John Allen Chau and the Assumptions We Carry

Today as I sat down to write about John Allen Chau and the distance between opposing viewpoints, I realized that the moment to comment on this subject passed back in early December.  Many articles and posts were written just after the news hit that Chau had been killed as he tried to land on North Sentinel Island, in the Bay of Bengal.  I wanted to write in mid-December, but it felt reactionary.  Reflection and careful thinking take time.  That time means that jumping on the bandwagon while the topic is hot is not an option.  While I may be late to the subject, it is still important to consider what happened between Chau and the people he attempted to reach, and what happened between those who saw him as reckless and those who saw him as a martyr.

In last week’s post, I argued for love as our guiding ethic.  Looking at the conflict between the Covington Catholic School boys and the Indigenous Peoples’ March, I suggested that the entire situation could have looked very different if the boys’ chaperones had guided them to listen to the people they disagreed with, to hear what Nathan Phillips and the other Indigenous Peoples’ marchers were communicating with their songs and drumming.  What would that situation have looked like if everyone in that situation held space for questions, listening and learning from each other?

The Obligation of Christians

In that same vein, I printed out two articles regarding the actions of John Allen Chau.  One was an opinion piece by a professor of religious studies posted at Religion News.  The other was a piece posted by The New Yorker.  Dr. John Stackhouse argues that how a person thinks about the actions of Chau depends upon how one understands the obligation of Christians to fulfill the Great Commandment – Jesus’ parting words to the disciples in the gospel of Matthew to “go, therefore” and make disciples of all nations.  The New Yorker article describes the conversation amongst missionaries and mission agencies regarding the approach taken by Chau – direct proselytizing – in contrast to relief and development work.

Dr. Stackhouse presents the case for proselytizing in stark terms.  Chau believed that the people of North Sentinel Island were in imminent danger of losing their eternal lives, as though an asteroid was approaching their homes and his faith required him to preach Jesus to them.  Despite Chau’s study of linguistics and missionary anthropology, and despite not knowing the language of the Sentinelese people, Chau “contravened the express wishes of the islanders” and attempted to land on their island.  Chau would have learned through his study that gaining the trust of people in order to show respect for their culture and to learn their language takes time.  The people he was attempting to reach have no immunity from modern diseases, and despite his efforts to quarantine himself he would have presented an infectious risk to the very people he wanted to reach with a message of salvation.

The Assumptions We Carry into Mission Work

The assumption behind Dr. Stackhouse’s argument is that without verbal proclamation by a Christian the Sentinelese people can never know God.  If people have not heard about Jesus from a Christian or had the Bible preached to them, then God cannot have revealed God’s self to them.

The assumption that God cannot save God’s own creation without human intervention is one that needs unpacking.  The assumptions we bring to any mission work should be examined.  Dr. Stackhouse asserts that Christians simply have to decide if they believe those persons who have not heard a verbal proclamation of Christ are going to hell or not.  If you agree, then Chau is a martyr, and if you don’t, well then let’s just “agree to disagree on this basic point”.  Further, he asserts that Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the time of Christ, so it’s all good if we disagree.

Not Agreeing to Disagree

My argument is that if we simply “agree to disagree” then we are not unpacking the assumptions and biases we bring to our mission work.  Holding space for each other, listening to each other, asking ourselves difficult questions, these are the ways in which we dismantle our own prejudices and cultural blinders.  We may continue to disagree, but without listening to each other and continuing the conversation, we will not learn from each other.    An ethic of love guides us to listen to each other and work through our difficult questions.

The New Yorker article quotes Dr. Ed Stetzer, professor of mission and evangelism at Wheaton College: “The history of [mission] is filled with stories of bravery, martyrdom, and positive change – but also filled with mistakes, colonialism, and cultural errors.”  Dr. Stetzer’s description of mission history reveals that scholars of mission have examined assumptions and biases, working through difficult questions and learning from the past.

Wycliffe Bible Translators is mentioned in the New Yorker article as well, due to their policy of only sending translators when they are invited.  This is also the policy of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission.  An invitation from a presiding bishop of an area is required for a team of volunteers to go to a mission project.  Policies like this have developed after mission sending agencies carefully considered difficult questions and listened to those they aimed to serve.  Waiting for an invitation means that a volunteer team is not in charge of the mission project.  The host country or church decides when or if they want outsiders to come.

Building Bridges of Understanding

So this brings us back to learning how to listen.  As I’ve said before, learning how to listen requires vulnerability and willingness to change.  Rather than simply agreeing to disagree, which means we do not have to face our vulnerability or change, Christian love makes it possible for us to hold space for each other.  Christian love is the guiding ethic which makes it possible for us to hear each other and build bridges of understanding.  When our brothers and sisters in countries that had received missionaries during colonialism spoke out against the assumptions underneath decisions by mission agencies or denominational leadership, it took Christian love to guide those mission and denominational leaders so that they could change.  Through listening and building bridges of understanding, we have an opportunity today to improve our mission practices.

I don’t have an easy solution for the conversation about John Allen Chau’s approach to the Sentinelese people.  I would defer to those with experience in the region, both local church leaders and mission organizations that work in the region.  I firmly believe in and trust the work of the Holy Spirit.  I believe that God can work in ways well beyond my imagination.  I believe we are better when we pray, think, and work together.  May we all continue to hold space, listen, learn, and build bridges of understanding and grace.

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