John Chau and Why Missionary Work Should Be Left in the Past
It was all over the news some weeks ago; John Allen Chau, who was apparently possessed by the ghost of a 19th century Englishman, was killed by the isolated Sentinelese tribe in North Sentinel Island, India when he attempted to visit them to spread the Christian gospel. I never thought I’d be saying that in the 21st century but here we are. Thank you, Mr. Chau, for further proving (as if we needed any further proof) that humans don’t learn from their history, which is why our history is, in many ways, a huge clusterfuck of the same mistakes.
So, what does history say? Well, if it had an actual voice, I reckon it’d probably be shouting at us to STOP MAKING THE SAME BLOODY MISTAKES (pun intended) OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN. I mean, come on, seriously?! Not only was visiting their island illegal, the natives had also previously indicated to Chau that he wasn’t welcome, and he should’ve respected that. In fact, they didn’t just indicate. They shot freakin' arrows at him! In my book that equates to a huge F*CK OFF, yet somehow Chau managed to interpret this barrage of arrows flying in his direction as an invitation to come back, and he paid for this foolishness with his life. According to Chau’s records, he first greeted them by calling out, ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.’ Considering the fact that they later killed him, we can safely assume that the feelings weren’t mutual. I’m actually curious as to why Jesus/God didn’t drop a heavenly hand from the skies to help Chau, seeing as the guy had clearly devoted his life to them.
There are multiple problems with white men going international with their missionary work but first, let’s take a peek at history. It shows us what happens when men invade foreign lands under the guise of spreading Christianity and ‘civilising’ the natives. Centuries of white imperialism did an indescribable amount of damage to foreign lands and their indigenous peoples, the consequences of which can still be felt today. Since most folks nowadays are at least aware of this colonially-rich portion of history, Chau must have decided to go ahead with his mission regardless, which is rather disrespectful and arrogant of him.
The Sentinelese tribe (pictured) is part of a wider group that is majorly ancient. I’m talking tens of thousands of years old, pre-civilisation kind of ancient. These people obviously have their own set of religious beliefs, and I’m 99.9% certain that their beliefs are animistic, like many indigenous tribes around the world, and pre-date the Abrahamic religions (i.e. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.) by thousands of years. Chau took it upon himself to, as he wrote to his parents, declare Jesus to these people because he thought it was worth it. This is essentially a dismissal of the Sentinelese people’s religious beliefs, which leads me to believe that Chau thought his Christian beliefs were superior to theirs, especially when in a letter to his friend, he made the suggestion that the island was ‘Satan’s last stronghold.’ Who did he think he was, judging these people and granting himself the license to break another country's laws to spread Christianity where no one wanted it, and putting the entire tribe at risk in the process – which brings me to my next point.
Due to their total isolation, the Sentinelese haven’t had the same immunisations to modern pathogens that we do, which means they’re highly susceptible to common illnesses that can wipe out their population. Aside from the murder and genocide, how many millions of natives around the world died because of exposure to diseases that came with centuries of European colonialism? Chau coming into contact with the Sentinelese was a huge risk to them and this alone should’ve been enough to stop him. Even if things had gone according to Chau’s desired plan, with the Sentinelese welcoming him and converting to Christianity, it’s highly likely that part or all of the tribe would’ve fallen ill or even died not long after, since Chau was effectively the equivalent of a walking, talking vending machine of various infections.
So, given all of these issues, why did Chau still go ahead with his mission of madness? To throw in my two cents, I think that part of his motivation came from selfishness. Perhaps he felt it would be a great personal achievement to convert one of the last isolated tribes in the world, or maybe he felt it would elevate him in the eyes of his god, like some kind of socio-religious mobility. He may not have been a bad person, but he should’ve known that this mission would be problematic at best and aborted. If Chau had succeeded with the Sentinelese, this entire fiasco could’ve turned out much, much worse.