Social and news media has been abuzz in the last 48 hours with the news of a young American Missionary/Explorer named John Chau who was speared to death by a group of tribespeople from the Sentinel Islands – one of the remotest tribes in the world (a tribe of around 80-200 people), who seem to kill nearly every person that trespasses on their remote island in the Indian Ocean. They are so unique that the Indian government has made it illegal to go within 300 miles of the Island to both protect their way of life and to protect them from various viruses and pathogens that contact with the outside world could present to the island and wipe out the tribe through disease.
Much vitriolic angst has been spilled denouncing the actions of this young man, while at the other end of the spectrum he is being lauded as a modern-day Jim Elliot – a missionary who was speared to death in a similar fashion by a remote Ecuadorian Tribe in the 1950s. I didn’t know John personally so I can’t really make comment about his motivations and decisions to do what he did, but I do want to ponder some of the bigger questions that have been bandied about on the internet in light of his actions. I don’t finally want to come down on a judgment on this particular instance, but I do want to ponder the following questions briefly:
- Is the spread of Christianity a force for good in the world?
- Is evangelism/missionary work the same thing as colonialism?
- Should people be evangelized if they don’t want to be?
- Is it good to defend tribal practices of remote people groups?
- Should Christians always obey the “laws of the land”?
- What is a martyr and being persecuted for one’s faith?
- Are the activities of missionaries reflective of what it means to follow Jesus?
1. Is the spread of Christianity a force for good in the world?
Christianity didn’t begin as a socio/religious bloc, it was simply a small sect of Judaism who proclaimed that the Messiah of the Jewish people had arrived. Jesus, was, however, no ordinary Messiah, he was the incarnated Son of God. Both the identity and actions of Jesus were at odds with many Jewish expectations of Messiah and the split from Judaism came in the first and second century, but the growth of this small persecuted sect was nothing short of phenomenal, so much so that the mighty Roman Empire co-opted it in the 4th Century.
There are many opinions about the marriage of the Christian church and Imperial state power, but a few things are incontrovertible. Firstly the church continued to grow and secondly, in spite of the MANY bad things that so-called Christian rulers have done, Christianity is the bedrock of western thought and action and has been a force for good in providing an understanding of freedom, compassion, charity, and many other of the values and rights in the west that we may consider are self-evident and right. If it were not for the teaching of Christianity and the acts of true Christians I would contend that there is nothing self-evident about some of our societal values and rights. One thing is also incontrovertible, the ideas and way of life of Christians did change the way of lives of many tribes throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. If you need to dig into this subject deeper I would recommend the works of people such as Rodney Stark or Philip Jenkins, but despite all the abuses of Christianity it has been a force for good in the world and much of this good has been brought about through the actions of missionaries and young intrepid, sometimes foolish young men (yes, they were usually male).
2. Is Evangelism/Missionary work the same thing as Colonialism?
An accusation against John Chau in this particular instance is that what he was doing was the work of a “colonist”. In other accusations, he was spreading the “white patriarchy”. This is perhaps the most absurd of the accusations, however, it does merit some conversation. The dictionary definition of colonialism is “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” Colonialism has been around for thousands of years with the Phoenicians and Romans engaging in forms of colonialism, however, our popular understandings of the practice rather hearken back to the activities of the European powers during the 18th and 19th centuries. The challenge for the church has been that while at times the work of missionaries and the European powers were at odds with each other(the works of the Moravians and the early British missionaries to India were at odds with the ruling powers), at other times the two were inextricably linked. David Livingstone’s maxim of “Christianity, Civilization, and Commerce” meant that the pith helmet became the symbol both of Christianity and the British Empire in Africa; in many cases becoming a Christian actually meant becoming a European.
Contextualized missions work became a quick push back to this movement with the likes of Hudson Taylor’s adoption of Chinese culture although being seen initially as a shocking innovation was soon seen as the correct methodology for missions work – embracing Christianity should never mean being divorced from one’s culture unless elements of the culture were at odds with the fundamental tenets of Christianity. An example might be that Christianity does demand that a tribe give up revenge killings, widow burning, and cannibalism, but does not demand changes to food, clothing, language, and local customs. This is obviously a nuanced discussion (as most of this discussion is), however, I would contend that the historical record shows that where changes are merited they certainly benefit the community for the good.
If you are able to extract the work of Christian missionaries from the foreign policy of a political nation (which is increasingly easy – for instance, I am certain that John Chau was not in anyway an actor of US Foreign Policy), then it is very easy to say that the work of Christian missionaries (who come from every culture on the planet) does not in any way represent colonialism. It may as already mentioned mean that if individuals become Christian they cease doing certain actions which they had previously done, but this is I would contend not exploitative, is not empire-building and not colonialism.
As an add-on to this, I would contend that missions work is not the work of the white patriarchy. John Chau was male, but not white. Most missions workers today are actually female (one commentator has said the ratio is 7 to 1), and a growing number of missions workers today are from the global south – Africa, South America, and Asia.
