Some Reflections on the Mission of John Allen Chau


By Arun W. Jones|December 13, 2018

Ed. Note: This is the second column in our series on the recent death of the American Christian missionary, John Allen Chau, who was killed attempting to evangelize the Sentinelese people of the Andaman Islands. If you haven't already, please read Todd Whitmore's column, "John Allen Chau's Evangelical Errors," published last week. 

Let me be clear: as a former mission worker, I would never have done what John Allen Chau did, nor would I do it today. As a teacher of mission and evangelism, I would never teach my students to do what Chau did, nor endorse their actions if they chose to go ahead and engage in mission as he did. However, as a historian, I am also disciplined to try and understand people and contexts that are very different from my own. And as an academic, having made that attempt to understand difference I am compelled to reflect back differently on myself and my context. So, these reflections come after my initial “What the heck?” reactions to Chau’s missiological adventures or misadventures, depending upon one’s point of view.
There are three points I would like to make. First of all, given the long and extremely varied history of Christian mission, it seems to me that there is surprisingly little that is unusual in John Allen Chau’s missionary endeavor. From the earliest days of the Christian movement, missionaries, as well as others who witnessed to their deepest religious beliefs in their own circumstances, have felt compelled to tell others—or let others know—about their faith. Sometimes those witnesses have been understood in their context, other times they have not. Sometimes, though certainly not always, they have suffered and even died for their actions. The eighth-century English monk and bishop Boniface was killed along with fifty companions by Frisians (in the Netherlands) whom he was trying to convert. (Not unlike Chau’s report of being saved from an arrow by his waterproof Bible, Boniface attempted to protect himself from his killers by holding a book containing Christian writings to his head.) The Indian missionary Sadhu Sundar Singh died (no one knows how) after he set off to evangelize Tibet in 1929. Chau’s most obvious predecessor in missionary strategy and death was the evangelical Jim Elliot of Portland, Oregon, who was killed trying to make contact with the Waorani people of Ecuador in 1956. Through two millennia, women and men from all over the world have sometimes died while undertaking Christian missionary work. To understand John Allen Chau is not necessarily to condone what he did, but it is to say that a person of sound mind and judgment in his religious tradition could very well have undertaken mission work in the ways that he did. In fact, it seems that Chau made several reasonable and even thoughtful preparations for his missionary expedition, and he knew that death was a very possible outcome of his forays into the North Sentinel Island. John Allen Chau was not mentally ill, nor intellectually impaired.
My second point hinges on the first one. I have been surprised at some of the vehemence with which Chau has been denounced by members of my own intellectual tribe (i.e., those of us who identify ourselves as “liberals” of one sort or another), including members of my own mainline Protestant community. What is it about his death that has made us so indignant? I think it is that in his mission and death, Chau represents a challenge to the systems of rationality with which we have become so comfortable—systems that are founded in the European Enlightenment. I personally am deeply grateful to the European Enlightenment for many of its perspectives on life and the world, but it certainly has its problems. And Chau’s quixotic (at least to us) journey to the Andaman Islands calls into question the easy liberal Christian alliance with the European Enlightenment, and especially its great developments in what we call “science.” While this scientific system is irate at Chau’s methods and rationale for reaching isolated people with a Christian message, it accepts as rational the ways in which we as Americans expand our economic, political, and cultural reach across the globe. And this is also the same system that perpetuates and aggravates the devastating destruction of the earth—especially places like the Andaman Islands. I’m not saying that plenty of us liberals do not oppose such imperialism (at least when it doesn’t conflict with our interests) and ecological damage—we certainly do. But we do not consider them fundamentally irrational ways of inhabiting our world. We fight fire with fire. We use jet planes and automobiles to get to conferences where we stay in temperature-controlled hotels in order to get together to denounce imperialism, war, and ecological destruction. A young man wading ashore in his black underwear with a plastic-covered Bible as his only weapon is at best an affront, and at worst a threat to the kind of thinking we hold dear. Again, this is not to say that I agree in any way with those who are praising John Allen Chau for his purported martyrdom. Rather, I am calling into question the expressions of indignation and censure that have emanated from people with whom I hang out. Why are we so discomforted by Chau?
The final point I would make is that I am somewhat surprised at how “normal” a life John Allen Chau led before he left for his mission. To me, this indicates that our secular society still has some capacity to hold together diverse religious perspectives and ideologies. Yes, Chau was an evangelical Christian, which remains the dominant religious culture in many places in our country. And the horrendous escalation of attacks on synagogues and mosques, not to mention on so many individuals from various minority and disadvantaged communities and social groups, are hard and brutal pieces of evidence of how intolerant we have become as a nation. But it is in precisely such contexts of oppression and discrimination that I desperately look for any sign of hope, of compassion, of liberality. So, I am grateful when I see students from so many different communities in our nation and our world walking around my university campus—even though at times they are not accepted as they or I would wish. They are reminders that there are spaces in our society where one can be different, as Chau was different. To me (and I do not claim to speak for others), if John Allen Chau is a martyr, it’s not because the people on North Sentinel Island killed him, but because some of us want to kill his vocation and death, since it was so different from what we think a meaningful life or death should be. 

Image: North Sentinel Island (Photo Credit: Gautam Singh | Associated Press)

ade4daca-ce1e-43ab-93e9-ed6aee0eba8e.jpgAuthor, Arun W. Jones, is the Dan and Lillian Hankey Associate Professor of World Evangelism at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He is the author of two monographs, Missionary Christianity and Local Religion: American Evangelicalism in North India, 1836-1870 (Baylor University Press, 2017), and Christian Missions in the American Empire: Episcopalians in Northern Luzon, the Philippines, 1902-1946 (Peter Lang, 2003).

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD student in Religions in America at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.