Rogue or Martyr? John Chau and the Complexity of 21st Century Missions

Dec 20, 2018

An undated photo of missionary John Allen Chau, who was killed in November by inhabitants on a remote Indian island. Image via Reuters.

The story of missionary John Chau’s untimely death at the hands of North Sentinelese tribesmen has captured the public imagination in a startling fashion, inspiring opinion pieces in publications as diverse as The Washington Post and The New Yorker. Many of the responses have been hostile, arguing that Chau needlessly jeopardized his life and risked spreading diseases on the protected island. Subsequent information has painted a more complex picture of Chau’s aims. In this episode, Nathan and Cameron discuss the unique tensions that erupt when a 21st century missionary seeks to share the gospel with an unreached people group.

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Cameron McAllister: Hello, and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. This is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your co-host Cameron McAllister.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And I'm your co-host, Nathan Rittenhouse.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, so Nathan, we continue to accumulate controversies in the nation and so many events. It's just dizzying, it's hard to even take stock of, for instance, the Mueller investigation, and the ongoing revelations there. And of course everybody telling us what to expect, and how we should be ... definitely a spirit of anxiety, I would say, and fear. And now of course we're in the midst of the holidays, too. Christmas always seems to sneak up on everybody, and we just get caught up in social obligations, Christmas parties, etc.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, it's not like happens every year.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, exactly. You'd think we'd have this down by now, but no. So in the midst of all of this, this just swell of noise. One story that has just really, has kinda stayed strong and, I think it's a particularly haunting story, and, as is usually the case, it's also proven to be quite controversial. Is the story of the missionary John Allan Chau, who recently died trying to bring the gospel to the people of North Sentinel Island, which is one of I think remains to this day, one of the most unreached people groups in the world. Lots of different reactions to this, and I thought and, actually you brought this up recently, Nathan. So I definitely think this is a very helpful topic, and I'd love to hear why it drew your attention initially, beyond the obvious interest, and why we should talk about it here on Thinking Out Loud.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Sure, yeah, and again we're a few weeks out from this having happened, and so it's given everybody opportunity to develop an opinion on it. But one of the striking things of it is who picked up on the story. I mean if you just do a Google search for this, you're going to find New York Times, Washington Post, obviously like your Christianity Today's, but a lot of your larger secular news outlets picked up on this as a story in random opinion pieces. The New York Times did a kind of, a bit of a survey of other missionaries and say "hey, what do you think about this?" So I thought it was fascinating that, of who picked it up, and how big of a story this became in different outlets.

So there is one element of that, and we can maybe come back around and talk about whether or not there isn't a hint of news organizations thinking that this is Christianity being consistent, or inconsistent in what it believes. So there is that element of it, and then I think it opened our eyes to the fact that here you have a remote island, I guess it's in the Indian Ocean.

And it is a group of people that is by decree of the government, isolated. So, yes, it is a very remote and isolated island, but it's supposed to be that way, and has been for hundreds of years now. Part of the reason being that every time that there's been new contact from the outside, disease has run rampant and killed a lot of people. And so now you have sort of a protected area, that is deemed illegal to kind of break that barrier into that culture. And so you have a group of people that's continuing to live with no outside contact with the modern world. So I think there are a number of fascinating elements there, that provide this multi-variable curiosity for us as we think about this story.

So here you have a young man who hires some fishing vessels to drop him off. He makes some contact, getting to shore, and then is killed by a group of people who are known for killing everybody who's ever come to their island. And so, on one hand, some of the response has been very much like "Yep, that's what happens when you go to this island, and has happened to everybody else." But it's different because of his evangelistic missional zeal and fervor. And so that's what makes this a different story. And so it's not just about this particular instance, it's also about a bigger vision of evangelism and cross-cultural interactions, and ministry, and impact. And so I think it opens up a whole realm of possibilities for us to say, hey, you know what? On one hand he was exposing this group of people to potentially new diseases that they didn't have an immune system for.

Cameron McAllister: Okay.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And so it could have been cataclysmic for their population, people that are living there. On the other hand, if you really think that somebody needs to hear the gospel, then that makes sense too. And so I think what it does, is it gives us a way of looking at, sort of, the concept of worldview has gone out of vogue. But this really isn't, when you look at the responses to it, you really do see this as a very clear sort of litmus test for somebody's worldview. And so if you're coming from this from a completely naturalistic perspective, yeah this was a foolish thing to do. He's potentially cross-contaminating subsets of the human species. If you're looking at it from a Christian missional perspective, there have been people who say hey, kudos to him, I hope to see him in heaven.

