Matthew 28:16-20 — Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
On November 17, 2018, 27 year old John Allen Chau of Vancouver, Washington died on North Sentinel Island, a small speck of land in the Indian Ocean. He was killed by an arrow shot from the bow of one of the natives on that island. His body was left to rot on the beach and has not ever been recovered. The 75-100 residents of that island have had no contact with the outside world, and are still living in the Stone Age. They are known to be dangerous and extremely hostile to all visitors. They have killed visitors before with their spears and arrows and clubs. The Indian government forbids all travel within three miles the tiny island. What in the world was John Allen Chau doing there that day?
The first news report I heard said that it was an American tourist who was killed, and I thought, “What a dumb kid.” Spoiled, wealthy young people, who have done it all before they even get out of college, have to try increasingly dangerous sports or travel experiences to get a new thrill. Cliff diving and kayaking down waterfalls and hiking in Afghanistan begins to leave them bored; so, I thought, this kid wanted to have the new thrill of visiting a murderous primitive tribe. I was wrong.
The next news report I heard said that John Allen Chau was a free-lance missionary. Well, it is our task as the Christian church to bring Christ to the nations, so that made the story a little more interesting. But then it was reported that as he walked across the beach toward the natives, he said “I am John Chau and Jesus loves you” in English, a language they could not possibly understand. That, and the free-lance missionary part made me again think, “What a dumb kid.” But I was wrong again; or I should say there was more to the story.
First of all, John Chau was not free-lancing. He was working as a missionary through All Nations, an international training and sending organization that has missionaries in over forty countries. Secondly, Chau was not a dumb kid. He had prepared himself for what he wanted to do. He was a college graduate. He was an EMT with some medical skills to bring to that tribe who has never had any of the benefits of modern medicine. And, he had majored in linguistics, so he could learn the language of these people which is unknown to the outside world. He had also prepared himself by getting a whole host of immunizations to protect himself and the tribesmen from giving each other diseases that they had never been exposed to. John Chau was prepared.
This story made international news, and John Chau was widely criticized by both, Christians and non-Christians. As I just told you, my own off-the-cuff reaction was negative. Many Christians, while admiring his courage and dedication, questioned his methods, and I admit, they might have a point. But Christians should at least be on board with his desire to reach these people with the Gospel. After all, in his last words to the disciples in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” That command has inspired the church to send missionaries to every corner of the world over the last 2,000 years. John Allen Chau felt called by God to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the few dozen unreached people of North Sentinel Island.
But many Christians said he wasted his life in a foolish effort, and should have had a better approach. Chau’s defenders, who admired him, pointed out that no one else had ever tried any approach with these people. They quoted Dwight Moody, the famous and sometimes controversial evangelist of the late 1800’s. One time a man told Moody he did not like his way of doing evangelism. Moody replied graciously, admitting there were problems with how he did things, and then asked the man how he did evangelism. “Well,” said the man, “I don’t do it at all.” To that, Moody replied, “Well, then I guess I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”
The harshest criticism of John Chau came from many non-Christians who are not much in favor of the whole Christian mission effort in the first place. Many of these folks are stridently anti-Christian and see no reason to mess up the perfectly happy lives of these simple, primitive people with what they see as immoral cultural imperialism. They wonder why anyone should feel the need to try and force their religion onto others. I will get back to that. (continued…)
John Allen Chau (1991-2018) / Sentinelese tribesmen
Merciful Father, your kindness caused the light of the Gospel to shine among us. Extend your mercy now, we pray, to all the people of the world who do not have hope in Jesus Christ, that your salvation may be made known to them also and that all hearts would turn to you; through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord. Amen.
–Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, page 45