Some of you may recall the story of John Allen Chau, the evangelical missionary killed by members of the Sentinelese tribe who live on an island in the Indian Ocean. We wrote about Chau here.
Over at GQ, Doug Bock Clark has written the best thing I have read on Chau and his missionary efforts. The piece is informative, deeply empathetic, and worth your time. I wish more historians wrote like this. Here is a taste:
Many evangelicals were outspoken in celebrating his sacriﬁce. “There was no colonial intention,” said Ramsey, Chau’s friend. “[John’s] motivation was love for these people.… I think he’s up there in heaven.” Oral Roberts University released a statement that concluded: “We are not surprised that John would try to reach out to these isolated people in order to share God’s love. We are deeply saddened to hear of his death.” Parks, Chau’s boss, wrote on social media that Chau was “one of the best and most selﬂess human beings there ever was.” Many Christians spoke of being inspired to do missions themselves—missions that might reach all the way to Sentinel Island. On the Facebook page “I Admire John Allen Chau,” a post described a young American declaring at a missionary conference, “I am called to go to the people JOHN Allen Chau tried to reach.” Ramsey said, “I could see John as a modern Jim Elliot, someone who made a greater impact in death than life.” At All Nations’ annual fund-raiser in April 2019, the organization celebrated Chau and featured as the keynote speaker the grandson of a missionary pilot who perished alongside Elliot.
And yet not all Christians supported Chau’s actions, including many prominent evangelicals, such as the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Christian missionary work has evolved over the ages, and it is now profoundly important for missionaries to be sensitive to the culture of the people they are sent to,” said Ben Witherington III, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. “Chau is a pretty classic example of how not to do missions in the 21st century.” Some ﬁeld missionaries criticized Chau as insensitive, ineffective, and even ignorant of biblical directives. As Mark 6:11 commands: “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” The detractors and supporters of Chau often seemed to be screaming past one another about different realities. Where some people saw a sensitive missionary prepared by years of training, others saw an overconﬁdent, underprepared young American cheered to his death by his mentors.
One recent afternoon, while pondering all this, I ﬂipped open an edition of the waterproof Bible that had stopped the arrow the Sentinelese boy had ﬁred at Chau. He recorded the verses that the shaft broke on, which conclude in Isaiah 65:1–65:2: “I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not: I said, Behold me, behold me, unto a nation that was not called by my name. I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people, which walketh in a way that was not good, after their own thoughts.”
While Chau didn’t record if he interpreted the “rebellious people” as the Sentinelese or if the verse impacted his decision to return to the island once again, it’s telling he swam ashore the next morning. And yet Witherington, the Asbury seminary theologian, who has written a book about deciphering Isaiah, said, “I don’t dismiss Chau’s sincerity or sacriﬁce, but the question is whether he interpreted Isaiah rightly—and the answer for that, I think, is clearly no.” Two more theologians confirmed that in the above passage, the “rebellious people” are actually those inside the church, as God is criticizing the Israelites for worshipping false idols.
In all my months of reporting, I never found any evidence that Chau even once questioned his calling. His certainty was so absolute that he was willing to bet not only his life on it but the lives of the Sentinelese. (Multiple doctors have stated that his self-quarantine wouldn’t have worked.) But one inscrutable thing about religion is that while it offers deﬁnitive answers, believers draw different answers from the same words, and often different answers throughout their lives.
Read Clark’s entire piece here.