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21st century martyr: A conversation on the legacy of John Allen Chau

A montage of slain U.S. missionary John Chau. | (Instagram/John Chau)

On November 17, 2018, 26-year-old Christian missionary John Allen Chau was killed while attempting to evangelize the native Sentinelese people of North Sentinel Island, India. The wake of the tragedy has seen intense global media interest in the case, with many people dismissing Chau as a fatuous thrillseeker, a dangerous zealot, a subversive colonialist … or all of the above.

However, not all assessments have been negative. In his fascinating article “Should Missionaries Just Stay Away?,” theologian and professor John Stackhouse offers a very different assessment of Chau as a “brave young man doing what brave young Christians should.” In this conversation, I spoke with John about his article and the issues it raises.

RR: John, thanks for writing your article “Should Missionaries Just Stay Away?” It’s a very interesting defense of John Chau’s evangelistic efforts and one that was well worthy of further reflection. So for starters, what prompted you to write this article?

JS: I read a piece issued by a prominent American medium (Religion News Service) that was really badly written, a hodge-podge of fact, stereotype, and outright falsehood that almost certainly was published only because the author identified herself as both a former evangelical Christian and a Native American wrestling with her own identities as such. I sincerely sympathize with people sorting out such intersectional challenges, but it’s best if they don’t publicly slag whole communities (e.g., evangelicals, missionaries) while they do so–and she did. Essentially, because missionaries have often been implicated in colonialism, then John Allen Chau was an imperialist because he was a missionary. That’s a logical problem of a pretty basic order, of course, and it’s also a wild overstatement about the history of missions. So I thought, since I’m something of an authority on evangelicalism and I’ve taught the history of missions, I might usefully speak up on these matters.

RR: Thanks, that’s helpful. I find the Chau case fascinating because it brings together a broad nexus of complex issues and I’d like to pick your brain on some of them. I’d like to start with what seems to me to be a shift in the way many evangelical Christians view pioneering missionaries and their work.

Back in 2002 when I was teaching at Briercrest College, I met Bruce Olson during his visit to deliver some guest lectures. Olson was made famous for his work with the Motilone people of Colombia and Venezuela and I had held him in high esteem since I’d read his autobiography Bruchko as a kid. Indeed, growing up, people like Olson were the closest thing to an evangelical saint.

In your article, you make reference to another famous evangelical missionary, Jim Elliot, who was martyred in 1956 while attempting to evangelize the Huaorani people of Ecuador. For generations, Christians like Olson and Elliot have represented the noblest expression of the evangelical aspiration to follow Christ.

One thing that struck me about the reaction to Chau was how many Christians, and evangelicalsin particular, seemed to be dismissive of and even hostile toward his efforts. Do you think that there has been a shift in attitude toward the work of the pioneering missionary? And if so, what do you suppose is driving it?

JS: There aren’t many heroes left outside superhero comics and movies, are there? Not unalloyed saints, that’s for sure. And that’s okay: No one but Jesus has been perfect, and we’re right to keep our critical faculties about us even when, and sometimes especially when, someone is presented to us in glorious robes of sanctity.

That said, I agree that it’s weird, verging on the pathological, the way even fellow Christians have sharply criticized this young man, initially assuming he was a fanatic who knew nothing about diseases (wrong), languages (wrong), tribal cultures (wrong), and the dark history of imperialism (wrong). In fact, he and his sending agency seem to have been impressively responsible on all those counts. So what’s the problem?

Then we have evangelical Christians chiding him for breaking the law in preaching the gospel to people the government had said were off limits. Excuse me? Anyone read the Book of Acts recently?

The most serious charge is that the islanders had made it clear they didn’t want anyone from the outside to visit. Given what seems to have been their awful experience of British colonialism a generation ago, no wonder they didn’t. But does that mean no one ever brings them the benefits of modernity, condemning them–and their children–to a life without analgesics, anaesthetics, and antibiotics? Without refrigeration and metal tools and shoes and dentistry and books? Why not attempt to give them positive experiences, rather than just saying, “Oh, well, they don’t want our help.” That’s like leaving a traumatized kid in the basement of his tormentor’s house while making sure only that the tormentor is gone.

So was Chau foolish to go in alone? Some Christians are criticizing him for breaking the missionary “rule” they derive from the Bible about going in twos. But that was once or twice in Jesus’s own ministry. Jesus himself spoke alone to the woman at the well, Philip was directed by the Spirit to speak alone to the Ethiopian eunuch, Paul presumably spoke alone to his jailers (!), and so on, and so on. Indeed, one might make the case that Chau was so aware of the islanders’ fear of outsiders that he went to them as non-frighteningly and non-imperialistically as he could: by himself, unarmed, utterly vulnerable. What should he have done? Go in heavy with a commando team? Sheesh.

