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In January 1956, five young American missionaries decided to contact a small indigenous tribe in eastern Ecuador to convert them to Christianity. Instead, they were shot dead on a remote beach a few days after their first direct contact with the group. The news of the missionaries' deaths spread rapidly in the United States. Life magazine devoted a ten-page spread to the story of "five pious men who tried to make the Word of God a savage tribe of Stone Age savages." Reverence for the missionaries was even deeper in Christian circles than men martyred for their beliefs.
Earlier this month, a 26-year-old Christian missionary named John Allen Chau was killed on a remote Indian island in strikingly similar circumstances as the men in Ecuador. Chau dreamed of converting the members of an isolated tribe on North Sentinel Island, who is known to aggressively reject contact with outsiders. He tried to prepare himself, but did not speak the language. At one point, he wrote to his mother, approaching a group of North Sentinelese from the water and shouting, "My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you." Chau was apparently killed by a bow and arrow. the next day at the beach.
The public reaction to Chaus death was much different than the men in Ecuador 60 years ago. Mainstream media have published statements of opinion in which Chau, for example, is accused of "cultural imperialism and insane arrogance". in social media he was referred to as " asshole ", as " failed colonizer " and as " American stubborn ". Many critics pointed to Chau's expedition being a violation of Indian law, which prohibits outsiders from even approaching the island. There has also been an epidemiological risk for the North Sentinelese who have not established immunity to many common diseases including the flu. And even if the North Sentinelese were not harmed by new germs, contact with outsiders could irrevocably change their lives and culture.
For many, Chau approached the island with a caricature western style swagger.
Traveling to an "unrivaled" ethnic group, Chau pursued one of the highest imperatives of Protestant Christianity – and the most cherished narratives. "There is a feeling in evangelical and missionary circles that one of the highest things you can do is to bring the gospel to a group that has never heard of it," said historian Kathryn Long, author of an upcoming book the mission of 1956 in Ecuador. For many evangelicals, this is the most dramatic version of the fulfillment of the "Great Commission" of Jesus, in which he told his followers to "go and make disciples of all nations."
Interestingly enough, even Christians did not praise Chau as a clear hero of the faith. "Chaus stunt not only had absolutely no chance of success, he should also bring disease and death to this tribe," wrote the conservative Christian writer Rod Dreher last week. "How could a Christian justify this?" Dreher pointed out that Chaus death has led to a regional backlash that could make the minority population of Christians in India more difficult, not to mention Christian helpers and long-term missionaries there.
Chau's story has led to a backlash among Christians and secular observers, as Chau seemed to be approaching the island with a caricature of western boast. In his diary, some of which were made public by his family, he wrote about trying to befriend the islanders with scissors and safety pins and to sing Christian "worship songs." "There has been such a turn in evangelical missiology." Over the past 50 years, there has been a danger of cultural imperialism, "said Thomas Kidd, a historian at Baylor University, who wrote a blog post about media reactions to Chaus death.
"The evangelicals have much more sensitivity than at the time of [the missionaries in Ecuador’s] death."
If Chau had acted as a rogue agent, it would be easier for Christians to label his missteps as a deviation that is not related to traditional missionary work. That's how it looked when the story of his death first came to the fore: he had traveled alone on the island, and it was not clear if he belonged to an agency that had experience in the logistics and ethics of intercultural missionary work.
However, as it turned out, Chau was actually trained and supported by a number of American evangelical mission groups. One of them was All Nations, an interdenominational organization based in Missouri. "John Chau was not foolhardy," Pam Arlund, member of the international leadership team of All Nations, told me via e-mail. "All Nations believes John was ready to get in touch with the North Sentinelese." About two years ago, Chau turned to the Kansas City-based agency to visit the island "to share the love of Jesus with them," Arlund said that he had been working on the project since he was 18, and even selected his major at Oral Roberts University (in the fields of health, motion science and sports medicine) with a view to the journey. He spent a summer in linguistics training with another well-established Christian organization, SIL International, to prepare for the acquisition of the language of the North Sentinel. He also participated in an All Nations potential missionary training program and continued with an online internship.
All nations had contact with Chau only on the 18th of October. In an interview with Christianity Today, another leader at All Nations described Chau as "thorough and meticulous in his preparation" and said he had quarantined himself for some time before approaching the island, trying to reduce the risk of transmitting disease to reduce. Arlund said that All Nations had not given any specific logistical advice for Chau's mission, but believed that he was well prepared.
The apparent fact that Chau did not act impulsively or independently will unsettle his case for many evangelicals. "There is a high-wire act that evangelicals are struggling with," Kidd said. "For external observers, of course, they would say that this is cultural imperialism, you are impressing your culture. Evangelicals say we can set the culture aside and simply reduce it to the gospel. "
This is an idea that would not have occurred to the five men in Ecuador who have been featured in hagiographic books and films since their death, including the drama of 2006 End of the Spear . (I attended an evangelical college in the late 1990s and lived in a dormitory named after one of the men for two years.) Kathryn Long points out that the deaths in Ecuador came at a critical time for evangelicals as they came to started seeing as a pronounced cohort. The influential journal Christianity Today was founded in 1956. In 1957, Billy Graham's evangelistic "crusade" took over Madison Square Garden for 16 weeks. At that time, "the five missionaries symbolized what the evangelicals wanted to be," Long said. Now, John Allen Chau could become the symbol for just the opposite.