The tragedy of Missionary John Allen Chau's
death at the hands of the Sentinelese people.
John Allen Chau
(1991-2018) of Vancouver, WA, was an evangelical Christian missionary U.S., a graduate of Oral Roberts University (ORU), and a soccer coach. He was profoundly motivated by his evangelical Christian faith and his missionary training to try to reach some of the isolated peoples of the world who have never been contacted by Christian missionaries, and thus have never been exposed to Christianity. Many evangelical Christians believe that if a person does not trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior while living on Earth, they will be automatically sent to Hell after death, even if they have never heard of Jesus, Christianity, or the Bible.
As a teenager, he felt that his life work was to convert the Sentinelese people to Christianity. They are a small group of hunter-gatherers who emigrated from west coast of Africa perhaps as long as 60 millennia ago! 11 They are also referred to as the Sentineli and North Sentinel Islanders. They have been called "the last Stone Age tribe" 10 and "the most isolated tribe in the world." 11 They settled in North Sentinel Island, which is part of the Indian territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. The island is located to the East of India and to the West of Myanmar. Today, estimates of the total population of the Sentinelese have ranged from about a dozen to a few hundred people. 7,10 They speak a unique language that is unknown to everyone else in the world.
They have consistently refused contact with other groups and individuals. Using bows and arrows, they have killed people who have approached their island. They may feel that they are acting in self-defense, because they have no immunity to many western diseases that might prove fatal to them. In the past, isolated tribes have been wiped out after being exposed to such diseases.
During 1967, T.N. Pandit was in charge of the Indian Anthropological Survey in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. He led a group of about 20 visitors to the island. During the first visit, the Sentinelese hid in trees. During later visits, his team was aggressively warned off by the tribe. But in 1991, the Sentinelese were more open and friendly. They accepted gifts of coconuts and metal tools. 1
A 1974 video by the Indian Government is available online at You Tube showing visitors to the island leaving gifts for the Sentinelese, starting at about 11 minutes into the video. 5
The archipelago is governed by India whose government decided to strictly forbid all attempts to contact the Sentinelese or even to get with a few miles of the island.
An article in India Today states:
"There has been no significant contact with the Sentinelese for generations. Anthropologists used to occasionally drop off gifts of coconuts and bananas, but even those visits were stopped years ago." 1
What beliefs may have motivated missionary John Cahu?
Many evangelical Christians sincerely believe that:
Adam and Eve were the first humans, created by God six to ten millennia ago, in the Garden of Eden. According to the biblical Book of Genesis, they originally had no knowledge of good and evil. They would have originally reacted to situations like animals -- by instinct -- and not through any moral/ethical sense.
They ate a fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, in violation of specific instructions from God. It had magical properties because afterwards they had gained knowledge of good and evil.
Some view Adam and Eve's act as not sinful, because the fruit was delicious; they may have wanted to know good and evil;
they were simply acting from instinct. However, many conservative Christians consider the original humans' action sinful anyway, and refer to it as humanity's "Original Sin." Through a process of scapegoating, they believe that the guilt of Adam and Eve was passed onto their children, grand children, and successive descendents down through hundreds of generations over thousands of years to every human on Earth today. As a result, conservative Christians believe that the default destination for persons after death has been the torture chambers of Hell. If this is true, then the population of Hell must be many tens of billions of inmates -- many times more than the current population of humans on Earth today.
However, because of a reverse form of scapegoating, Jesus Christ's execution by the Roman Army on a cross made it possible for individuals who have trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior to be "saved:" i.e. to become free of Original Sin and to attain Heaven after death. This is supported by many biblical passages including John 3:16:
" For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (KJV)
It is likely that John Allen Chau believed this concept of salvation and the afterlife. He seems to have been motivated to become a missionary in order to save the Sentinelese people from eternal punishment in Hell. He might have believed that God would approve of such activities and prevent the islanders from picking up life-threatening disease(s) from him.
Ruth Graham, writing for Slate, a daily online magazine, said:
"Mainstream media outlets have published opinion pieces accusing Chau of "cultural imperialism and insane arrogance," for example; on social media, he’s been called an "a--hole," a "failed colonizer," and an "American dickhead." Many critics pointed out that Chau’s expedition was a violation of Indian law, which forbids outsiders to even approach the island. It was also an epidemiological risk to the North Sentinelese, who have not built up immunity to many common illnesses including the flu. And even if the North Sentinelese were not harmed by new germs, contact with outsiders could irreparably alter their lives and culture." 7
Daniel Wesley is a former youth pastor, college pastor and missionary. He had met John Chau, followed his activities, corresponded with him, and received his monthly update letters. He discussed his friend as:
"... a rigorously focused young man who had passionately and deliberately pursued The Andaman Island peoples for the past nine years, with a particular heart for the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island. ... John ... prepared in a myriad of ways to move there. His desire was to become one of them, hunting alongside the North Sentinelese, sleeping in their huts, eating the same diet, and learning their language.
In order to prepare for his contact with the people of North Sentinel Islands, he had read 113 books by authors who had reached out to stone age tribes with the gospel. He had received 13 vaccinations and had quarantined himself for 11 days before he made contact with the tribe in order to minimize the possibility of transmitting a disease to the island people. 8
Chau's visits to the island:
Chau was a missionary of All Nations, an international Christian missions and sending organization.
During 2018-NOV, Chau paid seven local fisherman to smuggle him to North Sentinel Island on their boat. This was an illegal act under Indian law.
His first contact with the islanders was not a peaceful one. He paddled a kayak to the shore and was met by some Sentinelese. One shot at him with arrow which pierced his Bible. He returned to the kayak, and wrote in his diary:
"I'm scared. Watching the sunset and it’s beautiful — crying a bit ... wondering if it will be the last sunset I see."
