John Chau: Reckless intruder or bold martyr?

NOVEMBER 26 ― The death of American missionary John Allen Chau, who was killed by the tribal people of the Sentinel Islands while attempting to share with them the Christian gospel, has stirred up no small amount of anger regarding the value of such “missionary trips” into dangerous uncharted lands.

The complaints include: he was reckless and irresponsible, it was illegal, he could’ve infected the tribe, it was arrogant, it was unwanted, and even Chau’s family forgiving the tribe smacks of “moral superiority” because who do they think they are? And, of course, what right does Chau have to peddle a 2,000-year old faith to a people who have survived almost 60,000 years without “formal” religion?

And yet I wonder: Why can’t the world celebrate the bravery of a a man who believed so passionately in his religion,that he was willing to put his life at risk to share it?

Unlike most 26-year olds whose main priorities hover around wealth, sex, fame and spending 26 hours on Facebook, Chau was someone who cared enough to risk and sacrifice everything so a remote tribe (to whom he owes nothing) could “experience” what he believe is “true life.”

Why, though, is all this regarded as such a terrible thing?

Below I try to deal with two of the main objections to the de facto portrait above, starting with the main one:

Objection 1: “Chau could’ve infected the entire tribe because they have no immunity to diseases; his trip risked spreading a biological contagion.”

First, do you get the feeling that most people are less concerned about the actual event of Chau being killed than they are about the possibility of the tribe being infected?

Secondly, any endeavour (obviously) has its pros and cons, and anyone undertaking anything worthwhile must balance the risks and rewards.

For example, if you believe in “open borders” when it comes to immigration, this clearly means you are downplaying the danger of violent criminals crossing the border more or less freely.

Or, if you believe that a nation needs to maintain a strong manufacturing sector, you obviously need to balance off the impact to the environment of all those factories popping up all over the landscape.

The point is, every project of any value comes with its attendant risks; every venture entails prioritising something over others. One doesn’t condemn a project simply because of one objection (however serious).

In Chau’s case, if you put yourself in his shoes, bringing “salvation” to a people you consider “lost” would outweigh the concern about spreading diseases.

However, and thirdly, the Sentinelese tribes have had quite a bit of contact with outsiders over the past few decades. Since the 1990s, the Indian government and anthropologists have tried to bring them food, aid, etc. It is even reported that the tribes frequently scour shipwrecks and have even been in contact with escaped convicts.

The point is, one American dude visiting the island with a Bible is hardly an occasion for uproar; such protests appear over-stated, ignorant of history and/or just plain biased against evangelistic outreach as opposed to other reasons for making contact.

This is, of course, not to downplay the risk of an outside disease for which the islanders have no immunity. I just think that one relatively healthy young guy going to an unexplored island (for whatever reason) doesn’t pose the kind of disease-risk that, say, a shipload of soldiers or truckload of loggers would.

I’m also curious: Would we be any less angry at Chau if we found out he brought vaccines and medicines with him? Would we then salute his bravery for risking his life in giving other people what he believes is good?

Objection 2: “Chau’s faith is his own faith. What you call ‘caring for the people’ is entirely subjective; the world doesn’t need any more Christian evangelists telling people what to believe. They are perfectly fine on their own, thank you.”

This objection, other than revealing a disdain for the practice of religious evangelism, in my opinion shoots itself in the foot. Because it assumes that Chau’s message has to be one which is objectively absolutely non-negotiably “good” for people failing which he should just mind his own business.

Sure, except this is pretty hypocritical when you think about it. I mean, how many of us fill other people’s Twitter timelines with news about “justice”, “the environment”, “how Trump is destroying America”, “tips for healthier living”, etc.?

All these are irreducibly subjective but they reflect what we believe are good for others. So why is it so uncool for Chau to share what he believes is good with the Sentinel tribe?

To rephrase a point made above, you get the impression that people online would be less annoyed with Chau had he been, say, trying to get some medicine to the tribe, or trying to save his friend held hostage on the island, or trying to persuade the tribe to leave the island before a volcano blows up.

Sure, how and why we get annoyed over whatever issue is our business, but let’s be honest in that case: We are pissed off with Chau because we don’t share his beliefs about what constitutes the Good in this world.

But this would be so strange, especially given how nowadays people can’t help “celebrating differences” and all that? Why can’t we celebrate the choice which Chau made to sacrifice everything for something he believes in, or does that Nike slogan only apply to millionaire American football players?

The world always talks about “being yourself”, to “go for it”, blahblahblah ― but now the world condemns Chau for doing precisely that?

Closely related to the scorn is the insinuation that his actions resemble the “colonising” spirit ie. Chau was simply the latest in a dark history of white super-powers taking over indigenous tribes and subjecting them to oppression.

This would sound pretty funny if it wasn’t so stupid because, no wait, did Chau forget to bring his weapons and army? Were they docked in India and they didn’t get the call to go save him, destroy everyone on the island and steal all the, uh, animals and vegetables?

Yeah, totally makes sense.

In closing, I reckon that the world got triggered by the fact that Chau was a Christian evangelist. If Chau was an Antifa member who broke into the White House and spray-painted Trump’s office with peace signs and got shot in the process, you can bet your bank account he’d be a role model in no time.

But, no, he was just a brave guy who wanted to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with a remote tribe. And in today’s world, that’s way less cooler because how dare he do that?

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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