Last week, an American missionary named John Allen Chau was killed as he tried to approach the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island. Both his own words and those of the mission organization that sent him confirm that he intended to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with this uncontacted tribe. Many people have already mentioned the risk of spreading diseases that this tribe (and the few others like it remaining in the world) have no immunity against, which in and of itself is a big ethical conundrum for missionaries. (I was unable to find any reflections on this in any Christian missions journals or websites and would love to read one if anyone has read one!)
We ought to share the Gospel with every people group on the earth, and Chau’s zeal for this is admirable. The social media reaction to his death (both positive and negative) revolves simply around the fact that Chau was a missionary; a lot of the negative reaction seems to mostly just be a thinly veiled disdain for proselytization and an eagerness to demonstrate a more sophisticated faith than Chau’s. However, there are several other important things that jump out from Chau’s story that I hope For All Nations will address, as they seem to have been his primary source of accountability in his work:
The For All Nations statement says that Chau “had studied, planned and trained rigorously since college to share the gospel with the North Sentinelese people”. What sort of planning and training did this involve? The New York Times reports that Chau tried to speak to the people in Xhosa, a South African language that he knew a few words of. Did he really think that would work? Did he attempt to learn any other languages used nearby? Did he consider any other forms of contact besides approaching the island directly by boat?
Unless Chau had partners whose existence has been concealed from the public for their own safety, he seems to have acted entirely alone. What sort of local support from nearby communities or churches did he have? Are there churches in those communities that Chau could have partnered with or supported in their work with the goal of eventually reaching the North Sentinelese? If he didn’t have local accountability, what sort of oversight did he have?
Chau bribed fishermen to break Indian law and take him to North Sentinel Island. While there are different schools of thought among missionaries with regard to the laws of the country they are in and what to do about bribery where it is more culturally acceptable, most contemporary full-time missionaries strive to honor local laws wherever possible and when laws are contravened, they are mostly directly related to proselytization itself. Bribing someone else to break the law in order to shout at someone in Xhosa is a different ethical matter altogether. Is this what Chau was advised to do, or was he counseled about it at all?
I think Chau’s zeal was admirable and I wish that more people could be half as excited as he was about Jesus and be willing to risk half as much as he did for the sake of spreading the Good News. (This is a theme that my friend Amy Peterson took up in her book Dangerous Territory, see my review here.) However, I also think that we must have wisdom and prudence to accompany our zeal, lest we find ourselves dead or unintentionally killing others, as Chau could have done had he passed on the flu or another deadly disease. Zeal without wisdom is dangerous.
More information has come out, so I wanted to update my post. Most insightful was the Quick to Listen interview that Morgan Lee and Mark Galli did with Mary Ho, the international executive leader of All Nations. She revealed that Chau underwent a quarantine period to minimize the risk of disease transmission; he also had undergone SIL training in linguistics. There was also a great analysis by Lucy Austen at Christianity Today comparing Chua to Jim Elliot and his companions; Ed Stetzer has also promised a series of posts digging more into Chau’s story and the questions he still has.
For me, I wish that Morgan and Mark had asked Mary Ho about the legal aspect of the case and the supervision/accountability that Chau had on the field. So many of my above questions still remain.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org