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A would-be evangelist on North Sentinel Island

26 November 2018

A lot of controversy has sprung up over John Chau, a would-be Christian evangelist who was killed by people he was trying to evengelise on the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. American John Allen Chau killed on North Sentinel Island by native tribe said “God sheltered” him from authorities – CBS News:

Police say Chau knew that the Sentinelese resisted all contact by outsiders, firing arrows and spears at passing helicopters and killing fishermen who drift onto their shore. His notes, which were reported Thursday in Indian newspapers and confirmed by police, make clear he knew he might be killed.

I have followed the controversy mainly through questions asked on the Quora web site. One such question was “Why did John Chau refer to Sentinel Island as the ‘last stronghold of Satan’?” and my answer was:

Only he would be able to answer that, and he isn’t around to ask.

If he actually did say that it was the last stronghold of Satan, then I believe he was simply wrong. Satan has strongholds in the boardrooms of arms manufacturers selling arms to Saudi Arabia to use against Yemen, to give just one example, but why he thought that didn’t count and that the isolation of people on an island did count as a stronghold of Satan is something only he could answer.

John Chau’s actions and motivations are certainly of interest to missiologists, but the reactions of other people to them are just as interesting, if not more so.

One of the questions along these lines was, With the historical destruction of indigenous tribes and cultures, can the excuse “they were just bringing them Christianity” ever be justified?

The answers to that one revealed a lot of anti-Christian bigotry and prejudice, especially from Western secularists. The implication behind that question, and most of the answers to it, is that Christians are chiefly responsible for the destruction of indigenous tribes and cultures, and that such destruction is a bad thing.

The impression I get from many of the answers to such questions, however, is that they are motivated more by hatred of Christianity than by love of indigenous tribes and cultures. Destruction of indigenous cultures is seen as a bad thing when Christians do it, because it is Christians doing it, but perhaps some might have a different view if the indigenous tribes and cultures in question practise things like female genital mutilation that those who criticise the Christian missionaries also disapprove of..

I was recently reading a book that raised just such questions. It was fiction, a whodunit set in Botswana, called Death of the mantis. I recommend it to anyone who is concerned about such issues, because it looks at them from many different points of view, and doesn’t come up with pat answers. My review of the book is here, with more information about it.

In Death of the Mantis the indigenous people in question are the Kalahari Bushmen, and their culture includes their hunter-gatherer way of life, which conflicts with that of the majority of cattle-keeping Batswana.

For hundreds of years the wild animals hunted by the Bushmen were free like the air. The idea that wild animals could be “owned” by anyone would have seemed utterly bizarre in the southern Africa of two centuries ago. It is capitalism, rather than Christianity, that has changed that. See, for example, The Limpopo buffalo that sold for R168m – Destiny Man.

Where is the average Kalahari Bushman going to get that kind of money for the equivalent of a week’s grocery shopping? And if the week’s grocery shopping includes what Western culture regards as “endangered species”, then I suspect it suddenly becomes for many people who criticise Christian missionaries a very “justifiable” excuse for the destruction of indigenous culture.

Many of the questions on Quora, like those in real life, tend to beg the question. The answer to the question “Do missionaries destroy cultures?” is assumed to be “Yes”, and that is a given from which everything else proceeds. There is no need for the legal principle of audi alteram partem (hear the other side), because it assumed that there isn’t another side. But for those willing to look at both sides, see here: Missionaries, cultural imperialism, and The Poisonwood Bible | Tim Hoiland

Another question that arises from this is a more general one: Should a society let itself be influenced by other cultures or not?

The answer of the North Sentinelese is clearly a resounding “No”.

The answer of Donald Trump, with his tariff and physical walls, and the British Brexiteers, is less absolute and unequivocal, but apparently motivated by similar sentiments. Others appear to be more open, though it is rare to find one that is completely open, and Apartheid was an attempt to close off and isolate cultures from each other.



