A Conversation on the Legacy of Young Missionary John Allen Chau and Modern Martyrdom

On November 17, 2018, 26-year-old Christian missionary John Allen Chau was killed while attempting to evangelize the native Sentinelese people of North Sentinel Island, India. The wake of the tragedy has seen intense global media interest in the case, with many people dismissing Chau as a fatuous thrillseeker, a dangerous zealot, a subversive colonialist … or all of the above.

However, not all assessments have been negative. In his fascinating article “Should Missionaries Just Stay Away?,” theologian and professor John Stackhouse offers a very different assessment of Chau as a “brave young man doing what brave young Christians should.” In this conversation, I spoke with John about his article and the issues it raises.

RR: John, thanks for writing your article “Should Missionaries Just Stay Away?” It’s a very interesting defense of John Chau’s evangelistic efforts and one that was well worthy of further reflection. So for starters, what prompted you to write this article?

JS: I read a piece issued by a prominent American medium (Religion News Service) that was really badly written, a hodge-podge of fact, stereotype, and outright falsehood that almost certainly was published only because the author identified herself as both a former evangelical Christian and a Native American wrestling with her own identities as such. I sincerely sympathize with people sorting out such intersectional challenges, but it’s best if they don’t publicly slag whole communities (e.g., evangelicals, missionaries) while they do so–and she did. Essentially, because missionaries have often been implicated in colonialism, then John Allen Chau was an imperialist because he was a missionary. That’s a logical problem of a pretty basic order, of course, and it’s also a wild overstatement about the history of missions. So I thought, since I’m something of an authority on evangelicalism and I’ve taught the history of missions, I might usefully speak up on these matters.

RR: Thanks, that’s helpful. I find the Chau case fascinating because it brings together a broad nexus of complex issues and I’d like to pick your brain on some of them. I’d like to start with what seems to me to be a shift in the way many evangelical Christians view pioneering missionaries and their work.

Back in 2002 when I was teaching at Briercrest College, I met Bruce Olson during his visit to deliver some guest lectures. Olson was made famous for his work with the Motilone people of Colombia and Venezuela and I had held him in high esteem since I’d read his autobiography Bruchko as a kid. Indeed, growing up, people like Olson were the closest thing to an evangelical saint.

In your article, you make reference to another famous evangelical missionary, Jim Elliot, who was martyred in 1956 while attempting to evangelize the Huaorani people of Ecuador. For generations, Christians like Olson and Elliot have represented the noblest expression of the evangelical aspiration to follow Christ.

One thing that struck me about the reaction to Chau was how many Christians, and evangelicals in particular, seemed to be dismissive of and even hostile toward his efforts. Do you think that there has been a shift in attitude toward the work of the pioneering missionary? And if so, what do you suppose is driving it?

JS: There aren’t many heroes left outside superhero comics and movies, are there? Not unalloyed saints, that’s for sure. And that’s okay: No one but Jesus has been perfect, and we’re right to keep our critical faculties about us even when, and sometimes especially when, someone is presented to us in glorious robes of sanctity.

That said, I agree that it’s weird, verging on the pathological, the way even fellow Christians have sharply criticized this young man, initially assuming he was a fanatic who knew nothing about diseases (wrong), languages (wrong), tribal cultures (wrong), and the dark history of imperialism (wrong). In fact, he and his sending agency seem to have been impressively responsible on all those counts. So what’s the problem?

Then we have evangelical Christians chiding him for breaking the law in preaching the gospel to people the government had said were off limits. Excuse me? Anyone read the Book of Acts recently?

The most serious charge is that the islanders had made it clear they didn’t want anyone from the outside to visit. Given what seems to have been their awful experience of British colonialism a generation ago, no wonder they didn’t. But does that mean no one ever brings them the benefits of modernity, condemning them–and their children–to a life without analgesics, anaesthetics, and antibiotics? Without refrigeration and metal tools and shoes and dentistry and books? Why not attempt to give them positive experiences, rather than just saying, “Oh, well, they don’t want our help.” That’s like leaving a traumatized kid in the basement of his tormentor’s house while making sure only that the tormentor is gone.

So was Chau foolish to go in alone? Some Christians are criticizing him for breaking the missionary “rule” they derive from the Bible about going in twos. But that was once or twice in Jesus’s own ministry. Jesus himself spoke alone to the woman at the well, Philip was directed by the Spirit to speak alone to the Ethiopian eunuch, Paul presumably spoke alone to his jailers (!), and so on, and so on. Indeed, one might make the case that Chau was so aware of the islanders’ fear of outsiders that he went to them as non-frighteningly and non-imperialistically as he could: by himself, unarmed, utterly vulnerable. What should he have done? Go in heavy with a commando team? Sheesh.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Randal Rauser