Since news of the killing of John Allen Chau at the hands of Sentinelese islanders became public, the blog and Twittersphere have been ablaze with opinions about the actions that lead to his death. Should Chau be lionized as a heroic Christian martyr, or should his memory be pilloried as a reckless, colonizing zealot? Secularists are predictably critical of Chau’s actions, but what is surprising is the response of many Christians. Chau has been criticized for not respecting the Sentinelese desire to be left alone, for breaking the laws of India, for exposing the islanders to new diseases, and for being a white influenced colonizer.
Chau is not the first Christian missionary to be killed while trying to evangelize a people group that was hostile to outsiders. The death of a missionary is not new. What is new is the response of the public to this tragedy. Sitting on my desk is a copy of the January 30, 1956 issue of LIFE magazine. On the front cover is a large picture of Henry Ford II, but in the upper right corner is the caption, “Missionaries’ Jungle Martyrdom: Diaries and Exclusive Photos.” Inside is a multipage layout highlighting the lives and deaths of Jim Elliot and his teammates on Palm Beach in Ecuador. The LIFE article highlighted the gospel ministry of the missionaries and the good works they were engaged in before their deaths. The stark contrast in the response, just 62 years later in a society in which 75% of people still claim to be Christian, is startling.
There is much we don’t know about the work of John Allen Chau. We know that he was an Asian American graduate of Oral Roberts University and a native of Vancouver Washington. He was trained and commissioned by the Kansas City-based missions agency, All Nations, and that he went to the island understanding the dangers that awaited him. I will withhold judgment on the wisdom or foolishness of his methods, but Chau’s mission, ultimate death, and public response can be instructional for the Church moving forward.
The Christian faith must be a missionary faith. Every new generation of Christians needs to be reminded that the Church of Jesus Christ is a Church with a mission. A recent Barna survey revealed that 51% of American Christians had never heard of the Great Commission while another 30% could not articulate its meaning. The eternal purpose of God is that some from every, tribe, tongue, people, and nation will surround the throne of Christ, saved by the blood of the Lamb. This is a future reality through the obedience of Christians to Christ’s commission to go and make disciples of the nations.
Christians go for the glory of God and the good of men. Because Christians believe in the exclusivity of Jesus Christ, the only hope of salvation for mankind is through hearing and believing the gospel. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Love for God and love for man demands that Christians proclaim the gospel to those who haven’t heard.
It is understandable that an unbeliever would criticize missionary zeal. It is unthinkable, however, for a Christian who has been rescued from eternal death through the gospel, to look with disdain on the missionary effort to take the gospel to the unreached. Instead, Christians should rejoice with Isaiah and the Apostle Paul, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” (Romans 10:15).
The Christian’s authority is Christ the King. Christians acknowledge governmental authority but pledge allegiance to one King only. While Christians are commanded to submit to governmental authorities (Rom. 13:1), and as much as possible to live peaceably in society (Rom. 12:18), Christians ultimately answer to a higher power. When Peter was commanded by the authorities of his day to refrain from preaching the gospel, his response was simple, “We must obey God rather than people” (Acts 5:29).
The Great Commission is founded on Christ’s authority, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18). The commands of Christ will at times run contrary to the laws and decrees of governments and rulers. The Christian who obeys God over the rulers of this world should be prepared for the consequences in the same way that Peter, Paul, and even Christ were. The call to follow Christ is a call to take up our cross (Mk. 8:34).
The Christian mission is a dangerous mission. The call to follow Christ is the call to embrace risk. Persecution, hardship, and death have been no strangers to disciples of Christ. John Allen Chau understood this. He narrowly escaped death on his first attempt to contact the tribe. An arrow fired by a young man on the beach pierced his Bible and he was forced to swim over a mile to safety. That night in his journal he penned, “God, I don’t want to die. Who will take my place if I do?” He wrote, “I hope this isn’t one of my last notes but if it is ‘to God be the Glory.’ ” Chau’s letter to his parents before his departure sums up what should be the heart of every Christian, “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people.” This is the attitude of Jesus Christ himself who “for the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). The Christian embraces the risk of the mission because he understands that it is not death to die. As Jim Elliot wrote, “he is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep gaining that which he cannot lose.”
Christians are called to serve with wisdom. While Christians should not run from risk, they are called to be wise. Before Jesus sent out his disciples he charged them, "Look, I'm sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Jesus himself judiciously decided when to speak plainly and when to speak in parables to hide his meaning from those wishing to do him harm. Paul used the legal rights afforded to him to avoid death and persecution when possible. The Christian mission is not a death wish even though death may result.
I do not wish to speculate on the wisdom of Chau’s strategy and timing. Perhaps more information will be put forward to shed light on his planning and thought process that led him to choose that time and that method to attempt to reach the Sentinelese. But it must be said, that Christian missionaries should use the means available to them to determine the wisest course of action in fulfilling Christ’s command. Prayer, planning, cultural preparation, language learning, and even health and security training should precede cross-cultural missions endeavors. Christ’s mandate to go does not give license to recklessness any more than our culture’s disapproval gives permission to disobedience.
Christians should expect to be misunderstood. I will admit that it stings a bit when I read between the lines and realize that what the world hates about John Allen Chau is what they would also hate about me. I too believe that the world is dying and in desperate need of the saving message of Jesus Christ. I too believe that the authority of Jesus Christ supersedes the dictates of any government. I too believe that the salvation of the lost and the eternal glory of Jesus Christ is worthy of my very life. What the world calls foolishness, the Word calls discipleship.
One of the harshest criticisms of John Allen Chau was that he was spreading white colonialism through his missionary efforts. The history of missions certainly has chapters that contain shameful examples of colonial abuses, but these abuses do not define the Christian mission. The critics of Chau aren’t critiquing some hidden desire on his part to make the Islanders more American. They are critiquing his desire to share the gospel itself. This criticism betrays a misunderstanding of the gospel mandate. It was this same misunderstanding that prevailed over Christ’s ministry. Yes, Christ is the King and he rules over a kingdom, but his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this earth. Gospel missionaries are not to be colonizers from the West to the rest but are the ambassadors of a new and better Kingdom. God’s Kingdom does not destroy cultures but perfects them. Revelation 7 reveals the throne room of God filled with people of every language and culture on earth—distinct but washed in the blood of the Lamb.
As our culture rejects the authority of God, we must be prepared for the world to reject us. Christians are not immune from the temptation to desire the praise of men over God. Christ encourages us that if the world hates us, it hated him first (John 15:18). While there will be more to learn from the life and death of John Allen Chau in the days to come, for now, Christians should be encouraged that it is our privilege as well to share in the suffering and reproach of Christ.