Here’s what I wondered, when I first read about the 26-year-old who got himself killed by tribesmen who had no idea he was on their remote Indian island to “share the love of God:” Who for the love of God had let poor John Allen Chau believe that Christ wanted him to run up a beach yelling, “Jesus loves you!” at people who see outsiders as a threat?
Mary Ho, international executive leader of the group that trained the young Washington State native for his predictably fatal trip to North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Sea, told The Star that he was “very, very well prepared” and from quite an early age “knew that he was called to be a missionary” to the Sentinelese.
I have seen Christian missionaries doing God’s work in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, and have the greatest respect for both their service and their faith.
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But to paddle up to an island where the world’s most isolated people so reliably shoot arrows at intruders that for safety’s sake it’s been put off limits by the Indian government? And to sneak past patrol boats to venture where any trespasser who did survive could wipe out the Sentinelese, because they have no immunity to outside diseases? That is not, as the All Nations website says, “courageous and humble.”
No, it’s hubristic, and if not suicidal then tragically naive.
On the final pages of Chau’s journal, which he asked to be returned to his family and to All Nations in the event of his death, the Oral Roberts University grad writes about being destined to serve as a kind of modern-day Isaiah: “God, I thank you for choosing me while I was not even yet formed in my mother’s womb to be your messenger of your Good News to the people of North Sentinel Island.”
He means to save souls, but doesn’t seem to have considered that he posed a serious physical danger to those he meant to help: “Lord,” he writes, “is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”
“His final message to a friend in his journal is, “Remember, the first one to heaven wins.” And just as Jesus prayed on the cross, he writes, “O Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
All Nations owed it to Chau to challenge rather than support a plan that was not just high-risk, but doomed from the start.
One anthropologist who did manage to make contact with the tribesmen decades ago has said Chau should have backed off when the islanders shot warning arrows: “He had enough chance to save himself,” said T.N. Pandit, who is in his 80s now. “But he persisted and paid with his life.”
To avoid more unnecessary fatalities, the nonprofit Survival International has asked Indian authorities “to abandon efforts to recover John Allen Chau’s body,” which fishermen believe they saw being dragged across the beach and buried there.
Such an attempt would not just be dangerous to the team going in to retrieve his remains, but to the Sentinelese, since as Survival International said in a statement, “the risk of a deadly epidemic of flu, measles or other outside disease is very real. … Mr. Chau’s body should be left alone.”
Yet even now, Ho insists there was nothing ill-conceived about the trip. Asked how much she or others at All Nations really knew about his destination, she said, “We know they were unreached by the Gospel, and we know that they are generally an uncontacted tribe. We didn’t know much, because there’s not a lot of information out there about them.”
Yes, she said, they did know that the Sentinelese were unwelcoming, but Chau “really wanted to get to know them” and “was hoping to win them over, the way many of us may not have initially the most welcoming neighbors.”
Not many of us, though, would knowingly move in next door to a family that had killed or tried to kill a succession of previous occupants.
Ho sees Chau as no different than the firefighter or police officer who assumes risk in order to be of service, then carefully trains for the job and proceeds with caution. But did she really think he’d succeed where others had not?
“We definitely knew he would do his best to try,” she said. “It’s hard to gauge success.”
A young man’s body buried on the beach, however, is so clearly what failure looks like that it wouldn’t be right, even in deference to his grieving loved ones, to portray his well-intentioned acts as anything other than irresponsible. That All Nations did nothing to dissuade him was unconscionably negligent, and maybe even actionable. One party I do not blame, though, is Jesus, because I can’t believe a loving God would make such a terrible call.