There was a very unusual news report doing the rounds last week about a young man trying to approach some remote islanders with a view to converting them to Christianity and getting killed by arrows or spears for his trouble.
Reaction on social media from mainly liberal opinion was that this young man – John Allen Chau – was reckless and stupid for attempting contact with the North Sentinelese who a) could have been exposed to Western diseases, b) were in danger of colonization and having their unadulterated state corrupted (i.e they were better off being left alone) and c) and I quote “if you support what John Allen Chau attempted to do AND support the building of the wall, you’re a … hypocrite” and “White privilege at its finest. I have NO doubts he knew it was ILLEGAL to be on that island.” (Source: Twitter).
It seems clear from a cursory reading of social media that many, particularly in America, viewed Chau’s visit to the island through the lens of derision for Trump and domestic U.S. politics. However, that does not capture the larger picture.
My initial assessment on seeing the headlines was that Chau was reckless, however a reading of the underlying facts show that he had a good reason to be there and that he was careful and deliberate in how he tried to approach the North Sentinelese.
Chau’s attempt to reach this tribe evokes very strongly for me the opening scene of ‘The Mission’ (1986; distributed by Warner Bros.) where a Jesuit missionary is tied to a crude cross and tossed into the river which spills out into a fatal waterfall.
This murder of a Jesuit missionary leads to the next Jesuit missionary – Gabriel – to approach the tribe, announcing his presence in their jungle by playing an oboe.
Chau had made fleeting contact with the tribe before. Some of the tribe were seemingly okay with his gradual presence whereas others clearly were not. He had been recruited by an organisation named All Nations out of Kansas City, MO. They briefed him and explained the risks and sent him out.
The Indian government in whose territorial waters this island is found forbade contact with the tribe, so he did commit an illegal act. Of course, the Indian government and people in its territorial waters falls under the jurisdiction of God and Chau therefore was on solid ground – Biblically – in adhering to a larger legal framework to reach out to these people.
From a Biblical standpoint, the Great Commission was given to Believers to make disciples of all nations. John Allen Chau knew the risks but he evaluated that the result may be worth it. The basis for All Nations to do what they do is the Lausanne covenant, an agreement to do everything possible to reach the world.
This in turn is based on the Great Commission: to go into all the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:19) because ‘all authority under heaven and earth’ are given to Christ (verse 18), and in this He will be with the Believer (verse 20).
The island is reportedly the size of Manhattan, and the North Sentinelese have apparently dropped in number from 117 at their peak number to around 39 today according to estimates. The risk of a Western disease being introduced by a missionary is real but as the dwindling numbers of the tribe reflect, so is the inevitability of death and introduction to eternity.
My initial assessment was wrong. Chau was no cowboy, storming into town on his horse, raising a ruckus. He was doing the right thing in the way he knew how. Contact with the tribe had been established slowly over three years.
His murder evokes for me another narrative: that of Cain killing Abel, the first murder. Perhaps it’s the first murder on the island that we know about but it may not be the first murder on the island. Murder is a sign of a fallen human state. Advocacy groups suggest that the tribe is better off without contact with the outside world. At the risk of guessing I imagine groups like that believe civilization is a corrupting influence and the so-called ‘noble savage’ does exist in a pure state. The North Sentinelese are also descendants of Adam and Cain.
They are also in need of the message of salvation.