John Allen Chau a missionary from Washington state tried to share Christ with the most isolated hunter-gather tribe on the earth on North Sentinel Island off India. It was his effort to break “Satan’s last stronghold on earth.” Not only was John naïve but he broke a number of Indian laws in the process. This looks at what happens when people are indoctrinated by the Jim Elliot story in Ecuador. This post also considers how evangelical Christians can be very naïve when it comes to missionary work. The evangelical culture can be brutal to those who have high hopes with performing missionary work. John wasn’t a “fool for Christ” as 1 Corinthians 4:10 suggests. Instead he was a naïve individual who would threaten the existence of a tribe who and put many people at risk. When you think of evangelical theology wouldn’t it be ironic if members of the Indian Coast Guard or military are slain while trying to recover his body? And as a result of that theology end up in hell because of Chau’s efforts? Yes that and many other scenarios need to be considered.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
“Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”
John Allen Chau in his personal journal
“John was one of the best participants in this experience that we have ever had.”
Mary Ho from All Nations
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
Matthew 28:19 NIV
There was an evangelical Christian missionary that made a splash in the front page of the New York Times, Washington Post and other media recently. For me the story highlights issues within evangelical Christianity when it comes to the Jim Elliot tale, how missionary work is viewed and many other issues. I debated about writing this but as I read the news I saw such a flow of information and opinion that it was decided to enter the discussion on the death of John Chau. My opinion will be critical and raise a perspective that I don’t think were considered. As always you are free to criticize me and ask questions in what I say below.
Who is John Chau?
John Chau is a controversial missionary who died on November 18, 2018 on North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal. John was originally from Vancouver, Washington where he was born on December 18, 1991. His father fled China during the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao. Chau went to college at Loma Linda University and then picked up a Masters in Health and Physical Education at Oral Roberts University at Tulsa, Oklahoma. John was an outdoorsman. He enjoyed hiking, traveling, scuba diving and being an explorer. John was a mountaineer and also an International Soccer Coach. From what I am reading it appears he became infatuated with Jim Elliot whose death in Ecuador in 1956 is legendary. John’s missionary passion took him to South Africa, Israel, Jordan, northern Iraq, and many other parts of the world. His Instagram account which I studied shows a lot of his travel adventures and what he endured when he did explore the world. John Chau became deeply immersed in wanting to share the Lord with one of the most remote and smallest tribes that is on the earth. This trip where he was speared to death he had wanted to do for years and planned for a significant portion of his life.
Background on the North Sentinel Island and the Sentinese Tribe
John Chau wanted to share Christ with the one of the most isolated hunter-gather tribe in the world. That tribe is the Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal. North Sentinel Island is about the size of Manhattan and is off limits to outsiders. North Sentinel is a part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Most of the islands are governed by the government of India. There is not a lot of information that is known about the Sentinelese tribe. They are suspected of being originally migrating from Africa tens of thousands of years ago. They are hunter-gatherers as they collect food on the island and use spears to catch fish and hunt turtles. The estimated number of the tribe goes from around 100 to several hundred. Its my understanding that the language is not known and those who have had encounters with the Sentinelese have had a close call with death or they have been killed.
The Sentinelese are known for being violent and fierce defenders of the island. According to the New York Times that violence goes back to the late nineteenth century with the British. In 1974 National Geographic was working on a documentary of the islands and was offshore. A spear was thrown at the boat containing the crew. When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit the region the tribe attacked a helicopter by firing arrows at it. In 2006 two fisherman were killed by the tribe when their boat drifted ashore while they slept. The Indian government tried to get the bodies and Sentinelese archers launched projectiles at the helicopter which drove the Indians away. They were unable to land. Their remains are still at North Sentinal Island.
Another issue that is a factor is that this tribe is at high risk for contagious diseases from outsiders. Another way to consider this is think of how Indians in the western United States were killed by small-pox and other diseases. Those who interact with the Sentinelese are putting the tribe at great risk. The Indian government tried to give gifts and build repertoire with the tribe from the 1970’s up until 1996 when it was decided to leave the tribe alone. The Indian Navy enforces a three mile buffer zone. If you would like to learn more about the Sentinelese tribe you can do so here.
