On Nov. 17, John Chau, a 26-year-old missionary, was killed as he attempted to evangelize the people of the protected North Sentinel island in the Indian Ocean. Chau, though having illegally attempted to make contact with the Sentinelese on a previous visit where he was shot at with arrows, returned in an attempt to introduce himself and Jesus to the tribe.
Progressives have been claiming that Chau was a part of the continued colonizer narrative as he risked the lives of the Sentinelese with disease or the cultural genocide that historically accompanies missionary endeavors. By contrast, many conservative Christians are calling him a martyr and treating his story and death like a hagiography by comparing him to other missionary endeavors where people have been killed for their faith.
If Chau were of a different major religion, this would likely not be such a large media attraction, nor a cause for national dialogue about the particular type of extremism that connected Chau’s faith to his death. But Christianity in the United States and in much of Western civilization is seen as the normal, default religion. As such, some media have chosen to paint Chau as a victim while being uncritical of the culture that created the context for both his theology and, consequently, his death.
It is possible to both grieve the loss of life and to question what the actions of the young missionary say about the limitations of Western ideologies and the cultures that create, sustain and promulgate them.
Christians must learn to be people who hold the tension of a world that is not as it should be with the reality that the ways we may want to save it may cause more harm than good.
The questions are not about his intentions. People who are considerate, kind, thoughtful and Christian can cause massive harm even with the best of intentions. From the hundreds of thousands of Americans who go on missions to Africa and effectively try to overhaul culture in the name of love, to individuals like Joshua Harris who championed purity culture by shaming and oversimplifying relationships in his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, this narrative isn’t new.
The true issue is the presumption that acting out a supposedly noble, charitable cause also renders one inherently innocent of any wrongdoing. This assumption of innocence is not neutral and stems from a Western-centric notion that globalization is a net positive for all people, regardless of their consent.
Christians have historically been the great violators of consent through colonial practices, purity culture and rampant misogyny. Evangelicals often see any resistance or disagreement with their belief system as a spiritual battle that they need to persist in fighting against. This assumption is dangerous because it creates a “no must mean a divine yes” if the missionary feels a strong enough call.
Chau’s story echos the many stories of missionaries who assume that their wielding of the gospel allows free access to wherever they believe that God has called them. “Calling,” “purpose,” “prophetic words” and one’s felt “mission” become trump cards to respecting peoples agency in engaging with faith or the missionary’s presence.
Chau took a spear through his Bible, not as a “no” to accept, but seemingly as a challenge to overcome. His apparent operating assumption (though it’s hard to know what he was thinking beyond what his diary says) was that it was his eternal responsibility to Christianize the Sentinelese for the sake of their “eternal lives.”
When coupled with talk about eternity and moral responsibility, consent seems like a small thing. But Jesus didn’t seem to think so.
The call of Jesus wasn’t to Christianize the world and to violate people’s agency. It was to love others.
In fact, members of the Acts church, the earliest church community following Jesus, regularly met resistance and hostility from communities. When they did (other than in cases of systemic oppression in centers of power), they left and listened to the people whom they were evangelizing to.
Jesus himself told his disciples to offer healing to the kingdom, but if people said no, to shake the dust of their feet and move on to places where they were received.
Christians in the midst of largely white Western evangelicalism seem so afraid of the modern construction of hell that they will invoke more urgency than the incarnate God did and justify it by calling it love. While Chau himself was not white, he reflected white evangelical approaches to missions.
The call of Jesus wasn’t to Christianize the world and to violate people’s agency. It was to love others. In reality, though, love isn’t defined by what we think is loving to a community, but how they themselves receive love. In the case of the Sentinelese people, Chau did not love them; he invaded them. To love them would be to respect their wishes to be left alone, to heed the stories of people before him, not the strength of his sense of call.
Chau, while well intentioned, could easily still be alive today if he hadn’t existed in a Christian subculture that uses the violation of others’ will as a means to an end for the missionary endeavor. And we Christians must recognize that none of us are above assuming our ideas and beliefs are better and more virtuous than others’ and finding ways to superimpose them in unjust or unloving ways.
We must learn to be people who hold the tension of a world that is not as it should be with the reality that the ways we may want to save it may cause more harm than good.
In a world of Instagram missionaries and adventure tourism, it is necessary for the church to recognize that we don’t know everything, and a sensed call doesn’t override others’ agency in their lives. Nor should the church be arrogant enough to believe that the mission of the God that it calls all-powerful is limited if young missionaries fail to reach a people who don’t want to be “saved.”
Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.