A Historian of Missions on the Death of John Allen Chau

TuckerWhen I was a student studying church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I read Ruth Tucker‘s book From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions.  Tucker was teaching in some capacity at Trinity at this time, but I never got a chance to take one of her courses.  As a relatively new evangelical, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya was my first exposure to the evangelical missionary enterprise.  I found it to be a both inspiring and honest treatment of the subject.

Over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, Tucker reflects on the recent death of missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of the Sentinelese. (See my reflections here). She puts Chau’s story in the context of the so-called “Auca Five,” the missionaries killed in 1956 by the Auca Indians in the Ecuadorian rain forest.

Here is a taste of Tucker’s piece:

I am truly sorry about John Chau’s untimely death, and I certainly do not know his motives—whether any of my multiple-choice motives factored in. Was he really thinking he could bring the gospel without knowing the language? Even if he could have, he would have been seriously endangering the people. If the population of the island had died due to his bringing pathogens against which they have no immunity, wouldn’t that have been far worse?

Some will insist that Chau has potentially rallied a new generation of missionaries. Perhaps. It is indeed true that Operation Auca inspired many to become missionaries, but at what cost and at what neglect of sensible mission outreach?

In the end, missionaries evangelized both tribal groups that had defended themselves by killing the men they perceived to be enemies. In the first instance gifts were left at the perimeter of the tribal territory, allowing the people to make contact on their own terms. In the second instance, three women and a little girl visited the native people: Dayuma, leading the way, Bible translator Rachel Saint, and Elisabeth Elliot, Jim’s widow, and their young daughter.

“For those who saw it as a great Christian martyr story,” Elisabeth later wrote, “the outcome was beautifully predictable. All puzzles would be solved. God would vindicate Himself. Aucas would be converted and we could all ‘feel good’ about our faith.” But that is not what actually happened. “The truth is that not by any means did all subsequent events work out as hoped. There were negative effects of the missionaries’ entrance into Auca territory. There were arguments and misunderstandings and a few really terrible things, along with the answers to prayer.”

Read the entire piece here.

I am actually waiting for Wheaton College history professor Kathryn Long to weigh-in on this.  She is the author of the forthcoming book God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martydom and Redemption in the Amazonian Ecuador (Oxford University Press, 2019).

ADDENDUM: A quick Google search tells me that Long offered commentary for this NPR piece.

One thought on “A Historian of Missions on the Death of John Allen Chau

  1. Was he really thinking he could bring the gospel without knowing the language?

    Depends. Was he Pentecostal/Charismatic? During my time in-country, there was this story going around about a missionary to a “savage tribe” who was miraculously given the ability to speak their language by the Holy Spirit at the last possible moment (the confrontation). I can easily see a far-gone Charismatic counting on the same thing, a risky proposition at best.

    Like

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