John Chau, His Obsession with the Sentinelese and What Occurred on North Sentinel Island
As an evangelical Christian John first heard about the Sentinelese when he was a teenager in Washington state. It was through the Joshua Project and he became hooked. He became obsessed and wanted to convert them to evangelical Christianity. He told a those around him of his plans to reach the Sentinelese, and according to John Middleton Ramsay in the Australian News this trip has been planned since high school by Chau. Because of his desires he even avoided dating so that he could focus on his mission. According to the Washington Post, John Chau told a friend in Bellingham, Washington of what he was going to do. John Middleton Remsay recalled that Chau talked about the risk and was aware of the laws that he was going to break in the process. As I stated above John Chau appears to be infatuated with the Jim Elliot story which was pushed in his faith most likely. Also in 2015 John Chau made his first trip to the island chain. The point of that journey was to build contacts for his mission which would happen in time. He dived and often inquired about North Sentinel Island. The Indian civilians he interacted with told him the island was off limits. None of that swayed Chau who in the course of time tried to study Coast Guard patrols that took place around the island. He was looking for patterns that he could violate and exploit in time.
When he came back to the United States he joined All Nations in Kansas City, Missouri in October of 2017. All Nations is an evangelical Christian missionary agency that likes to train and send people out. John Allen Chau did a “bootcamp” that I think took place in Kansas. A “primitive” village was set up and the works pretended not to know the language and be aggressive. The team from All Nations carried fake spears and pretended to be a tribe. This was a part of his training at All Nations. All Nations claims that John Chau did not violate any laws. The Indian government said something altogether different. Chau continued to work toward his goal and in 2018 go back for his mission. He exercised, prepared himself for the mission, jogged and paid attention to what he ate. He also anticipated being attacked by the Sentinelese. For example according to the New York Times he created “an initial response contact kit” that allowed him to remove arrows if he was hit. Many of his John’s friends knew the mission was dangerous but many were also in awe of his faith. After all this was a man sacrificing his all for Christ. In the end he went to Port Blair in the Andaman Islands four times. He also learned phonetics from the Canada Institute of Linguistics. His goal was to turn the Bible into the Sentinelese language. That would be amazing because that language has not been cracked and anthropologists don’t know how it communicates or even how the language works.
The last time John Chau went back to Port Blair was on October 21, 2018. In preparation for his mission he isolated himself for 10 days so that he would not carry any disease to the Sentinenalese. He also was doing reconnaissance of Indian Coast Guard so he could slip on to the island. Chau found a couple of people that would take him to the island for $350.00. He was going to give some gifts of scissors, pins and other items. The first attempt was on November 15, 2018. After all he arrived under the cover of darkness the previous night. Chau approached the tribe and some of the women began “looing and chattering.” Men with bows and arrows confronted him. Chau supposedly stood on a rock and screamed at the tribe, “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.” The second day he kayaked to the Island and tried to offer some of the small gifts that he brought. A man in white with a crown possibly made of flowers yelled in his tribal language. Chau responded by singing modern evangelical worship songs. The tribe fell silent, but one juvenile fired an arrow at him piercing his waterproof Bible. Chau then fled through the mangroves. The Washington Post obtained Chau’s journal and after that experience he wrote the following. “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” On the third day he was convinced that he was going to be killed. “Watching the sunset and it’s beautiful — crying a bit . . . wondering if it will be the last sunset I see.” He also reaffirmed his mission. “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people.” He paid the fisherman to drop him at the beach and to pick him up the following day. The next day when the fisherman went to North Sentinel they watched the Sentinelese tribe drag his body up and down the beech. He was then buried.
The Indian government learned what happened and arrested those who helped him come to North Sentinel Island. The Indian government is also looking for two American evangelicals who played a role in helping this trip to North Sentinel Island come about. At this point it is unknown if the Indian government will try and recover the remains of John Allen Chau. The government is consulting with anthropologists and psychologists about the situation. They have had several trips off the island using binoculars to try and identity the burial site of John Allen Chau. But the risk is sizable and the government doesn’t want to provoke the tribe. On Instagram Chau’s family released a statement about the situation. This is what they said.
