Why slain missionary John Allen Chau might be a martyr

Supporters and critics of the late John Allen Chau disagree about his missionary methods. But they also disagree about the message that motivated him.

John Chau, right, in October 2018. Photo via Instagram

(RNS) — Now that many more details have emerged about how John Allen Chau prepared for his fatal foray onto the shore of North Sentinel Island, it has become clear that fair-minded people might agree on everything about his story — except the most important thing.

The “most important thing,” of course, is whether the gospel message he aimed to bring the islanders is actually true, and on that hangs the verdict as to the validity and value of his effort.

Chau first emerged to international attention as a kind of kooky kid missionary whose naïveté cost him his life. The huge smile beaming out from initial photographs seemed to combine both youthful enthusiasm and callow recklessness.

As journalists began to talk with the missionary agency that sent him, however, a different portrait appeared, a portrait of a young man, not a boy, with long dedication and extensive preparation.

He trained in both linguistics and missionary anthropology. He knew no one else spoke the islanders’ language and he was ready to try to learn it, even over years living among the islanders. (Missionaries have faced such linguistic barriers many times before, of course, and have often been the first to reduce languages to writing.) He even attended a boot camp that simulated first contact in order to learn best practices in such encounters.

Chau and his mission knew about the risk of infection by outsiders. He underwent a full range of inoculations and took time in quarantine to render himself as safe as possible. He recognized the islanders’ fierce protectiveness of their isolation, and he knew the history of missionary work being connected odiously with imperialism.

So he made himself as non-threatening as possible. He consciously capitalized on his small size (he stood 5-foot-6); stripped down to black underwear for his approach, bearing no arms; and eschewed the offers of help from mission teammates to deliberately approach the islanders as a lone individual. (Some Christians have criticized him for going alone, but Jesus went alone to the woman at the well, Philip went alone to evangelize the Ethiopian eunuch and Paul spoke alone to his jailers. There is no hard-and-fast New Testament rule dictating missionaries working in couples or teams.)

India’s North Sentinel Island, dot, in the Bay of Bengal. Image courtesy of Google Maps

In sum, John Allen Chau could not have been less like the stereotype of the missionary bringing a message backed by colonial troops. Nor was he some bumbling young fool.

Despite his preparation, more than a few missionary groups and missions experts have disagreed with Chau’s methods. And it remains that he broke the law, he paid other people to break the law who now face prosecution, he contravened the express wishes of the islanders themselves and he ended up bereaving his loved ones.

So how can all that preparation and deliberation ending in such a mess possibly have been worth it?

Imagine an Amish village in Pennsylvania that has kept apart from the rest of American society for 200 years. The village has made its preference for strict separation clear, and the area authorities honor it with a special isolation law that they faithfully enforce. There comes a day, however, when NASA believes the village is in the direct line of a small, but lethal, asteroid impact. Everyone else in the prospective blast zone has been evacuated but the Amish community. Is it ethical to breach their cordon and warn them?

They could not have been more clear that they want to be left alone. But what if a danger impends that was beyond their imagination? And what if that danger threatens their very lives?

John Allen Chau believed those islanders were in imminent danger of losing the prospect of their eternal lives. And despite the reservations and criticisms that some people will maintain as to Chau’s methods, how one thinks about John Allen Chau finally comes down to this: Is an asteroid coming?

If you don’t think so, then it is hard to avoid the unhappy conclusion that, despite all his good intentions and careful preparations, he was a dangerous, criminal fool. Whatever he intended to accomplish, all he actually did was tempt poor fishermen into prosecution, expose islanders to whatever germs he might still have carried and get himself killed.

If you do think an asteroid is coming, however, as Christians believe one is, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that John Allen Chau is a martyr.

And Christians and their neighbors will just have to agree to disagree on this basic point, as Christians have disagreed with their neighbors about this sort of thing since, well, Christ.

(John G. Stackhouse Jr. is the Samuel J. Mikolaski professor of religious studies at Crandall University in Moncton, Canada, and author of “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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