Foreign Missions in the Wake of John Chau’s Death

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Last week, John Chau made headlines when he was killed trying to reach the isolated tribe on the North Sentinel island off the coast of India in an evangelistic/missionary effort.

The news was met with a mixed response. This article by Thomas Kidd does a good job at noting the difference between media reactions to the death of missionary Jim Elliot (who died trying to reach an isolated tribe in Ecuador in 1956) and John Chau, respectively. Unlike Elliot, Chau’s death was not always met with the same sympathetic response, with many people frowning at the notion of trying to convert others. It just comes to show how much culture has changed in the past six decades. As Kidd puts it,  “The core convictions of evangelicals, including the need for salvation through Christ and the mandate to share one’s faith, are becoming increasingly incomprehensible to a post-Christian American culture.” The idea of evangelism has increasingly become incredulous to our society.

On the other hand, many (if not most) Christians have been uncritically praising of Chau as a martyr. Whatever thoughts you may have of his evangelistic attempt, every death is a tragedy, and he deserves our respect. My own opinion is that his plan was flawed and ill-conceived–and that he himself was ill-equipped–but that he obviously had a love for God and for other people, and he took the Great Commission seriously (Matthew 28:11). I can’t say that as confidently about most Christians, myself included.

John Chau’s death raises the question as to the place of foreign missions in an increasingly “modernized” and pluralistic world, where tolerance is a fundamental virtue. In response, and as some food for thought, I’d like to direct our attention to this video that was incidentally released by National Geographic just a day or so after Chau’s death, entitled “Why These Headhunters Converted to Christianity“, which I stumbled upon (below):

The short 3-minute video is exactly what it sounds like. The Naga people (also in India) consisted of warring tribes of headhunters who would kill men, women, and even children from other rival tribes. The arrival of Christian missionaries began to change that, however. At first, the Naga tribes were wary and suspicious of the newcomers that were reaching out to them, but ultimately decided to check them out  “after they saw the way people from the outside lived.”

“I changed my mind after I heard preaching from a pastor and when I read through the Bible [which was translated into their native language],” one Naga (of the Konyak tribe) said.

 

Christianity Transcends Culture

I’d like to acknowledge two things. First, I want to emphasize that this has nothing to do with imperialism or colonialism. I readily acknowledge that imperialism and colonialism have played a role throughout church history, and that many times Christians have been guilty of being more interested in making indigenous groups “Western” rather than making them disciples (many missionaries are still guilty of this mindset). Yet from its beginnings, Christianity has always been a transcultural faith, even when its adherents haven’t always practiced it or realized it. Christianity transcends culture.

We must not forget that the earliest Christ-followers were Middle-Easterners. And in the time of the Roman Empire when your “gods” and religion were associated with your own particular people and culture, Christianity was among the first and only religions to welcome people from all different cultural backgrounds. In many ways, it was the first truly “multicultural” religion, which was why it was viewed at as an anomaly in the first century A.D. Others would raise their eyebrow at this motley crew of Christ followers who treated each other as if they were of the same tribe or even family. For once, people weren’t tied together through their ethnic bonds but by faith in a common Savior–and they treated each other as family. This is why the apostle John quite literally envisioned a church of people “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). From its inception, Christianity was marked by its global vision.

And it remains the the most multi-cultural religion in the world today. Whereas the majority of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims are still largely concentrated in certain regions of the globe, Christianity is the religion that truly has a solid and established presence and following in every continent. Many social scientists have remarked at just how adaptable Christianity has been across cultures, historically speaking.

So the idea that people from different cultures must become culturally “western” to become Christians is a false one.

Secondly, I want to stress that every culture, both western and non-western, has both strengths and flaws within that culture, and true Christianity has the potential to bring out the best of every culture while simultaneously challenging some of its other assumptions. It’s true that western Christians often mistake our cultural values for biblical truth. But on the other hand, others have used the language of imperialism and colonialism (which, again, are historically realities) irresponsibly, thereby undercutting the major contributions that Christianity can have to every culture, both Western and non-Western.

I heard an anecdote once about an activist who was a secular humanist and moral relativist, who definitely did not love organized religion. She wanted to go to sub-Saharan Africa in a humanitarian effort to advocate for societal reform against the sex trade, political corruption, etc. But she was met with some pushback from people of power in those countries who claimed that she was just trying to impose “western values” on them. As a secular moral relativist, she could not think of one good argument to rebut them, because she had been imbibed with the idea that morals are just the product of culture and are not transcendent.

For the record, the idea of basic human rights and liberty due to the inherent dignity of every individual did not actually originate from the ancient European pagan religions of the West. It originated from Judeo-Christian values that were later adopted by westerners due to the appearance of monks and missionaries. So the idea that Christianity is inherently Western in itself is, once again, false (though it admittedly has been used that way by many Christians throughout history).

What does this tell us? Well, it tells us that though Christianity does not eliminate our culture, it has the ability to powerfully transform culture for the better, from East to West. This is what the Konyak tribe of the Naga people found in the video.

“We have kept the good things in our tradition,” one Konyak tribe member says, smiling in the video, “and have let the bad things go. We, the Konyaks, have a strong culture…so we will not stop having our culture. That’s the way we are.

 

Christianity Belongs to Every Culture

Lamin Sanneh is a Catholic professor at Yale Divinity School who originally hails from West Africa. He has remarked at how academic faculty at Western universities are always eager to talk about African culture when it comes to cuisine, dress, and music in an effort to be “progressive”, but are much less apt when the conversation turns to African spirituality. Why? Because religion is inherently viewed as “intolerant” and “oppressive”. In contrast, Sanneh has written that Christianity “enabled Africans to become renewed Africans, not remade Europeans.”

The suspicion of Christian missions in our increasingly secular, post-Christian society (as seen by media reaction to John Chau’s death) wholly underestimates the potential contribution that true Christian faith can give to each and every culture, tribe, tongue, and nation. No, it does not require you to be a Westerner. No, it does not mean you have to eliminate your culture or abandon it. But it has the ability to transform it to its very best. Let us consider the possibility that maybe John Chau did not have Westernization, colonization, or imperialism on his mind, but a hope to transform the lives of the North Sentilese.

Kidd also writes, “Many evangelicals—especially missionaries—would applaud this move away from a sense of Western cultural superiority, too*. But the evangelical conviction about the transcendent truth of the gospel for all people endures.”

One more thought. Why has Christianity been so transcultural? Why has it been so successful across cultures? What makes it so potentially transformative for people and societies across time? What is its apparently universal appeal?

At the center of the Christian religion is a man dying for His enemies, so that they can spend eternal life with Him. That’s not something that you find (or hear) every day. It’s a message that melts hearts of stone and makes headhunters drop their spears.

If that’s the message John Chau was hoping to proclaim, then who can fault him for wanting to give his life for that cause, even if his methodology wasn’t the best? Was he a fool? Maybe. But he was a fool for Christ.

And I’m sure I’ll get to ask him about it myself one day.

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”– Jim Elliot

 

For more information on the death of John Chau:

 

For additional reading:

 

*”Protestants Abroad” is an informative book about western missionaries becoming disilussioned with some of the ethnocentric tendencies of other missionaries. Such a reality should not discourage us from foreign misdions, but should be a cause for critical self-examination when entering the mission field.

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