So I think those are the balancing factors here. And I mean, and you lived in Austria, different parts of the world, why is it okay to do missions and evangelism in one place, but maybe not another? I think we can draw from this, even for people who are listening into the conversation who aren't familiar with the story, it raises interesting questions from that. And so, I don't know if that gives enough of an introduction there or not.

Cameron McAllister: I mean, certainly there's a clash of values that happens here. And the one reading of this, practically speaking, does make a lot of sense. Somebody looks at the facts on paper, and they just say; yeah this man is clearly jeopardizing his life and, potentially, the lives of those who are on the island. And he seems to display a kind of thrill-seeking attitude. And various articles here have painted him in a different light. They've zeroed in on certain words he's used. For instance, the use of the word holler in one of his journals. But I think if you pan out, you can clearly see that, that's not an apt summary of the man at all. In all of our moments we'll use humorous phrases, or we'll use cultural lingo. So I don't think that that counts as really filing him away as some sort of thrill-seeker who didn't do the necessary preparation.

And in fact, Ed Stetzer has really written a few articles, one for the Washington Post, and then one in Christianity Today, where I think he wasn't, not so much trying to set the record straight, as provide the needed context to show ... look, this man did do training. He was doing linguistic training, he was preparing to meet with these people and, according to sources very close to him, that is friends, and family members, he fully intended to stay with these people and live with them, teach them, learn their language, and share the gospel with them in the most intimate day-to-day ways. So, clearly, he was prepared, and he does seem to have-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, and this wasn't just an advanced selfie opportunity-

Cameron McAllister: Of course not. It sounds as though he really had prayerfully thought this through. This goes to what you were saying, Nathan. There's a clear reading on this from, let's say, a non-Christian perspective. Where you would just say; well this is just so simple, it's reckless, and it's dangerous to the people. But, again, if Christianity is true, and we have a commandment from our Lord to go to the ends of the earth, to share the gospel, make disciples of all men, then, clearly, this man was trying to obey that command, indeed, was obeying that commandment. I mean, this is also where we are in danger of forgetting this in the United States, but if you look at the so-called ... I've never liked this very much, but the "hard sayings" of Jesus, right? Those really uncompromising statements he makes. I think about in the gospel of Luke, the section that's often filed under the cost of discipleship. But when he talks about whoever does not hate his mother and his father, his family in other words, or, indeed, his own life is not worthy to follow me.

In other words, if you're not willing to set aside everything, if you're not willing to lose your life to gain it for Christ's sake, then you haven't really understood the nature of true discipleship. You can almost joke and say, well Jesus saying this sounds like the worst alter call ever. It's almost as though he's trying to talk you out of ... but he's being honest. He gives the illustration of whoever wants to build a tower, or undertake some major project, anybody who does that who's wise always counts the costs, and really thinks about it. Do I really believe this?

And you look at these kinds of incidents, and this is the test, in many ways the ultimate test of whether you really believe Christ is who he says he is, and believe his claims. And, so, it's fascinating, you see all these tensions erupt when you look at these conflicting narratives. I'm curious about your thoughts there, Nathan.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I mean, obviously there have always been tensions between missiologists and anthropologists about how this all works out, right? And there have been, sort of, atrocities committed as byproducts of ... first the missionaries come, and then ta-dah you're a colony of another country. So there's that whole history to work through. But you have had people doing this type of thing and losing their lives for it; obviously, Ecuador was maybe the most recent famous version of that in the Western world.

Cameron McAllister: Maybe remind our listeners of that one, real quickly, Nathan.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So you have, I think the Elliot's and saints, and forgive me for not coming up with the other names of the five guys who landed a plane along the river, to engage with an Ecuadorian tribe that was known to be notoriously violent. And they had done the same thing, learned some of the language, made some initial, kind of, long distance contact, dropping stuff from airplanes and stuff. Went, had one good first interaction, and then were killed on the next interaction. And I think, by all accounts, let themselves be killed. They had weapons. They could have defended themselves, but chose not to. And then their wives and children later went and lived with the group that had killed their husbands. And it's a wonderful story of reconciliation and transformation there.