5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Harries permalink
    26 November 2018 7:27 am

    Hi Steve, Thanks for this post. My information to date had been from the BBC. From there, I gathered an underlying assumption that ‘because it’s Christian, and smacks of mission, it must be bad’ … Amazing … Of course they are happy as they are, must be loving each other and living peacefully, so much so that any intruder is shot with arrows … I’d be interested in whoever does further research into this …

    • 28 November 2018 7:53 am

      I think they must be the most independent nation on earth. They do not belong to the UN, they have no trade agreements or treaties with any other nation. The motive, as I noted in the article, is similar to that of Trump’s wall and Brexit. It’s a common human motive, and understandable. They just take it to extremes. Others talk about what should be done with illegal immigrants, and their answer is the death penalty. The would probably take issue with John Donne and his “No man is an island” idea. They have achieved autarky.

      As for John Chau, well, he knew the risks, he knew how they treated illegal immigrants, and he got what he was expecting. His decision.

      So there isn’t too much to say about the behaviour of the North Sentinelese and John Chau. They are comparatively straightforward and simple. All one can say is that it is what it is and what will be will be (to quote another book I’ve been reading).

      But the reaction of the commentariat has been something else.

  2. 27 November 2018 8:18 pm

    If you look into the reasons why the North Sentinelese people shun outsiders, it’s rather understandable.

    Yes, Christian missionaries have done some good stuff, like abolishing foot binding in China and FGM elsewhere, but they could conceivably have done that without converting anyone to Christianity.

    I accept that the careful missiology that you embrace, Steve, is vastly different from the culture-destroying efforts of evangelical Christians — however I still take the view that evangelism and proselytizing are wrong.

    One of the biggest issues caused by Chau’s misguided efforts is that he could have wiped out the islanders by infecting them with flu or other viruses.

    Just look at how many Indigenous people in North and South America were wiped out by viruses — in some cases deliberately spread by colonists.

    • 28 November 2018 7:38 am

      Since John Chau’s action seems to have provoked a lot of discussion, I think it is worth discussing, but I’m disappointed with the level of discussion, and the depth of bigotry and prejudice that has been revealed.

      A novel that deals with some of the issues is At play in the fields of the Lord | Khanya.

      I do think, however that before talking about “the culture-destroying efforts of evangelical Christians” it would be good to read an article by one of them, Don Richardson. Unfortunately the link to his article “Do missionaries destroy culture?” no longer seems to work. I don’t necessarily agree with all that he says, but it is good to hear the other side.

      But then you say:

      “Yes, Christian missionaries have done some good stuff, like abolishing foot binding in China and FGM elsewhere, but they could conceivably have done that without converting anyone to Christianity.”

      Sorry, but that sounds really silly to me. Why should they travel halfway round the world simply to impose their own cultural prejudices on other people? That is cultural imperialism at its very worst.

      I think that is where we disagree most radically. You are saying that evangelism — telling people good news — is wrong, and a bad motive for making contact with other people, but that cultural imperialism is a good motive. I could not disagree more.

      • 28 November 2018 2:42 pm

        Yes I agree that a lot of the discussion has been at a pretty low level.

        I’m sitting in Canada right now where missionaries and cultural imperialists have done a lot of damage.

        I guess it depends whether you think switching religions is good news. Depends on the religion.

        Yes it seems I have some thinking to do about what justifies interventions in other cultures. Foot binding was, and FGM is, an abhorrent practice, though I tend towards the view that FGM will only be successfully ended from within the groups that practice it — though having global norms to say it’s bad will help. I don’t know enough about the history of foot-binding to say.

        I do know a fair amount about how Christianity was spread in Europe and North America, and both involved significant amounts of violence and land-grabbing in which the Church was heavily involved.

        It’s awfully difficult to disentangle missionaries from imperialism. Their activities are still culture.

        As I’ve said before, I appreciate that Orthodoxy practices inculturation and trying to keep the host culture, or what can be kept, but that doesn’t happen with a lot of Protestant missionising, at least it didn’t in the past. I would have read the essay if you had found the link though.

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