“We recently learned from an unconfirmed report that John Allen Chau was reportedly killed in India while reaching out to members of the Senintelese tribe in the Andaman Islands. Words cannot express the sadness we have experienced about this report. He was a beloved son, brother, uncle and best friend to us. To others he was a Christian missionary, a wilderness EMT, an international soccer coach, and a mountaineer. He loved God, life, helping those in need and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people. We forgive those who purportedly responsible for his death. We also ask for the release of those friends in the Andaman Islands. He ventured out on his own free will and his own local contacts need not be persecuted for his own actions. As a family we ask for your respect of him, and us during this difficult time.”
The Chau Family
The Differences Between John Chau and the Jim Elliot Story
After the death of John Chau some evangelicals are finding comparisons to Jim Elliot. The story of Jim Elliot is one of the most celebrated stories in modern evangelicalism missionary work. Its the story of Elliot and Ed McCulley, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming and Nate Saint. Those five missionaries went down to Ecuador and tried to witness the Lord to Huaorani tribe. They were all killed in 1956. In the course of time much of the tribe eventually did convert to Christianity. Nate Saint’s sister Rachel Saint helped out the tribe as did Elisabeth Elliot. Saint was taken in as a member of the tribe and if I recall correctly lived out her life in the tribe and is buried next to her brother Steve Saint. Elisabeth Elliott wrote about the story in the evangelical classic called, “Through Gates of Splendor.”
Years ago I was very much infatuated with the story of Jim Elliot. And there was one angle that I clung to especially. At the time I was a part of the Marquette University community and led the local chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ. I was enamored with the aspect of Ed McCully being from Milwaukee and also at one point a part of Marquette. I soaked that it and thought it was incredibly neat. In my experience there have been so many conferences or events where I have heard the Jim Elliot story. In Campus Crusade it was big, and it came up a couple of times in their Christmas Conferences which I attended.
Yet the story of Jim Elliot and John Allen Chau has a lot of differences. Its important to delineate the story carefully. I keep going back to the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and that applies in this situation also. The disregard of facts by many evangelicals and the inability by some to think about the issues at play also arise. From my understanding of Operation Auca these are the key differences between the Jim Elliot situation and John Allen Chau.
- The Shell Oil Company had done oil exploration in the area in the 1940’s. A number of Shell employees were killed by the Auca Indians, plus there was concern about the Ecuador military also getting involved. In the 1950’s that had changed and Shell Oil had disengaged from the area. The most likely explanation I believe is that in the 1940’s Shell Oil and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia entered into a business relationship and Shell turned its attention more to Saudi Arabia. With what was developing in Saudi Arabia it would be a waste of resources to explore in Ecuador. But it can’t be denied that there was a history of violence between Shell Oil and the Auca Indians. In contrast with the Sentinelese Indians they lived on an island that was in the Bay of Bengal. They were cut off from the world and the Indian government was supporting this policy to protect the tribe. The only threat of violence came from those who trespassed. The Indian government to my understanding had no economic interests in North Sentinel Island. There was no economic, precious natural resources, rare metals or more on the island. There were no plans to develop on the island and thus people being put at risk.
- There is another factor to consider. The Auca culture was one of internal violence and that resulted in one or two fleeing the tribe. The best example that I could think of it that of is that of Dayuma. Dayuma fled the Auca after her father was speared to death. In time she lived with a more peaceful tribe that interacted with the outside world. It was in this period of life Dayuma came to know Rachal Saint. She also briefly interacted with Nate Saint and Jim Elliot, but that was not known to Rachal. All three of them were able to collect intelligence on the Auca Indians. They had learned about the violence, the culture, customs, the issues that faced them and the language. That is why in the course of time the situation was resolved. While some of the tribe, like Dayuma converted to Christianity some of the issues that had existed such as the tribal violence were mitigated in the course of time. In contrast John Allen Chau had no such experience. There were no people who really fled the Sentinelese tribe. Anthropologists and others do not know their language and how to communicate with the tribe. The tribe just was cut off from the world. Violence was directed at external individuals. There was really no intelligence that could be collected on the Sentinelese that could inform John Allen Chau’s decision making process.
