A common part of Christian Evangelicalism is the belief that it is the duty of the church to go out into all the world and take them the message of Jesus, whether they want to hear it or not. This message is to share what they call the “good news”; that we are sinful and sinners separate from God, without hope, except through Jesus. And because of Jesus, we have hope and won’t burn for eternity. Jesus love is so great that if we turn from our ways and commit ourselves to him, we will experience a love and joy unlike any other… and live in riches and glory instead of a fiery furnace.
I grew up in this. And while in most cases the intent behind it is paved with good intentions, my older self has come to recognize how much harm this can cause — and how much hypocrisy it can bear with it.
Recently, the act of Evangelicalizing and converting others popped into headlines when a “missionary” 1In quotations as I want to be clear, I do believe there are valid missionaries (even valid Evangelical missionaries) out there. This form of mission work, and much of it that falls under Evangelical mission work, however, does more harm and supports white saviourism more than it aims to help. was killed attempting to convert a remote tribe. Unsurprisingly, many Evangelicals have begun to label this man a martyr, mourning that he was killed for his faith.
Except, he’s not a martyr. And he wasn’t killed for his faith. He wasn’t killed for taking a stand for his faith, for being persecuted for his faith. While his death is sad, this was a death he brought upon himself due to the idealisms that were placed on him through his Evangelical teachers.
His death, once again, is unfortunate. It’s sad. Death should be mourned. But the fact is, the events that led to this man’s death were 100% his fault. And the response to it by many Christians highlights the extreme hypocrisy in the existence of many parts of Evangelicalism.
According to police reports, Chau used a tourist Visa to get into India for the sole purpose of visiting the Andaman and Nicobar islands in order to proselytize to those he believed needed to be converted. It was during those visits to the islands he came across the Sentinelese people, a tribe protected under Indian law that has explicitly requested to be undisturbed by the modern world.
In layman’s terms, it is illegal to have any contact with these people. Period. Chau was aware of this, bribing fisherman and others to take him to the island. In one contact with the people, he had to flee for his life after being shot at by a boy with an arrow.
In Chau’s diary and letters to family, he made it clear his goal was to convert this tribe, lamenting for the eternity of their souls. His final entry details how he had fisherman smuggle him across to the island in the dead of night to avoid patrols.
There are numerous things wrong with what Chau did, and they only begin with illegally pursuing a protected tribe because of the arrogance of belief that he had the right to change them. That was merely the beginning.
The next issue is that he believed he had the right to change their beliefs at all — something that is hammered in by many Evangelical churches and leaders. Ironically, these are the same people that are angry Muslim’s and other religions are allowed to preach and teach in Western countries, and who often demand restrictions on these other religions.
“This is a Christian nation!” they’ll declare as reason that these other religions should not be allowed to openly practice — or *gasp* convert — on our soil. And yet, they openly teach that it is okay for them to do so in other places — particularly in countries where other religions are more prominent or Christianity is illegal.
In this particular case, this belief could have led to the complete cultural genocide of a people that have existed for thousands of years.
Even worse, Chau’s mere presence amongst the Sentinelese could have quite easily led to all of their deaths. The exposure to any disease he may have been carrying, any illness, common cold, could have wiped them out. His need to force people to believe what he did could have slaughtered an entire people — and of course, he and others would have considered that acceptable because “Jesus.”
This attitude — and the driving force behind Chau’s actions are highly representative of colonialism, of the West’s need to force indigenous tribes to become more civilized, to abandon their “savage” beliefs and find “truth”.
There was a time I believed these same things. There was a time I was so driven by this belief that Christians had the right to show everyone the “truth” that I would have been right there with those mourning this “martyr”.
Evangelicals in North America constantly speak out about freedom of religion, and about how they are being persecuted when laws are passed to allow for other beliefs. What they’re asking for isn’t freedom of religion, but the freedom to enforce their religious beliefs above all others. That their beliefs should dictate law, education, and ultimately, truth. The argument once again being that these are Christian countries.
But, if that is so, if they truly believed this was about the original predominant religion, then why is it acceptable to send missionaries to other countries in order to convert them? Particularly when those of other religions also believe their own faiths are the ultimate truth?
Ultimately, that is the hypocrisy that is at play by those considering this man a martyr. It is driven by the idea that their beliefs and their faith are so superior to all that any casualties (outside of Christian ones) are acceptable. That any law that is broken, any risk to others that is created, is an acceptable part of forcing conversion to the “good news”.
Ironically, these kinds of actions are completely contrary to the way Christ chose to share his message in the Bible. He never forced himself on others. Most often, he let them come to him. He spoke to those who wanted to hear it. He condemned those who abused God’s laws.
John Chau’s story is heartbreaking and should be mourned — but the mourning should be about the institutions that led him to the delusions that got him killed. That made him superior to those he felt he had to change. It’s a hard-learned lesson — if it’s learned.
This column originally appeared in the November 29, 2018 edition of the Orangeville Citizen.
For a more in-depth piece about John Chau and the issues with the mentality behind Evangelical missions work, check out Chris Stroop’s most recent piece in Playboy, “On the Death of John Chau and the Madness of Missionaries“.