
No, I don’t think so. Jesus always met the physical needs of others. His miracles, from turning water into wine to raising the dead, were about life on this earth. There were times he grows weary of teaching and preaching, but he never refused to heal. There were a lot of would-be Messiahs roaming around his part of the world at the same time. What distinguishes Jesus is his message of radical care for others.
But isn’t it better for a man to lose the whole world than his soul?
Sure, but the Sentinelese aren’t Jesus’ audience in Matthew 16. Here, Jesus tells his disciples that he’s going to face persecution. They balk. Jesus grows impatient with these men who have witnessed his ministry, seen him prioritizing the care of the vulnerable, watched him fuss with authorities who objected to his boundary crossing in pursuit of care for others:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”
Chau, in both his life and in his death, has made the gospel into bad news for one of the groups of the most vulnerable groups of people on earth. The danger that Chau presented to the group included not just his germs but unwanted international attention. Who knows how many would-be martyrs will be inspired by the death of Chau and try to finish what he started, endangering themselves and the North Sentinel Islanders again and again.