- In the story of Jim Elliot that decision to reach out to the Auca’s was made by the five missionaries and also a couple of their wives who I believe also knew. It was a decision made together after a lot of discussion and talk. Jim Elliot I believe was a father. Some of other missionaries also had children to. In contrast John Allen Chau was by himself and made the decision by himself. He was going solo. If I was All Nations I would be embarrassed to know that a representative stood on a rock screaming at a tribal person when he couldn’t even speak the language. Its my belief that John Allen Chau will be remembered by history not for his bravery, but his foolishness.
- While some of the anthropologists disagree with what happened to the Auca’s it can also be argued that the missionaries who later worked with the tribe educated them to protect themselves from outsiders and companies who could be interested in their land. It appears as if while some aspects of their culture were lost, some were retained and the tribe became more peaceful in time. In contrast John Allen Chau put the Sentinese people at risk. He created a situation where the tribe could be affected by disease, the Indian military and more if they are going to intervene to recover his body. The Sentinese people are now at more risk then they were previously. That all happened because of the foolishness of John Allen Chau.
- Here is another aspect that is very different between the two situations. If you have ever read, “Through Gate of Splendor” you know that there was a lot of anxiety between Jim Elliot, Nate Saint and the others over how the Auca’s would react especially with their history. However things looked positive when both the Aucas and the missionaries actually exchanged gifts. That is what made their death on January 8, 1956 all the more shocking. The murders of the missionaries was due to an internal feud. In contrast with the Sentinelese Tribe they really have not accepted any gifts. Even when the Indian government tried for the most part they were rejected.
- After the missionaries to the Auca’s were killed, the military went down to Ecuador and collected the remains and buried them. If my memory is correct the only one not recovered is Ed McCully. After the incident there was more concern for the tribe and people engaged in time out of love. The story of Rachal Saint and Elisabeth Elliot helping the tribe out in time speaks to love. There was no call for retribution or to bring the Aucas to justice. In contrast with the Sentinelese Tribe, International Christian Concern called for the tribe to face justice for murder. That is very different than what happened in Ecuador in the late 1950’s. How can a Stone Age tribe that has no understanding of law, no concept of what they did wrong, or who can’t even speak the English language be found responsible for what they did? To me that makes no sense.
Analysis and How the Jim Elliot Story is Used to Guilt Trip Evangelicals
There is a lot to say on this entire situation but let me look at how the Jim Elliot story can be used to guilt people. Often times the story, or other stories are told by para-church organizations or missionary organizations. It goes like this, the story of Jim Elliot is told in a dramatic way. People are taught about how selfless they were and how they gave everything for Jesus. Then you are left sitting there feeling guilty because after all what have you done? Other times videos are used that are set to Twila Paris’s “He is No Fool.” I found one on YouTube that was made by Gary Noruma who does videos for Campus Crusade for Christ, now called Cru. That is at the bottom of this post. So you watch a video like that and you feel guilted. Some I believe are actually guilted into doing missions work or more because they don’t feel like other professions are spiritual or good enough.
In evangelical Christianity missionaries are almost put on a pedestal. They become almost mythical and people forget that missionaries who have issues, doubts, and problems as well. Back in 2007 or 2008 at McLean Bible in the Washington, D.C. area I knew someone who became a short term missionary in Africa. I kept in touch with that person because I knew them from Campus Crusade earlier. This individual had a preconceived idea of what missionary work would be like. In the course of time their emails to be became increasingly dark. They dealt with loneliness, and felt forgotten. The weather got to this person, as it was wet for a significant amount of time. They also dealt with illness and as things were falling apart I started to become concerned that this person was developing mental health issues. So I went to McLean Bible and raised a couple of questions with people who knew this individual. I was concerned for their wellbeing and their health. The response I got by a couple of people? “How dare you question “Bob’s” mission and their calling from the Lord. Its not as bad as you say it is.” In the course of time this person if I remember correctly cut their mission short and came back to the United States. They had learned the hard way that missionary work is not for them. There is nothing wrong with that by the way. People are talented in different ways and can have different callings in life. Working for the City of Milwaukee Police Department, selling insurance for Progressive Insurance or working for the Food and Drug Administration as a scientist are just as important as missionary work.
