John Allen Chau’s Evangelical Errors

Todd Whitmore

December 6, 2018

As a theologian who has done fieldwork in conflict zones and written on risk, my first response upon reading about John Allen Chau’s death at the hands of the Sentinelese people was anger. I do not want to squelch the anger, which seems to me to be rightly directed. His offenses were not only of the secular variety of “do no harm,” but also—even especially—evangelical.

Chau’s culpable lack of prudential judgment in evangelization first displays itself with regard to his own life. Given the history of Sentinelese (justified) animosity towards intruders, what did he think would happen? The first time Chau saw them, they strung their bows in preparation to shoot; the second time (as he testifies in his journal), he “made sure to stay out of arrow range” (though one struck his bible). The third time he died. A mountaineering mentor of mine taught me that risk has two components, likelihood and consequences. There could be a situation where the likelihood of something bad happening is low, but because the consequences are severe, a person ought not to take the risk. Conversely, there could be a situation where the likelihood of something bad is high, but because the consequences are low, the risk is worth taking. I have used this calculus in my fieldwork in northern Uganda and South Sudan. In Chau’s case, the likelihood of something bad happening was high and the consequences were dire, yet he went ahead anyway.

I have amended my mentor’s analytic by adding that calculations of risk—likelihood and consequences—take place against the horizon of the significance of what is to be achieved. I have backed off going to certain villages when the risk was low simply because there was not much to gain in these cases by going; I have gone to villages when risk was high because I knew that there was a lot that I could learn from the people there. In planning his trip, Chau clearly thought that the conversion of the Sentinelese people to his version of Christianity was of such significance that he had to go. In his journal, he asks, “Lord is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even have had the chance to hear your name?”

There are times, in my judgment, when risk of one’s own life—even if death is virtually certain—is legitimate. But here is where Chau’s judgment fails particularly on evangelistic terms. Jesus was killed because of what he said and did. His killers put him on the cross because they understood the implications of what he was saying. Chau’s circumstances—and whether or not he foresaw this, he should have given his and others’ previous encounters with the Sentinelese—were such that preaching the Word was next to impossible. He was only able to shout, “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you. Jesus Christ gave me authority to come to you,” and sing hymns from a distance—in English. (Chau also said, “some phrases in Xhosa,” but comments in his journal that the Sentinelese spoke “with lots of high pitched sounds,” and that he “couldn’t quite get any words.”) 

Biblical scholars have pointed out that Jesus likely knew that his turning over the tables in the temple could lead to his death, but the incident took place after he had already been preaching and healing for at least a year and perhaps as many as three and a half years. The conditions were such that he could get his Word out. Another mountaineering piece of wisdom: even when you succeed, it is not because you “conquered” the mountain, but because the mountain let you summit it. The Sentinelese were not going to let Chau witness, and he did not know their language. It was time to leave. The true mountaineer, as opposed to the glory hound, my mentor told me, knows when to turn around. This applies to Christians as well. I do not doubt Chau’s sincerity, but the fact that he insisted on going alone when a team was willing to go with him suggests that this was about more than the conversion of the Sentinelese, and it contributed to Chau’s bad judgment. Jesus says in Mark 6:11, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you,” then you are to leave, even “shake off the dust that is on your feet,” as you go. Jesus retreated and moved on multiple times. Chau did not.
Chau’s prudential reasoning failed on Christian evangelistic terms in a second way, and that was in his inadequate assessment of the real risk to which he was exposing the Sentinelese. Although there had been prior contact with the people, the risk from Sentinelese exposure without immunity to communicable diseases born by Chau and those who would undoubtedly follow him was high. Yes, he was vaccinated, and yes, he spent a period in quarantine before going, but to assume that these steps are adequate is bad science: he may well be carrying pathogens that are safe for him but not for the Sentinelese. And again, if he was successful in converting them, others would certainly follow; can we count on them following even his limited protocols? History suggests otherwise.  

There is nothing in Chau’s journals about this risk, only his own. The God that I worship is God of Creation, and it is a grave sin against Creation to expose a whole people to a high risk of being wiped out. Moving to the second person of the Trinity, the Jesus Christ I know is, among other things, a physical healer, the opposite of what Chau was presenting to the Sentinelese. Given that healing is one of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:8-10 and 28), it seems that Chau failed the test of the third person of the Trinity as well. Someone could make an argument that Western expansion has brought healing medicines to various peoples who did not have them before, but the history of contact with the Sentinelese and the other peoples in the island area in question is a history of decimation, not healing. Chau received some medical training as an EMT and in sports medicine—not in infectious disease—before his trip, meaning that his medical training and his ability on his own to stem any contagion was about as adequate as his linguistic training. 
It seems, then, that Chau failed not just in secular terms, but in theological and evangelical terms as well, and so my anger is also directed—unless they did whatever was in their power to stop him—at whoever trained and formed him in ministry, for they are also otherwise culpable for his death. (In his journal, Chau cites All Nations, a missionary group based in Kansas City, Missouri, as his main organizational connection; he also is an alumnus of Oral Roberts University.) The lesson here is that the persons most in need of evangelization are perhaps not the unevangelized in remote corners of the world, but Christians themselves. I do not know if they are “Satan’s last stronghold,” to use Chau’s language, but many of the Christian associations in the United States are teaching an ersatz gospel. The evidence from Chau’s case is that an individualistic gospel is being preached: he refused the offer of a team going with him; he did not factor in the virtual certainty that if he was successful others who did not take his minimal medical precautions would follow. The emphasis is on the lone believer before God. When it comes to evangelization, then, this error and its sources are the places to start.

Image: John Allen Chau | Instagram

Author, Todd Whitmore (PhD’90), is Associate Professor of Theology and Concurrent Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His book, Imitating Christ in Magwi: An Anthropological Theology, is due out this month from Bloomsbury/T&T Clark.

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.


See all articles by Todd Whitmore