RR: One of the fragments of Chau’s story that has courted controversy is the fact that in the days prior to his death, he wrote in his journal, “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, many people seem to have thought that language quite literally demonizes the people to which Chau was ministering. But from the perspective of an evangelical Christian, that is familiar spiritualized language of concern for people who have never heard the Gospel. You’ve already touched on the ways that Chau was misunderstood (e.g. weird, imperialistic) but perhaps you could say a bit more about that with an eye to the wider cultural perception of evangelicals.

JS: Biblically speaking, Chau’s language is unusual–the Bible doesn’t mention Satan very often–and evangelicals nervous about their public profile might want such language tamped down. But it isn’t wrong. In this world, Satan rules where Jesus doesn’t. Why Chau is asking that question of the Lord isn’t obvious. Maybe he subscribes to the idea that the Lord will return once everyone on earth is evangelized. But he’s not wrong to wonder about the islanders, given how few “unreached peoples” are left on earth, and he’s not wrong to phrase it that way.

RR: You say that Satan rules where Jesus doesn’t with the implication being that Satan rules in lands where the Gospel has yet to be proclaimed. However, many Christians would push back against this framing of the issue. For example, at Vatican II, the Catholic Church embraced Karl Rahner’s idea of anonymous Christians, people who are following Christ even prior to having heard the Gospel. If one takes that inclusivist view of salvation, namely that salvation can include those who have not yet heard the Gospel, then one might not be so quick to judge a society as Satan’s stronghold prior to the verbal proclamation of the Gospel.

What are your thoughts on the exclusivist/inclusivist debate and how it might shape the way we interpret the actions of a missionary like Chau?

JS: Thanks for this push-back. Let me be more clear. “Jesus is Lord” is the earliest confession of the Christian Church and the foundation of the Christian view of things. Satan rules only to the extent that Jesus allows him to–and, indeed, to the extent that we human beings, who were originally supposed to govern the earth under God, allow him to.

When I say that “Satan rules where Jesus doesn’t,” I mean that in situations in which God’s way is not followed, Satan holds sway. (In this locution I am not distinguishing “Jesus” from “God.”) But that doesn’t mean that Satan rules everywhere that isn’t explicitly Christian, and in two respects.

First, I agree with you that there are individuals, families, and even whole tribes that have come under the influence of the Holy Spirit such that they are reconciled to God (through the work of Jesus, to be sure) even though they haven’t yet heard the actual story of Jesus. (I hold to evangelical inclusivism, to use the theological terminology.) So just because a person, family, or community isn’t yet Christian doesn’t mean Jesus isn’t already ruling there.

Second, there are individuals, families, and whole communities that call themselves Christian and manifestly disobey Jesus and instead pretty clearly follow the way of the Adversary.

What I meant, then, and what I mean is that in the final analysis, we human beings serve one lord or the other. Since the Sentinel Islanders, about whom we know only a little, to be sure, seem not to practice Christianity or anything like it, Chau appropriately wondered about their spiritual status. But it is important to note that he is wondering, he is asking the Lord a question, not pronouncing from afar on their spiritual status.

RR: Much of the negative reaction to Chau has been based on the assumption that his actions were impulsive and unplanned. But that is most certainly not the case. Mary Ho, the head of All Nations, the mission agency that sent Chau, pointed out that Chau had sensed a calling to the North Sentinelese since he was a teenager. She observed: “Even as a young man, before we met him, every decision he made, every step he took, was to share the love of God with the North Sentinelese.”

Could you say something about the concept of calling and particularly the notion that God might call his children to acts of service that could involve mortal peril?

JS: What John Chau seems definitely not to have been is impulsive. Instead, he was resolute. He might have been wrong–any of us can be, even about important things about which we have prayed. But he was following what to him was a path blessed by God: a sense of calling, an opportunity to train properly with a responsible mission, and even fishermen willing to transport him secretly to the island. At any point, God could have put a halt to Chau’s dream. And when his first attempt ended with an arrow through his Bible, lots of his critics have said he should have quit then and there. But why? The islanders were behaving exactly as Chau would have expected them to. So why quit?

Missionary history is in fact full of stories of pioneers cut down upon first contact, only to be replaced by more who were inspired by the initial story who then enjoy success. Let me be clear that of course I am not defending any and all missionary endeavours. Some of them have indeed seemed foolish and fruitless. But I am defending the simple point that someone has to be first, and that someone may well pay the ultimate price in order to get the conversation going. That’s what John Chau did, and it’s ‘way too early to write off his self-sacrifice as foolish and worthless. Let’s just see what happens next.

Last point: For Christians, the worst thing in the world isn’t dying. It’s failing to do the will of God. John Chau, by those principles, made the right choice. That’s why I call him a martyr.

Dr. Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta, where he has taught since 2003. He blogs at and lectures widely on issues of theology, Christian worldview, and apologetics. Randal is the author of many books including his latest, What's So Confusing About Grace?

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