By now I imagine most of you have heard the story of John Chau, the American Evangelical Christian missionary who attempted to proselytize the people of North Sentinel Island – people who have made it abundantly clear they want no part of the outside world. They were successful in repelling his invasion, killing him with arrows.
It is illegal to travel to North Sentinel Island. Part of this is to protect idiot tourists from people who will kill them on sight. But another part is to protect the Sentinelese from exposure to diseases for which they have no immunity.
Survival International is a group dedicated to protecting the rights and preserving the existence of the world’s remaining tribal peoples. In their statement on the attempted invasion, they said:
The Sentinelese have shown again and again that they want to be left alone, and their wishes should be respected. The British colonial occupation of the Andaman Islands decimated the tribes living there, wiping out thousands of tribespeople, and only a fraction of the original population now survive. So the Sentinelese fear of outsiders is very understandable.
Uncontacted tribes must have their lands properly protected. They’re the most vulnerable peoples on the planet. Whole populations are being wiped out by violence from outsiders who steal their land and resources, and by diseases like the flu and measles to which they have no resistance.
I grew up in a Baptist church that made supporting missionaries a priority. Even as I tried to be a good Christian, that never seemed right. Who were we to send people to foreign countries to try to change their religion? The justification was that “born again” Christians were going to heaven and everyone else was going to hell. So we were doing these people a huge favor by persuading them to abandon the ancestral religions that they had followed for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years.
The arrogance of that thinking was one of the reasons I rejected the exclusivity of Christianity long before I became a Pagan.
And now that arrogance has caused the death of a missionary. I pray his body does not infect the Sentinelese and result in further deaths.
The view from the other side
Knowing the mindset that sent John Chau on his mission to spread disease, I wondered what Evangelicals had to say about his death.
All Nations, the missionary organization that supported and facilitated John Chau and others like him, said “John was a gracious and sensitive ambassador of Jesus Christ who wanted others to know of God’s great love for them.” They described him as “a seasoned traveler who was well-versed in cross-cultural issues.”
Because nothing says “well-versed in cross-cultural issues” like risking infecting vulnerable people with fatal diseases in order to persuade them to abandon their religion and adopt yours.
International Christian Concern attempted to tie this act of self-defense on a remote island to ordinary opposition to proselytization on the Indian mainland: “India must take steps to counter the growing wave of intolerance and violence.” Way to hijack the conversation. In a quote on another site, they said “a full investigation must be launched in this this murder and those responsible must be brought to justice.” International Christian Concern apparently doesn’t understand the concept of self-defense and self-determination.
As I write this, that’s all I can find. Christianity Today and CBN (aka Pat Robertson) News have basic news articles. Nothing on Baptist Press. Several of the Patheos Nonreligious (formerly Atheist) bloggers have written on it, but I can’t find anything on the Evangelical Channel or the other Christian channels. I suspect they realize this doesn’t make their side look very good.
1492 all over againIt is ironic that this happened right at the American holiday of Thanksgiving. For all that I love Thanksgiving (because for me it’s always been about family, food, and football) the mythology and the history around the first Thanksgiving is deeply troubling. European settlers brought diseases that decimated the Native American tribes. They slowly but surely drove the Native peoples from their lands. In some locations they attempted to convert them to Christianity with a combination of bribes and violence.
Here we see this same story playing out yet again. Not in 1492 or in 1620, but in 2018. And in this case there are no pilgrims looking for a homeland. There are no refugees looking for a fresh start. There aren’t even any garden-variety capitalists looking for resources to exploit.
There is simply a missionary of an exclusivist religion who arrogantly believed he had possession of The Truth, and who was willing to risk his own life and the lives of those he claimed to love in order to force it on people who have made it quite clear they do not want it.
Beliefs matter … worldview matters
How do you reason with those who genuinely and sincerely believe that their religion is the only way?
This is a question of worldview, the foundational assumptions about the nature of the universe and how it works. And if you are absolutely convinced that without your religion people who don’t share it will spend eternity in torment, then no price is too high to pay to proselytize them. Not your own death, not cultural genocide, and not even the risk of actual genocide.
I have friends who are Evangelical Christians who would not do this. They believe that only those who are “born again” will go to heaven, but they see the cost of this missionary work – the cost to the Sentinelese, not the life of the missionary – and something in their soul whispers “this is wrong.” And so they trust that their God will take care of the Sentinelese one way or another, and they respect their right to live their lives the way they want to live them.
A few Evangelicals will pull the thread on that whisper and see where it leads. Eventually they will no longer be Evangelicals. Others will remain Evangelicals but will learn the importance of not just tolerance but respect for different religions. Either way their proselytizing will end and the world will be a better place for it.
But others will cling to their false certainty and do everything in their power to expand the influence and control of their exclusivist religion, consequences be damned.
Consequences that unlike this case are almost always paid by others.
This we know: exclusivist religion plus certainty equals death
The descendants of the pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving were certain that their particular flavor of Calvinist Christianity was the One True Way. So they hanged Quakers and people they thought were witches.
When Daesh – the so-called Islamic State – took over villages, they banned most entertainment, established strict controls on dress and personal behavior, insisted everyone observe prayer times, meted out brutal punishments for violations… and then told everyone to “be happy, because you’re living in a true Islamic state” (a statement the vast majority of the world’s Muslims disagree with). They were so sure everyone would be better off following their exclusivist religion they were willing to torture and kill those who opposed them.
If you believe your religion is the One True Way, I pray you do not have the certainty needed to enable oppression, murder, and genocide.
John Chau claimed to love the people of North Sentinel Island. But he loved them in the way an abusive parent claims to love their children: “just do what I say and everything will be alright.”
But the Sentinelese are not children.
And neither are the religious minorities who live next door to Evangelical Christians around this country and around the world.