Here is how John Allen Chau I think will be remembered. He will be remembered as an individual who was naïve and foolish. I am not speaking about this in the context of 1 Corinthians 4:10. What I mean is that John was foolish in what he did. Chau may have had good intentions but he was in over his head. Consider what Mary Ho said in an interview to the Kansas City Star after all this news broke. She praised John Allen Chau and “knew that he was called to be a missionary” to the Sentinelese. Ho also said that Chau was “very, very well prepared.” It shows how naïve All Nations is as an organization. It also confirms yet again that when Mark Noll wrote about in, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is none. Has All Nations stopped and considered how this suicide mission could have hurt other missionaries in India? Did they consider how the Hindu nationalists of the BJP could be emboldened over this reckless act? Have they stopped and contemplated what this could have done for other missionary organizations? Stop and picture this in your mind. A 26 year old person standing on a rock screaming English at a tribe that doesn’t even know the English language. If that is not foolish and stupid, well I don’t know what is. But the fact that All Nations celebrates that for me is frightening. They have no idea of what they are doing. And I honestly hope that organizations like the EFCA’s Reach Global, Mission to the World, Cru, The Southern Baptist International Missions Board, Serving In Mission, Youth with a Mission, or the Association of Baptists for Worldwide Evangelism don’t function in the same manner. All Nations in my opinion does not deserve to be supported. Christians in my opinion should be deeply critical of missionary organizations that function like this.
Another point that I want to make is the following. The key I think to being a missionary is to exhibit humility and be receptive to taking feedback. It takes a lot of courage to admit that you are wrong. Or that you are on the wrong path and need to make a course correction. John Allen Chau by all that I read should not have been a missionary because he lacked that humility. He boxed himself into a corner. When the situation was going from bad to worse he didn’t have the humility to admit that he was wrong and going about all this in the wrong manner. While he put a lot of time, energy and effort into this situation what happened on North Sentinel Island reveals that he could not admit error or that he was wrong. Because of that in my mind he was not qualified to be a missionary. I actually am reminded of the old Hallmark card commercials where it talks about how you care enough to send your very best. Shouldn’t missionary work be like that?
Other Points of View on this Situation
My view is just that of my own. There are many other points of view to consider and I would suggest you read those as you come to your own conclusion. Remember the goal of this blog is to get you to think for yourself and think critically. Not to be critical for the sake of being critical but to teach you how to think for yourself. These are some other perspectives.
- Tim Challies, “On the Death of John Allen Chau“
- Joshua J. Whitfield in the Dallas Morning News, “What are we to make of John Allen Chau, an American missionary murdered in India?”
- Thomas Kidd at The Gospel Coalition, “Incomprehensible Evangelicals and the Death of John Allen Chau.“
- Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition, “Would You Have Sent the Martyred Missionary? “
- Garrett Kell from Del Rey Baptist at Desiring God, “What God Might Do with Satan’s Arrows.”
- Scott Dunford, “5 Critical Reminders for Modern Christians on the Death of John Allen Chau.”
- Scott McKnight. “John Allen Chau: A Missionary Historian’s Perspective.”
- Jennifer Robinson at Sojourners, “John Allen Chau Was a Product of the Missions Marketing System.”
- Rod Dreher at The American Conservative, “Death Of A Missionary.”
- Jack Jenkins and Emily MacFarlan Miller of Religious News Service, “Death of missionary sparks debate over mission work.”
- Timothy Sohn in The Smithsonian, “Inside the Story of John Allen Chau’s Ill-Fated Trip to a Remote Island.”
Questions that Must be Asked about the John Chau Situation
There are many questions that need to be asked in this situation. These are some of what come to my mind after processing this story.
- If John Allen Chau’s body is ever recovered will he place the Indian military or Coast Guard at risk?
- Given what some evangelicals believe about hell, if there is an attempt to rescue Chau’s body and a couple of Indians in the military who are Hindu are killed, will John Allen Chau be responsible for them going to hell because of his reckless action?
- If the Sentinelese tribe deals with disease because of Chau’s actions and tribe members die off, will they go to hell because of Chau’s actions? If that happens can one say that John Allen Chau did not love the Sentinelese?
- Why didn’t John Allen Chau pray more for the tribe and trust the Lord to reveal himself to the tribe?
- Whose kingdom was John Allen Chau working for? His own or the Lord?
- Are his friends and others in a way responsible for his death in not stopping him or trying to correct him?
Yes, some of those questions are hard but I believe that they need to be asked. If more develops with this story I will write about it.