The Death of a Missionary: Thinking About John Allen Chau

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been processing the death of John Allen Chau. You likely know the his story—a twenty-something young man murdered by an isolated tribe on a remote island when he attempted to convert them to Christianity. Mr. Chau’s death has drawn both shock and outrage from both sides—those who either support or condemn his actions.

North Sentinel Island, located in the Indian Ocean and under the authority of the nation of India, is inhabited by the Sentinelese people, one of the most isolated people groups remaining on earth. With very limited connection to the outside world, they’ve been known to react violently to anyone attempting to set foot on their island. Mr. Chau wasn’t the first visitor to be killed by the Sentinelese in recent years; in 2006 the tribe killed fishermen who accidentally infringed on their space.

Like many incidents portrayed in the media, it’s complex but is being approached too simplistically. As a theologian and a pragmatist, I want to help both my Christian and non-Christian friends consider this tragedy from a more thoughtful perspective rather than merely assessing blame. So bear with me as I do my best to deconstruct this incident.

Attack on Evangelism
A primary critique I’ve read from skeptics is that religious proselytizing should be forbidden; evangelism (especially Christian evangelism) is deemed an outdated and offensive concept. While I disagree with Mr. Chau’s evangelistic approach, I endorse his desire to evangelize to the Sentinelese; in a Christian worldview, our acceptance of faith demands that we share it with others. While our evangelistic fervor is more intense than many world religions, the right to peacefully proselytize is more than just a Christian value. My position would be the same were Mr. Chau a Buddhist, Muslim, or believer from any other religious group.

As technological developments continue to influence our understanding of the world around us, progressive society will continue to become less tolerant of evangelism. But people of faith shouldn’t be forced to apologize for trying to share their faith. The religious oppression taking place today in developing countries continues to affirm that the American values of freedom of speech and religion should be embraced globally. Regardless of whether one believes in the message, missionaries should have the right to deliver their message peaceably.

Consequences of Missionary Work
Throughout the New Testament and church history, men and women who boldly proclaim the Gospel have paid the highest sacrifice for their preaching. While the Christian Scriptures repeatedly encourage fidelity to God’s law over human law, this is not without a price. It is sad that Mr. Chau was killed for his faith, but it is not surprising; in his journal, he acknowledged this reality and he was prepared to give his life for the cause. I have nothing but respect for people who take on such a call to preach in challenging places. Our family and church financially support missionaries around the globe, many of whom risk their lives to talk about Jesus. This tragedy serves as a reminder for us Christians to pray for those willing to die so that the world may know.
Living in Submission
While the Bible offers numerous examples of those called by the Lord to do amazing things, we should seek to understand that call. In the New Testament, God predominantly called groups of believers, not individuals, to accomplish his work—whether disciples or missionaries or churches. And if an individual was called, they were still in communion with other believers. The structure of the church advocates communal submission and discourages individual autonomy. To me, this was missing in Mr. Chau’s mission to the people on this remote island. From what I have read, his decision to go to the Sentinelese was a personal one. Even though he was trained by a missionary organization, he wasn’t sponsored, encouraged, or supported to perform such work by any group. So while he claimed this mission as a calling, his isolationist approach makes me question if it was really an individual desire rather than the moving of the Lord.

Christians who choose to “go it alone” in spiritual directives are not truly fulfilling the biblical ideal. And if we ever feel the burden of a calling that is not affirmed by other believers or church leaders, we should reevaluate the call itself. Even when one is called to evangelize, he must consider that it’s the church’s call. Christians are also called to live in community and mutual submission to each other.

Implications of Martyrdom
We Christians honor those who perish for their faith. Church history is filled with examples of those martyred for the cause of Christ; the sacrifice is Christ-like, as Jesus taught in John 15:13: “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is why some Christians are struggling with Mr. Chau’s actions. His death is being viewed as a suicide mission, as he himself noted the violent history of the Sentinelese. Instead of trying to interpret his martyrdom, I want to look at those who will be impacted by his death.
As North Sentinel Island is under authority of India—a nation that is not hospitable for Christians—Mr. Chau’s death will affect missionary work throughout that country. His death has become a diplomatic nightmare and some Indian citizens (and perhaps government officials) could take out their frustrations on Christians and missionaries trying to evangelize. I personally know people ministering in India, and my first reaction to Mr. Chau’s death was to fear for their lives.

This is why I suggest that Mr. Chau did not fully consider the ramifications of his preaching. His journal reveals that he knew he might die while preaching to this tribe, and that he was ready to meet his Maker. But his desire to give his life to reach 50 to 100 Sentinelese ignored the plight of Indian missionaries who are already reaching tens of thousands of people with the Gospel message. Unfortunately, Mr. Chau’s death has the potential to create even more martyrs.

So while I can appreciate what motivated Mr. Chau to go to North Sentinel, I cannot endorse his actions. While he was prepared to give his own life, he did not understand how it will impact the lives of his fellow workers for Christ throughout that region.

Accountability for Murder
While I hold that Mr. Chau was misguided, the Sentinelese must not be excused here. They needlessly took a human life. I’ve read quite a few articles suggesting that the Sentinelese were at grave risk from Mr. Chau because they lack the immune system to fight outside viruses and, therefore, were justified in taking his life. I just cannot accept this. His actions do not justify his murder. If skeptics wish to assign all the blame on this tragedy on Mr. Chau, they’re failing to acknowledge our societal need for accountability.

I’m not suggesting putting the Sentinelese on trial to determine guilt for Mr. Chau’s murder. But the Sentinelese must not be empowered to exercise justice as if they were a sovereign nation. Like it or not, they’re part of a global community. The Indian government ignored this issue far too long. Instead of grappling with how to work with the tribe, they passed laws that inevitably set the stage for this tragedy. For better or worst, Mr. Chau’s death has now brought even more exposure to the Sentinelese and there will absolutely be another incident if action isn’t taken. They must not be given carte blanche to kill again.

How Should We Respond?
More than anything, we should be sad. The death of Mr. Chau is media fodder and, in a digital age full of hot takes, his death has become a lightning rod. There is so much good work that Christians do in the world, yet this tragedy has been used to divide. It’s been overlooked that the missionary was trying to provide the Sentinelese with supplies and tools to improve their way of life. He had spent a decade researching these people, and I truly believe he loved them. Regardless of your ideology, this is just a tragic occurrence. We must learn from it.

To those who don’t hold my religious convictions, I’m hoping that you’re gracious to those like myself who understand why Mr. Chau did what he did. He was well-intentioned but made a decision that had consequences. Rather than laud that he got what he deserved, I would hope we could acknowledge that his death is not OK. Primitive society or not, we mustn’t think that any group of people has the right to murder the innocent.

And to my Christian brothers and sisters, I hope this reminds us the importance of balanced theology. While evangelism and missionary work is a holy calling, we should beware when we make the evangelist or the missionary the hero of the story; in our metanarrative, Jesus is the hero. And rather than regaling young believers with stories of martyrs, we’d be better served focusing on the sacrifice of Jesus–the death that truly made the difference.

I think this is as much a failure of the Christian community as it is with Mr. Chau. We should all accept blame here. He was let down by church communities that didn’t help him develop a fully-formed view of faith. His approach was individualistic and, though he had the best of intentions, his death might have done more harm than good. It’s truly sad that such a passionate soul wasn’t discipled better. And that’s our fault.

We must do better. His death should serve as a reminder for us to do so.

Photo by Aishath Naj on Unsplash