He also wrote:
"Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name? ... think I could be more useful alive ... but to you, God, I give all the glory of whatever happens."
He asked God to forgive "... any of the people on this island who try to kill me, and especially if they succeed." 3
During the morning after his final visit to the island on about NOV-17, the fishermen saw his body being buried in the sand on the beach.
All Nations' International Executive Leader, Dr. Mary Ho, said:
"All Nations is deeply saddened by this news and wants to publicly express our deepest sorrow for this monumental loss. We have been in contact with John’s family and ask all to join us in praying for his family and friends during this time. We have been in contact with the U.S. State Department and continue to cooperate fully with all international, national and regional officials." 6
Was Chau alone?
Dependra Pathak, the police chief in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, suspects that Chau may have been encouraged by two other U.S. missionaries in the area. The police traced phone calls that the two made to Chau from their cell phones. They had two local mobile numbers when they were on Nicobar island and populated islands in the Andaman chain. The two missionaries have since left the area.
Rod Dreher, writing for The American Conservative, said:
"I find it repulsive that some people on Twitter are using his death to work out their loathing of Christians. If you can’t help yourself from being that kind of person, kindly do not post a comment on this thread. ..." 4
"Chau could not have preached to these people. Nobody speaks their language. How on earth could he have witnessed to them? At best he could have settled down to live with them permanently or semi-permanently, and learned their language. Only then might he have been able to communicate the Gospel to these primitive people. Unless he had made plans to spend many years living with the Sentinelese, trying to preach to them was a pointless endeavor. ..."
"I think the only reasonable way to resolve this dilemma from a Christian theological point of view is to pray for and trust in God’s mercy for them — but to leave them alone. It is one thing to be willing to lay down your life for these tribal people. It is cruel to expect them to lay down their lives so you can prove your love for God." 4
Dreher's article received 235 comments from readers during its first ten days of posting. Some were:
"I’m surprised to find Dreher accusing this kid of hubris. Naive? Maybe. Orr maybe he knew exactly what he was getting into. Could not the same thing been said about the early apostles given some of the lion’s dens they were running into? Yet had they not done that, who knows where we would be today (or if there’d be a "we" at all).
I do not discount the power of prayer by a long shot, but if you believe it is a Christian imperative to evangelize, there needs to be a human element to bring the message unless you have strong confidence that a divine vision will bring revelation to the island. Sure, the guy might have been careless, but if he is hubristic, so were the early Christians seeking to convert the Roman mobs from the gladiatorial floor of the coliseum.
"Turmarion" quoted part of Chau's diary in which he mentioned that when he had contacted the Sentinelese, he had said his name and hollered "I love you" and "Jesus loves you." Turmarion commented:
"This certainly substantiates that Chau had no kind of plan in mind whatsoever. I mean, landing on an island full of hostile natives, and without even trying to make contact, yelling 'Jesus loves you' in a languages they can’t even understand? No disrespect to the tragically deceased, but this goes beyond mere bad judgment ..."
Ryan Booth responded to "Turmarion's" posting, saying:
"As a graduate of Oral Roberts University, Chau likely belongs to a branch of Pentecostalism that believes in the power of tongues when used in evangelism. In other words, he expected the Holy Spirit to work on the hearts of the Sentinelese who heard him. Many believe that there is supernatural power in proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ.
So, it’s not accurate to say that he was a moron without a plan. His plan was for God to work a miracle. His faith tradition believes that frequently works in miraculous ways when Christians ask for God’s help.
I am not Pentecostal, but I don’t believe that their faith makes them morons."
Christopher Hathaway wrote:
"The fact is that, from a Christian perspective (which is the only one worth considering here if we are to judge the appropriateness of Chau’s actions as a mission work), all those on that island were and still are living in spiritual darkness. They are not noble savages living harmoniously with nature, blah, blah, blah. Their lives are ruled by fear and violence and little certainty of any grace from the great Creator, if they even remember such a Being. ..."
A Christian, who knows how good it is to know God, should keep that in mind and understand those living without such knowledge as undergoing suffering. Is it not a good thing to try to rescue them from suffering such a darkened life, even if it risks an early death for many of them? At some point those islanders are going to have to be reached if that is to happen. Maybe Chau’s death and witness will help to pave the way, if only by bringing up the issue of these people living in need of the "Light of the world," whether they know it or not. Maybe someone will be spurred to reach them in a more workable manner.
Or we all could just ignore them and pretend they are fine as they are." 4
2019-FEB: The U.S. Federal Government will not attempt to prosecute the Sentinelese for killing John Allen Chau:
Sam Brownback (R), was a former governor of Kansas and has served as the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom since 2018-FEB. He stated that the U.S. would not ask the government of India to pursue criminal charges against the Sentinelese.
At a press conference, he said:
"The U.S. government has not asked or pursued any sort of sanctions that the Indian government would take against the tribal people in this case. That’s not been something that we have requested or have put forward. It’s a tragic situation and a tragic case of what’s happened, but that’s not something that’s been asked." 9
Michael Stone, writing for the Progressive Secular Humanist column at Patheos, said:
"... at least one prominent Christian group, International Christian Concern, issued a call for the punishment of the isolated tribes people. According to reports, the organization called Chau’s death a 'murder,' and wanted the native people responsible for Chau’s death 'brought to justice'." 9
Information about previous contacts with the Sentinelese:
Jacob Shamsian, "The isolated tribe that killed a 26-year-old American missionary has been contacted by the outside world at least 11 times before — here's what happened each time," Insider, 2018-NOV-26, at: https://www.thisisinsider.com/
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.