Thoughts on the Death of John Allen Chau


What should we make of the death of a twenty-seven-year-old missionary at the hands of an indigenous tribe on North Sentinel Island off the coast of India?  On Sunday we published Kate Carte’s twitterstorm on the subject.  Yesterday I linked to Ryu Spaeth’s piece at The New Republic.  Since then, evangelical historian Thomas Kidd has weighed-in at The Gospel Coalition.  The story has also elicited several interesting comments at my Facebook page.

Frankly, this story has so many moving parts that I am not sure I have a “take” on it.  It is a tragic story on all sides.  I have mixed feelings about Chau’s death.

Here are a few thoughts:

1.This is one of those cases where people of Christian faith who believe in the Great Commission (Mt. 28) might see it differently from those who are not Christians.  As an evangelical myself, I understand and sympathize with Chau’s zeal and his desire to convert the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island. Chau was passionate about his faith and his desire to share it with others.  Conversionism, missionary work, and evangelism are at the heart of evangelical faith.  Historically, this kind of passion and zeal has often led to martyrdom.  I am reminded of my friend who I wrote about in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  He signed his letters to fellow Christians with these words: “May you suffer and die for Christ.”

I am not saying here that Chau deserves to be called a “martyr.” I am saying that Chau is not the first person to die proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Great Commission is one of the reasons I remain an evangelical. If you are a Christian and do not believe in evangelism, missions, or “making disciples” in the world then you need to explain to me why you take Jesus’s words seriously in some places of the Gospels (love your neighbor, caring for the poor, etc.) and not in Matthew 28:16-20.  It seems to me that the Great Commission of Matthew 28 is something more than simply, “go into the world and do acts of social justice.”  If this is what the Great Commission means, then I am not sure how Christianity is any different than the Peace Corps or some other non-religious agency.  It seems to me that the requirement to “make disciples” and “baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit” requires something more.  Chau took this call seriously.

2. Unfortunately, Chau was not a good steward of his passion and his commitment to the Great Commission.  He was a young man.  He had the potential of reaching so many lives with the good news of the Gospel.  We need more people in the church with his zeal for evangelism. Sadly, we will never get to witness his future ministry.

3. Christians have abused the Great Commission in ways that have led to violence, death, genocide, slavery, and other forms of imperialism.  Kate Carte is right about the so-called Pilgrim (and Puritan) invasion.  This is a history that today’s evangelicals must confront and I have spent the better of my career trying to get my fellow evangelicals to confront it.  But I am thankful, at least when it comes to missiology, that some thoughtful evangelicals have confronted it.  I don’t know of any missiologist teaching at a reputable evangelical theological seminary who would endorse the kind of imperialism practiced by the Pilgrims, 19th-century missionaries, or even 20th-century missionaries.  Moreover, I do not think contemporary missiologists would endorse Chau’s approach either.  His approach is not representative of evangelical missionary activity today.

4. Over at my Facebook page, historian Jonathan Couser writes that he “does not consider Chau a true missionary.”  He reminds us that the term “missionary” means “one who is sent” (from Latin, missus).  This, Couser writes, “implies authorization, commission from a sending church or agency.  So far as I understand, no church SENT Chau.  He got it into his own head to undertake a lone-wolf mission to an isolated people.”  This is a great point.  There is a reason why missionaries do not go to North Sentinel Island.  Churches and missions organizations bring wisdom, history, scholarship, and experience to the missionary endeavor.  Perhaps Chau did consult with a “sending” organization and simply ignored the advice.  Perhaps a “sending” organization would have been aware of the health risk he posed to the Sentinelese.

And now the attempt to recover Chau’s body has put others at risk.  It does not seem like he thought this through.  This is what happens when missionaries go rogue.

5.  Chau’s failure to work as part of the global Christian or missionary community is an example of the individualism at the heart of Western evangelicalism.  Chau’s trip to North Sentinel Island seems to have combined evangelical individualism with the adventure/adrenaline culture popular among American millennials today.  Chau seems to have ignored the wisdom of the church and the voices of other Christians in his life.

6. A lot has been made of Chau breaking Indian law by going to the North Sentinel Island.  No argument here.  But like Ryu Spaeth, I wonder when it is appropriate to break border laws and when it is not.  Is it appropriate to interpret Chau’s actions in the context of America’s immigration debate?  Many liberals and progressives defend undocumented immigrants crossing the border in the name of justice and compassion.  Others disagree.  Those who disagree suggest that undocumented immigrants are dangerous or a threat to American society.  They thus defend strict border control and punishment for those who enter the United States illegally.  (Caveat:  I am talking here about immigrants, not asylum seekers).

In Chau’s case, he understood his arrival on New Sentinel Island as an act of love and compassion.  He believed so strongly in the evangelical message of salvation that he thought it was worth breaking the law so that he could deliver this message to the Sentinelese.  Why such a strong defense of North Sentinel Island borders, but not such a strong defense of U.S. borders?  When should love and compassion define our understand of borders and when should it not? Do we only break the law for the ideas and moral principles that we like?

7.  As a Christian, I believe in the dignity of all human beings.  I thus believe murder is wrong.  I understand that the Sentinelese acted in self-defense.  But in the end, a life was lost.  This should cause us to grieve.  Murder is murder and life is life, whether the Sentinelese are noble savages or not.  Of course one might also say the same thing about Chau.  His arrival on the island put human lives at risk.

Tragic indeed.

Addendum: It appears that Chau did indeed work with a missions agency.  Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today reports that he was a missionary with All Nations missions.

Addendum #2:  At 12:14 am on November 27, 2018 I edited points 3 and 6 for clarity.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Death of John Allen Chau

  1. I’m just waiting for the first sermon using Chau’s death to shame and guilt-manipulate their congregation as Lukewarms(TM).


  2. Let’s not forget that in an Orthodox and Roman Catholic perspective the Great Commandment is alive and well in monastic communities, including those that are contemplative and cloistered. As one monk tells it, “we don’t need to go out into the world. The world comes to us.” BH


  3. Savages? Hmmm interesting word choice there. It basically reaffirms that white missionaries don’t consider anyone non Christian as a nonhuman.


  4. Dr. Fea, I appreciate your examination of Mr. Chou’s unfortunate mission as opposed to merely making a hot take concerning it.
    Per point 6, “Why such a strong defense of North Sentinel Island borders, but not such a strong defense of U.S. borders?” I answer (as a secular man raised as a Southern Baptist) that the difference has to do with relative power. The people of New Sentinel Island are few in number and, possibly, guile about our world while the US calls itself the most powerful country on earth. Additionally, one of the characteristics of colonial mentality (I suspect such mentality informed Mr. Chou even if he did not mean for it to) is that the strong contact the weak. The power imbalance between even a single person from our world (because of the infrastructure that supports one such person) and the New Sentinel Island inhabitants vs. the power immigrants have viz. the US, is the essence of the argument in favor of leaving the Islanders alone while allowing immigrants into the US. Furthermore, the anti-immigrant fervor we cur4rently “enjoy” is a political scam that belies what we often hold ourselves out to be, while the Islanders are consistent.
    Thanks for digging through my sloppy ideas.


  5. Excellent excellent article.Thank you, Dr. Fea. Is there any word re: whether John ventured to New Sentinel Island with consent of All Nations?

    Aside: Thank you for your book on “The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump” as well.


Comments are closed.