But I was also thinking of the other times where you have different groups, specifically thinking, again, in South America, who have had contacts with missionaries, and it's changed their culture. Because you go to, you start wearing clothing and shoes, and you start writing your language down. And anthropologists are saying, you're destroying a culture here. And then it's interesting to read some of the people who grew up in those tribes, responding to that, and saying, hey, we didn't necessarily like running around without modern medicine, and dying of horrible diseases. We have a romantic vision of primitive human life that maybe we're mapping onto this. I think that's a helpful corrective, if you can have somebody who was raised in one of those tribes, give that perspective of saying, yes, we were different and primitive, but that doesn't mean we were happy and fulfilled as humans, and everything. This wasn't just like advanced organic gardening ... and everything's great.

So there's that part of it, and then for me, personally, in thinking back through it, I thought, well, let's say this was cross-cultural contact for the first time, but it wasn't about religion. Let's say it was about medicine. So, let's say that somebody found out that this island had a small pox epidemic, and a doctor with a small pox vaccine had kayaked over to the island, and then was killed. What would be the global response to that?

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, right. Quite revealing.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Either we would say, oh, that was a good thing to do, or we would say, no, you're interfering with the natural world. And, at that point, even the fact that we now have kind of a government mandated sanctuary for this, that also raises some questions from me about, at what point are we sort of isolating a group of people, almost as a - I have to be careful with the words here - but, as an experiment or as a sub-human group that we're holding almost in an observatory, zoological type ... I mean these are other Homo sapiens who are completely-

Cameron McAllister: Acting like it's a nature preserve, or something.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Right, yeah! So we've almost secluded a group of humanity from what we would consider to be the benefits of globalization. I don't have a completed thought here, I'm just kind of throwing something out here to you as it comes to my mind.

Cameron McAllister: Let me try to take it and run with it a little bit too, because I think you're bringing up a number of fascinating threads and huge tensions that come with ... people groups, isolated ... and embodying ancient ways of life, and our tendency to romanticize, but, not only that, also our deep-seated Western fear now, because of that complicated history. You mention colonization, and this is why the word missionary comes with baggage these days as well.

There's a checkered past there, but there's so much good also. It just makes this very complicated territory, but I think where a troubling note comes in, and I think this is part of what you were getting at, Nathan, is that sometimes, particularly with the more multicultural mindset, this idea, which goes something like this; look, I don't wanna impose my values on anybody else, because that's been done in the past, and it's become a kind of totalizing narrative, and people have been ... and, basically, it's that trying to reach people, trying to help them even, has resulted in oppression. And so, therefore, we need to be so careful and guarded about even sharing resources, because we don't want to question other ways of life. But the reason that becomes a little bit ... well it doesn't work. Because there are ways of life that I think we all need to admit are, inherently, can be dangerous and pernicious.

For instance, let's look at the ancient practice that happens, that still continues to happen in the nation of India, of bride burning. I remember Lesslie Newbigin and other missionaries have talked about their time in India, where this is a cultural practice where, setting aside that attitude of well, we want to be respectful, and we don't want to interfere with your customs. Some people recognize it as a human rights crisis, and they say, no, all human life is sacred. And any viewpoint that denies that, or runs roughshod over that is deeply misguided. We can say that.

As a Christian, I'm totally comfortable saying that, but there are many people who are really reticent on this issue. It's rare to come across a story like this that so crystallizes those old tensions. You're used to hearing about it, or really when you read, sort of, early anthropological texts. And there was this notion of sort of this; ah the primitive, or the noble savage. I think that phrase actually comes from Rousseau originally.

But it's rare that we see that crystallized, but that's part of what this story has done as well. And, ultimately, it comes down to, I think one of the questions behind all this, is are you willing to say that there are ways of life, that there are ways at looking at human beings that are superior to others. In the sense that they promote human flourishing, that they actually gel with reality in the way things are. And, ultimately, Christianity, the whole nature of the gospel is, and this what you and I do all the time, Nathan, when we're at university, on university campuses, or in open forums, is we go around and we're essentially telling people if they're not Christians, that they need to think about changing their lives. Because we recognize that what Christ - we believe that - what Christ says about human beings is authoritative.

He says that because he's our Maker, he's our Lord, and he knows what true human flourishing looks like. Many, many people nowadays, I mean everything in our culture breathes against that kind of a mindset. So I think that's one of the big tensions here. Are you willing to admit that there are certain ... Tim Keller tells a story, for instance, about an anthropologist who had been using this line of reasoning for years, saying western imperialism, in the past, has lead to all sorts of forms of oppression; therefore, we need to not impose our values on anybody. We just may encounter practices that we think are alien and remote, but we need to not do that and subjugate people to our own views.