3. Should people be evangelized if they don’t want to be?
It is very clear that the inhabitants of the Sentinel Island did not want to be contacted, let alone “evangelized” by anyone. This for many is prima facie evidence that they should not be contacted. Our western postmodern mores dictate that an individual’s religion is a private matter and we should not force our personal religious beliefs down others throats. This view was popularised by Immanuel Kant and really came on the heels of some of the biggest religious conflicts in European history, with much bloodshed on either side predicated by faith positions (although I would contend that the mixture of powerful political positions was much more to do with the conflict). The challenge with this position is that it is self-defeating and hypocritical. The philosopher Charles Taylor has very ably proved that the secularization of western culture is not a negation or subtraction of religious positions rather simply the introduction and addition of another religious position; the claims of secular humanism being as much a construct of various truth claims as Christianity. The prevailing idea that one should not force personal religious beliefs down another’s throat is itself a religious position being forced down another’s throat.
Most cultures do not like change, most people do not initially want to be evangelized. Some cultures are more open to new ideas and products. As humans, we have a predilection to evangelize our ideas. I would contend that this cannot and should not be stopped. Rather than stopping people thinking and sharing their ideas I would contend simply that the best ideas should rise to the top. There are clearly other things at play in this particular instance, but let’s dispense with the idea that we limit the spread of ideas to only people that are initially open.
4. Is it good to defend tribal practices of remote people groups?
There are approximately 7000 living languages in the world today. Some of these languages are only spoken by a handful of people and in many cases, languages and cultures die out and cease to exist. Is this a good thing? Should certain ancient cultures be protected the way that UNESCO protects its World Heritage sites?
My initial reaction is always to preserve cultural diversity, however, the change of cultures is the way of history – even with some of the largest cultures in history. Nobody speaks Latin and lives Roman culture anymore, neither Phoenician, Carthaginian, Anglo-Saxon etc and these were all hugely dominant cultures.
Many amazing tribal cultures have been destroyed by more dominant oppressive cultures throughout history. But similarly, many oppressive tribal cultures, bound by violence and poverty have been emancipated by more dominant cultures, giving the individuals in the previous culture a pathway to freedom, better health, and education. when William Carey campaigned to stop the ancient tribal practice of Sutee – the burning of widows as part of the chattels of man that has died – he categorically did a good thing. When missionaries brought Christianity to cannibalistic tribes in Irian Jaya and as a result brought peace and prosperity to warring tribes, they categorically did a good thing. However, this is a difficult and more nuanced conversation. One of the reasons why the Indian government has banned contact with the people of the Sentinel Islands is because contact with the tribe could introduce foreign pathogens which could introduce diseases to which these people have no immunity and thus wipe out the tribe. The biggest examples of such introduction of foreign pathogens would be the massive epidemics which wiped out big populations in the Americas with the coming of the western colonial powers. Due to the previous contact with the outside world, this may be an overblown concern, nevertheless, spreading disease should not be a small consideration. I do feel this consideration should not be conflated with simply a carte blanche desire to protect ancient cultures without reference to what the ancient culture represents.
5. Should Christians always obey the “laws of the land”?
One idea thrown around in the recent discussions is that this young man was foolish because he was not obeying the laws of the land. The relationship between Christian’s and societal rules and laws is an interesting one. I believe history shows that Christians have generally strengthened societies, the social capital they bring to a nation has historically strengthened a nation and they do by and large obey the laws of the land to a greater extent than the general population. However when the legal framework of a nation comes into conflict with the commands of the Bible, many Christians throughout history have followed the example of Peter in Acts 5:29 who said to his rulers “We must obey God, rather than men”. Typically the arena where this is primarily played out is in relation to proclaiming the gospel. If the laws of the land prohibit evangelization, should Christians follow those laws? The testimony of the global church throughout history is that generally these laws must be broken if the church is to be faithful to the commands of Jesus.
6. What is a Martyr and being persecuted for one’s faith?
The current situation has brought up the topic of martyrdom and being persecuted for one’s faith. Some people are calling this young man a martyr and others are calling him foolish or worse. This is as you can imagine quite a controversial subject. A small segment of scholars have recently called into question the martyr record of the early church – did some of the disciples in the early centuries have a bit of a deathwish so that they would be martyred? I think this is probably true. What is martyrdom anyway? Was this young man persecuted for his faith or was he simply shot down because he was trespassing? What is being persecuted for your faith? I recently sat with a Christian leader from a Creative Access Nation, who has a number of his friends sitting in a prison cell with a potential that they may be executed for sharing their faith. When we dig into the specific circumstances of people that are being persecuted for their faith one could contend that they are being persecuted not because of faith, but because of“breaking laws” or because of stupidity. I don’t like the label of martyr or want to measure what is persecution for righteousness sake and what is not. As it relates to myself I want to be a bold witness of Jesus (which is a martyr)and wise to try and avoid persecution wherever possible. While at the same time I will continue to pray for my brothers and sisters who are being persecuted for their faith.
7. Are the activities of missionaries reflective of what it means to follow Jesus?
This is perhaps the most important question IF you are a follower of Jesus. Followers of Jesus follow Jesus commands. One of these commands has become known as the Great Commission. It has different aspects depending upon which gospel you read. However in Mark 15:16, one of the earliest references to the Great Commission Jesus says “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation”. We can have much discussion about what is involved in the Great Commission and the best methodologies to complete it – however one thing that it does present us with is a clear call to tell people about the Good News of Jesus with some very black and white outcomes – salvation or condemnation. One thing that I have a conviction about is that if you follow Jesus commands this one is not an optional one. This is the one command of Jesus that is disliked the most (and outlawed the most by nations who are opposed to Christianity). You may disagree with many things that John Chau did (and I would probably agree with many of the criticisms), but if the death of John Chau provokes a discussion about what the Great Commission means to Christians then I think his death will at least in this respect not be in vain.