Martyr or “American Dickhead”?

Why missionary John Allen Chau’s death on a remote Indian island is so unsettling to Christians.

John Allen Chau.
John Allen Chau. Instagram

In January 1956, five young American missionaries decided to make contact with a small tribe of natives in eastern Ecuador, with the purpose of converting them to Christianity. Instead, just a few days after their first direct contact with the group, they were speared to death on a secluded beach. News of the missionaries’ deaths spread quickly in the United States. Life magazine devoted a 10-page spread to the story of “five devout men who sought to bring the word of God to a fierce tribe of Stone Age savages.” The reverence for the missionaries went even deeper in Christian circles, where believers saw the men as martyrs killed for their faith.

Last month, a 26-year-old Christian missionary named John Allen Chau was killed on a remote Indian island in strikingly similar circumstances as the men in Ecuador.* Chau dreamed of converting the members of an isolated tribe on the North Sentinel Island, who are known to aggressively resist contact from outsiders. He attempted to prepare to do so, but he didn’t speak the language. At one point, he wrote to his mother, he approached a group of North Sentinelese from the water and “hollered: ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.’ ” Chau was killed, apparently by bows and arrows, the next day on the beach.

The public reaction to Chau’s death has been much different than the response to the men in Ecuador 60 years ago. Mainstream media outlets have published opinion pieces accusing Chau of “cultural imperialism and insane arrogance,” for example; on social media, he’s been called an “asshole,” a “failed colonizer,” and an “American dickhead.” Many critics pointed out that Chau’s expedition was a violation of Indian law, which forbids outsiders to even approach the island. It was also an epidemiological risk to the North Sentinelese, who have not built up immunity to many common illnesses including the flu. And even if the North Sentinelese were not harmed by new germs, contact with outsiders could irreparably alter their lives and culture.

In traveling to an “unreached” people group, Chau was acting out one of evangelical Christianity’s highest imperatives—and most cherished narratives. “There’s a sense in evangelical and missionary circles that one of the highest things you can do is take the Gospel to a group who has never heard it,” said historian Kathryn Long, the author of a forthcoming book about the 1956 mission in Ecuador. For many evangelicals, this is the most dramatic version of fulfilling Jesus’ “Great Commission,” in which he told his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations.”

Intriguingly, however, even Christians have not hailed Chau as a clear-cut hero of the faith. “Chau’s stunt not only had absolutely no chance of success, it also stood to bring sickness and death to this tribe,” the conservative Christian writer Rod Dreher wrote last week. “How could any Christian justify this?” Dreher was among those pointing out that Chau’s death has prompted a regional backlash that could make life harder for the minority population of Christians in India, not to mention Christian aid workers and long-term missionaries there.

Part of the reason Chau’s story has prompted a backlash among both Christians and secular observers is because Chau seemed to approach the island with a cartoonish style of Western swagger. In his diary, parts of which have been made public by his family, he wrote of attempting to befriend the islanders with offerings of scissors and safety pins, and by singing Christian “worship songs.” “There’s been such a sea change in evangelical missiology over the past 50 years about the danger of cultural imperialism,” said Thomas Kidd, a historian at Baylor University who wrote a blog post about media reactions to Chau’s death.
“There’s much more sensitivity among evangelicals than there was at the time of [the missionaries in Ecuador’s] death.”

If Chau had been acting as a rogue agent, his missteps would be easier for Christians to dismiss as an aberration unrelated to traditional missionary work. That’s how it seemed when the story of his death first emerged: He had traveled to the island by himself, and it wasn’t clear whether he was affiliated with an agency with an expertise in the logistics and ethics of cross-cultural missionary work.

As it turns out, however, Chau had indeed received training and support from a number of American evangelical missions groups. One of them was All Nations, an interdenominational organization based in Missouri. “John Chau was not foolhardy,” Pam Arlund, a member of the international leadership team at All Nations, told me by email. “All Nations believes John was prepared to be able to contact the North Sentinelese well.” Chau approached the Kansas City–based agency about two years ago with a goal of visiting the island “to share the love of Jesus with them.” Arlund said that he had been working toward the project since he was 18, even selecting his major at Oral Roberts University (in health, exercise science, and sports medicine) with the trip in mind. He spent a summer in linguistics training with another well-established Christian organization, SIL International, to prepare to acquire the North Sentinelese language once he landed there. He also participated in an All Nations training program for potential missionaries and continued with an online “internship.”

All Nations had contact with Chau as recently as Oct. 18. In a recent interview with Christianity Today, another leader at All Nations described Chau as “thorough and meticulous in his preparation,” and said he had quarantined himself for a period of time before approaching the island to try to reduce the risk of disease transmission. Arlund said All Nations did not provide specific logistical advice on Chau’s mission but believed he was well prepared.

The apparent fact that Chau was not acting impulsively or independently will make his case more unsettling for many evangelicals. “There’s a high-wire act that evangelicals have to contend with,” said Kidd. “To outside observers, they’d say of course this is cultural imperialism, you’re imposing your culture. Evangelicals say, we can set aside culture and just boil it down to the Gospel.”

That’s an idea that would not have occurred to the five men in Ecuador, who have been the subject of hagiographic books and movies since their death, including the 2006 drama End of the Spear. (Attending an evangelical college in the late ’90s, I lived for two years in a dormitory named for one of the men.) Kathryn Long points out that the deaths in Ecuador came at a critical moment for evangelicals, as they were beginning to see themselves as a distinct cohort. The influential magazine Christianity Today was founded in 1956. Billy Graham’s evangelistic “crusade” took over Madison Square Garden for 16 weeks in 1957. At the time, the five missionaries “symbolized what evangelicals wanted to be,” Long said. Now, John Allen Chau may become a symbol of exactly the opposite.

Correction, Dec. 3, 2018: This post originally misstated when John Allen Chau died.