And yet when she ended up traveling to third world nations, or some of the more isolated people groups, and encountering attitudes she found really harmful against women, for instance, she admitted, "I really don't have a leg to stand on, because here I am finding myself in that position of saying, no, no, you need to rethink this because you have a very deficient view of women." Yet, she thought my whole mindset before really precludes me saying that. So I think that's a big question behind all of this. I don't know if I've made sense of anything, Nathan, maybe I've just tied us in further knots.

Nathan Rittenhouse: You're absolutely right. I remember when I was in college having a conversation, and, one of my classmates, we were walking and talking and he said "You know, one of my problems with Christianity is how it corrupts cultures." And I had just finished talking to another friend who was spending some time in a different country. And she was talking about how, where she was, it was customary for the women to wash the men's feet, and then they would drink that water. And so I was just asking him, okay, what's the threshold for corrupting a culture. Are you okay with women dying of horrible diseases from parasites from washing the poop off their men's feet, and then drinking it? That sort of-

Cameron McAllister: That's a very clear question.

Nathan Rittenhouse: But, again, it speaks to this difficulty that we're facing here. So, maybe, to zoom back, and make, well, two things here. One is, that there is a bit of a ... that all of us are imposing our views probably one way or the other, whether we like it or not. And so even the phrase of "you shouldn't impose your views" is an imposing view or you shouldn't contact this tribe, is a bit of an imposing view on somebody else's, for better or worse. So I don't think it's quite cut and dry there, and as clear as we would like it to be.

On the other hand, to go back to what you were saying earlier, I think the takeaway from this topic is not, did he do the right thing or not. The question is, is the gospel true? Because if it is true, and Jesus is who he claims to be, then he has the authority to command us to cross cultural boundaries, and he has the authority to help out with disease and brokenness that results from us doing it poorly. And so that's the big question of, is Jesus right?

And so I think that's where my mind goes back to zooming out to dealing with that, because, if he isn't, then, yes, we can raise all the objections that naturally flood into our minds on a situation like this. But if we was right, then that's a different story. And it's also a different story for John. It's not just the end of his life. Oh, he went and got shot or speared, that there's more to the story than that, and so it zooms things out to a farther level for us, and I think that's why, even though we probably aren't faced with the same types of situations in our day-to-day lives here in the United States, conceptually, that same tension is alive and well, and we all need to sort through that in our minds how we choose to respond and live our lives, based off of the truth of the gospel.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, and so maybe a good word to our listeners here, just to encourage you along with Nathan and I, is to look for some of the assumptions behind these conversations that are happening, surrounding this particular story of John Chau, and the way his life concluded. Look for those, because that's essentially, as Nathan and I have talked more, and more, what we've tried to do here is go locate the questions behind the questions. We've looked at the kind of the clash of values, and the opposing viewpoints.

On the one hand, if you just look at this from a, purely, life-under-the-sun-perspective, you can see, hey, this guy is doing something that clearly jeopardizes his life, and not only that, but possibly risks contaminating this people group, and, hey, on top of that it looks like he's bringing with him a whole set of values and assumptions that is utterly foreign to them. They've never asked for this, why would you do that? But on the other hand, if Christianity is true that completely changes the way we look at it. But also, think about the way we think of this as North American Christians.

As Nathan mentioned, this isn't really part of the landscape of our daily lives, usually. But I do find that, often, when I look at my own responses, when I talk to others in our churches, there is this kind of sense of, well, you know, you got to be careful ... don't be too reckless with your faith, don't be too reckless with your life, and be careful, and be responsible, and all of that's fine, so far as it goes. But I think sometimes we're missing the radical call of the gospel. And this isn't to champion some bandwagon that says, oh you've got to lead a life that is totally, totally reckless all the time, and the cost of discipleship is just so heavy.

I don't want to impose a yolk here, but we do need to remember that the call is for each of us to take up our crosses. And, the truth is, we live in a nation that's very affluent, and very comfortable. And I think these kinds of stories rattle our cages a little bit, in a good way. I think this is a great opportunity for us to examine our own hearts as well, and look at some of our own assumptions. In what ways is the cultural response to this coloring our own response? Are we being shaped by the culture around us, the world around us, or are we being shaped by Christ and his church?

And these events are gonna look very different from the standpoint of Christ and his church. So look for some of those hidden assumptions, and, also, don't ... question your own heart there a little bit, and see what voices are creeping in, maybe whispering in your own ear. And seek the Lord on this, because I think these kinds of stories, they can clarify a lot for us, and they can really be an occasion for some soul searching as well, so I think it's an important story.

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