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Why missionary John Allen Chaus died on a remote Indian island is so disturbing to Christians.

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John Allen Chau.


In January 1956, five young American missionaries decided to come into contact with a small tribe native to Eastern Ecuador, with the purpose of transforming them into Christianity. Instead, just a few days after their first direct contact with the group, they were stabbed to death on a secluded beach. News about the deaths of missionaries is spreading rapidly in the United States. Life magazine held a 10-page spread to the story of “five devoted men who tried to get God’s word to a hard tribal stone age.” Respect for missionaries went even deeper in Christian circles, where the believers saw men as martyrs were killed for their faith.

Earlier this month, a 26-year-old Christian missionary named John Allen Chau was killed on a remote Indian island, with apparently similar conditions as the men in Ecuador. Chau dreamed about converting members of an isolated tribe on northern Sentinel Island, which are known to aggressively resist contact from third parties. He tried to prepare to do it, but he did not speak the language. At one point he wrote to his mother, approaching a group of North Koreans from the water and “hollered:” My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you. “” Chau was killed, apparently by bows and arrows, Next day on the beach.

The public response to Chau’s death has been very different from the response to the men in Ecuador 60 years ago. The main media have published opinions that accuse Chau of “cultural imperialism and mad arrogance”, for example; On social media he has been called a ” asshole ,” a ” failed colonizer ” and an ” American Dickhead .” Many critics pointed out that Chau’s expedition was a violation of Indian law prohibiting third parties from even approaching the island. There was also an epidemiological risk for the Northern Sentineles, which has not built up immunity to many common diseases, including flu. And although North Sentineles were not damaged by new bacteria, contact with third parties could irreversibly change their lives and their culture.

For many, it seemed that Chau approached the island with a caricature style of western swagger.

As he travels to an “unfair” people’s group, Chau featured one of evangelical Christianity’s highest imperative-and most diligent stories. “There is a feeling in evangelical and missionary circles that one of the highest things you can do is to take the gospel to a group that never heard it,” says historian Kathryn Long, author of a forthcoming book of the 1956 mission in Ecuador. For many evangelicals, this is the most dramatic version of fulfilling Jesus’ “Great Commission,” where he told his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations”.

Despite this, however, Christians have not shouted Chau as a clear hero of faith. “Chau’s stunt not only had a chance to succeed, it also meant to give sickness and death to this tribe,” wrote Conservative Christian writer Rod Dreher last week. “How could any Christian justify this?” Dreher was among those who pointed out that Chau’s death has led to a regional backlash that can make life harder for the minority population of Christians in India, not to mention Christian helpers and long-term missionaries there.

Part of the reason that Chau’s history has led to a backlash between both Christian and secular observers is that Chau seemed to approach the island with a caricature-style style of Western Swagger. In his diary, some of which have been published by his family, he wrote about trying to make friends with the islands with deals of scissors and safety pins and singing Christian “worship songs”. “There has been such a marine change in evangelical missiology over the past 50 years about the danger of cultural imperialism,” said Thomas Kidd, a historian at Baylor University, who wrote a blog post about media reactions at Chau’s death.
“There is much more sensitivity among evangelicals than it was then of [the missionaries in Ecuador’s] death.”

If Chau had acted as a herbicide, his misunderstandings would be easier for Christians to reject as an aberration that was not related to traditional missionary work. Then it came to pass when his death’s story first emerged: He himself went to the island, and it was not clear if he was affiliated with an agency with expertise in logistics and ethics for cross-cultural missionary work.

As it turned out, Chau had really received training and support from a number of American evangelical mission groups. One of them was All Nations, an international organization based in Missouri. “John Chau was not stupid,” said Pam Arlund, member of the International Leadership Team on All Nations, via email. “All nations believe that John was prepared to come into contact with the northern Sentinel bridge.” Chau approached the Kansas City-based agency about two years ago with the goal of visiting the island “sharing Jesus’ love with them.” Arlund said he had been working on the project since he was 18, also chose his major at Oral Roberts University (in health, physical education and sports medicine) with the trip in mind. He spent a summer in linguistic education with another well-established Christian organization, SIL International, to prepare to acquire the North Sentinel language when he landed there. He also participated in a training program for all countries for potential missionaries and continued with an online “internship”.

All nations had contact with Chau by 18 October. In an interview with Christianity today, another leader in all nations described Chau as “thorough and careful in his preparation” and said that he had quarantined himself for a period of time before approaching the island to try to reduce the risk of disease transmission. Arlund said that all nations did not provide specific logistical advice about Chau’s mission but thought he was well prepared.

The obvious fact that Chau did not act impulsively or independently will make his case more worrying for many gospels. “There is a high act that gospels must deal with,” said Kidd. “To external observers, they would say that this is cultural imperialism, you set up your culture. Evangelicals say we can put culture and just cook it down to the gospel.”

It’s an idea that would not have happened to the five men in Ecuador, which have been the subject of hagiographic books and films since their death, including the 2006 drama End of the Spear . (Attending an Evangelical College in the late 90’s, I lived for two years in a dormitory called one of the men.) Kathryn Long points out that the death of Ecuador came at a critical moment for evangelicals as they began to see themselves as a distinct cohort. The influential newspaper Christianity Today was founded in 1956. Billy Graham’s evangelistic “crusade” took over the Madison Square Garden in 16 weeks 1957. At that time, the five missionaries symbolized “what gospels would be,” said Long. Now John Allen Chau can be a symbol of exactly the opposite.

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