John Chau’s sad death should be a wake-up call to all missionaries targeting uncontacted tribes

It’s just arrogant to assume that tribes will lack their own rich cultures and religions, and will somehow be more fulfilled by the addition of a pair of scissors or a plastic football

Janet Street-Porter
Friday 23 November 2018 17:01
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John Allen Chau: US missionary killed by tribe on North Sentinel Island

As John Chau stepped ashore on North Sentinel Island, he was met by angry tribesmen who felled him with poison arrows. The next day, they buried his body further down the beach. The foolhardy 27-year-old American, a self-styled adventurer and evangelical missionary, had already tried to contact the inhabitants of this remote atoll in the Andaman Islands a few days earlier, paying local fisherman to break the law and ferry him there. He left “gifts” of a pair of scissors, safety pins and a plastic football.

Crass or what? This was an act of cultural imperialism and insane arrogance, assuming that people whose descendants can be traced back 70,000 years would enjoy life more kicking a manmade ball and pinning clothes on their naked bodies. I want to weep at the outcome of this disastrous act of folly – and not just because of the death of Chau, which is regrettable, even while being avoidable and predictable. I despair because here’s another example of two of the worse kinds of environmental pollution: aggressive pushing of faith to another culture and the introduction of “gifts” which undermine their way of life.

People from our developed world can’t stand the idea that some tribes still live in total solitude, with their own mysterious customs and language, who refuse to integrate with the rest of us. High-end travel companies offer extreme adventure tourism to remote parts of the Amazon and Africa, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea: places where they enable rich adventurers to get up close with people who still live close to nature, untainted by the distractions and detritus of our western world. It’s called “experiential tourism”. Something rich kids can tick off a bucket list.

John Chau attended a Christian high school in Vancouver and the evangelical Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma. He described himself as a missionary and frequently posted about his escapades on social media. He’d already written that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were his “must-do adventure”, knowing that the Indian government had placed the islands out of bounds, and that only a few academics have ever been allowed permits. Tourism is banned, as contact with the tribe would expose them to disease – even a bout of the flu could kill people whose immune systems are not accustomed to the same infections people from other parts of the world catch routinely.

The four main groups of indigenous people in the surrounding area are all under threat from development, such as new roads encroaching into the forests, and the risks of eating Indian food or having sex with outsiders. In 2009, one tribe, the Onge, suffered a catastrophe when men drank from canisters washed up on the beach, thinking they contained alcohol. Instead, the toxic chemicals killed eight people, and 13 others were seriously ill. Local Indian government officials negotiated with the tribal leaders to persuade them to allow the women who had lost husbands to remarry as the tribe had shrunk to less than 100 members.

Rare footage captures one of world's last uncontacted tribes

In 2011, a British-based academic managed to compile a dictionary of the ancient languages spoken by four of the tribes in the Andaman Islands, and since then two of them have become extinct. Three of the four groups surveyed have suffered illnesses and deaths after coming into contact with outsiders. Only the Sentinelese – the ones John Chau was so determined to visit – remain untainted.

A few years ago I spent a couple of weeks in Papua New Guinea, and was taken by boat to the remote outer islands. The people I met had no currency, but bartered using shells. They had all the food they needed growing in abundance and the fish were plentiful.

Sadly, missionaries might have brought medicine and education to parts of PNG, but western culture has only brought violence and unrest to places like the capital, Port Moresby.

The assumption that bringing Christ’s word via the Bible to remote tribes will enrich the lives of isolated tribes is hard to stomach, even though evangelicals claim that only 14 per cent of their work is in places where Christianity is not the dominant faith. John Chau claimed he wanted to introduce Christ to the Sentinelese – but why would their own culture not include a deity, a belief in the afterlife or some sense of fulfilling spirituality? Why would his evangelical creed be superior or necessary?

The Sentinelese are one of the last pre-Neolithic tribes left on the planet, with a lifestyle and culture that has remained unchanged for longer than any in Europe or America. They have consistently repelled invaders. A group of anthropologists attempted to get up close and personal in 1970, and were treated to a live sex show. Four years later, another group were met with poison arrows.

John Chau wrote to his parents before his visit: “I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people. Please do not get angry at them or at God if I get killed”. Now, his friends are describing Chau as a “martyr” – hardly. His behaviour was the worst advertisement for Christianity you could imagine, but sadly it’s not even that unusual.

A few years ago, one missionary in Irian Jaya encountered a similar reception from locals. He went back to the US and raised money for a helicopter to embark on “aerial evangelisation”, shouting the gospel from a loudspeaker. He was met with a barrage of poisoned arrows and abandoned his mission.

One evangelical missionary has written: “It’s true we destroy certain things in cultures just as doctors must destroy certain things in a human body if a patient is to survive”. Why can’t these zealots accept that some non-believers do not need the words of Jesus or plastic footballs?

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