When is the murder of a missionary a martyrdom, and when is it a justifiable act of self-defense by an insular culture that doesn’t take the threat of incursion by outsiders lightly?
That conundrum lies at the heart of the unfortunate demise of John Allen Chau.
Chau was the intrepid 26-year-old Christian missionary from Washington state who so fervently desired to evangelize a remote indigenous tribe on North Sentinel Island off the coast of India that he disregarded their right to be left alone.
In mid-November, Northern Sentinelese tribal members asserted themselves in what could be called a stand-your-ground moment of international proportions. They’re believed to have killed him by bow and arrow, according to the accounts of some of the fishermen the Chau hired to take him to the island.
Chau’s body, Indian officials have now decided, will be left on the island.
It would be simply too dangerous to recover the corpse. The threat that the tribal members would attack and kill anyone who neared it is too great. Additionally, there is the danger of introducing diseases for which the Sentinelese have no immunity.
Oddly enough, some who wish to glorify Chau as a martyr have found a convenient thread of hope, or perhaps rather of myth. In online postings and interviews with media, some are asserting the possibility that Chau survived and is alive, living on the island as some sort of biblical castaway. Without clear confirmation of his death, the contention may only grow. And that raises the danger others may follow in his footsteps.
You can bet that some equally voyeuristic person is now imagining himself or herself more cunning than Chau, capable of slipping onto the remote island, breaking all the same cultural and legal barriers that Chau so brazenly passed through.
The missionary group that trained Chau, All Nations, based in Kansas City, is certainly not helping matters. It has carefully distanced from any culpability for Chau’s expedition. It released statements of condolence for the Chau family while also dodging any notion of responsibility it might have had to dissuade him from this dangerous undertaking.
The organization praised him as a “humble and courageous” young man of faith who couldn’t be constrained, not that they tried.
“We remember, too, how throughout church history, the privilege of sharing the gospel has often involved great cost,” reads an All Nations statement. “We pray that John’s sacrificial efforts will bear eternal fruit in due season.”
To many Christians, any criticism of Chau’s mission or of outfits like All Nations smacks of anti-Christian bias or religious intolerance. But it must be asked: If a missionary incites an isolated, legally protected indigenous group to take a human life – murder being an obvious offense to God and the sanctity of life – how does that qualify as a soul-saving mission?
The world has been mesmerized by Chau’s story because it seems so anachronistic; it calls to mind the heedless arrogance of the colonial era that led to so many atrocities and destroyed so many cultures in the name of the “civilizing” mission. And there’s a bit of Robinson Crusoe adventure to it (albeit without a storybook ending).
But today anthropologists and missionaries looking to contact remote cultures have more enlightened practices. Missionary work is often arranged around tremendous acts of grace and caring, demonstrating faith by medical work, by helping with clean water projects and otherwise offering aid to modernize living conditions without a sense of superiority that subverts or intrudes.
Chau’s death should inspire reflection about the role and the methods of missionaries, the rights of indigenous people to remain protected and the folly of the exuberant embrace of martyrdom.
It is possible to laud Chau’s faith and willingness to endure hardship and also accept that religious zeal unchecked by humility and common sense can cause a lot of trouble and lead to unintended and unwanted consequences.
We don’t know what in the lives of the North Sentinelese needs fixing because they have successfully rebuffed inquiries from the outside world for a century or more. Maybe let’s agree they’ve got things under control on the island.
In the end, it was really Chau who needed saving.
Reach Mary Sanchez at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @msanchezcolumn.