Thinking Out Loud

November 24, 2018

When Missionary Zeal Exceeds Common Sense

There are times when you’re thinking something, but you don’t say it. One of those times is immediately following someone’s passing, especially if it was under unusual circumstances. “She shouldn’t have tried to do that electrical repair herself.” “He really shouldn’t have taken off from the airport in that storm.” “He really shouldn’t have always been eating chocolate cake.”

And yet, hours after we learned of his passing, Christian Today asked the questions we were all thinking about the young missionary killed one week ago today (Saturday, Nov.17th) on an island east of India in the Bay of Bengal.

It’s impossible to look at a photograph of John Allen Chau, the young American killed by tribes-people on North Sentinel Island, without sadness. He is in the full glow of youth, with decades of life ahead of him. His friends and family have paid tribute to his gifts and his character: ‘He was a beloved son, brother, uncle and best friend to us. To others he was a Christian missionary, a wilderness EMT [Emergency Medical Technician], an international soccer coach, and a mountaineer’, they wrote on Instagram.

…But this tragedy raises questions that sadness cannot be allowed to silence.

The article goes on to describe the challenges:

North Sentinel Island is inhabited by a few – anything from few dozen to a few hundred – tribes-people who are among the most isolated in the world. Though rules appear to have been confusingly slackened quite recently, they are still out of bounds for tourists. The Indian government believes the best policy for the islanders is to allow them the isolation they clearly desire – they killed two fishermen in 2006 – and operates a ‘hands off, eyes on’ policy, patrolling the coast to deter anyone from landing. A key reason for this is the vulnerability of the tribes-people to modern diseases: their isolation means they lack the antibodies to protect them.

And then, the central part of the article:

He wrote to his parents: ‘You guys might think I’m crazy in all this, but I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people.

‘Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed. Rather, please live your lives in obedience to whatever he has called you to and I’ll see you again when you pass through the veil…’

…One response, then, is to hail Chau as a martyr… But those questions won’t go away.

His landing on the island was illegal. Should his personal convictions allow him to override the rule of law?

Not only did he break the law himself – and there might certainly be cases where Christians would feel free do to that – but he implicated other people in his lawbreaking. Is that justifiable?

He was putting lives at risk – not just his own, but the North Sentinelese themselves, who lacked any immunity to any pathogens he may have been carrying. Suppose the price of his evangelism was the deaths of those he evangelised – would it really have been worth it?

He was going against their clearly expressed wishes and invading their territory. Why should he have thought they would welcome him, when others had been driven away or killed?

Who knew what he was doing, and to whom was he accountable?

How, when he didn’t speak their language, was he going to witness effectively to them?

Continue reading here. (Christian Today is based in London, and is not related to the U.S. Christianity Today.)

Each of the questions they raise could be fleshed out into further detail.

In discussion earlier today at Internet Monk, Robert wrote:

I see John Allen Chau as a victim of disordered Christian ideas of what constitutes evangelism. It is now historically known that Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire by the organic process of relational networks, not the heroic efforts of a few super-evangelists, for all intents and purposes parachuting into completely alien and unknown hostile territories and peoples.

Unfortunately, I think the Church came to glamorize and idealize the super-evangelist along with the martyr at a very early point; the two overlap in significant ways, and many early Christians seem to have intentionally sought martyrdom in an even more reckless manner than Chau’s attempt to evangelize the Indian tribe. Reading some of the accounts of the early martyrs, you get the impression that they are committing suicide by the hand of the pagan government, the way some people commit suicide by cop today. I see John Allen Chau as someone acting very much in line with that psychologically and socially unhealthy tradition and legacy. May he rest in peace.

The writer “Burro” adds something that some will find difficult to read:

The Protestant hagiography surrounding the deaths of the missionaries Jim Elliott, Nate Saint, and their compatriots to the Ecuadorian indigenous people is cut from the same cloth.

Although their mission was more anthropologically informed and ultimately successful, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between Jim Elliott’s mission and that of John Chau, except that Jim Elliott had a whip-smart and eloquent widow as a PR agent, and a less de-Christianized culture to receive the message.

Iain writes,

One more tragic thing about John Allen Chau, and the toxic mindset he was the victim of, is that it doesn’t seem to me to be about actually bringing people to Christ at all. It is all about the act of evangelism as a good in itself for the spiritual benefit (or if I am snarky the acquisition of divine brownie points) by the evangliser himself.

Apparently no-one even knows what language the people he was intruding on speak, and certainly no-one understands it, and from the extracts from his diary published he was attempting in fact to evangelise them in, of all things, English. The people he was interfering with apparently attack outsiders on sight because their last interaction with the outside world had a number of their people kidnapped and killed, and a great proportion of them wiped out by disease. There is no way he could possibly have successfully communicated anything to them, and arriving there could only have potentially done them serious harm. He must have known this, or at the best never bothered to find out but, and here’s the crucial bit, can’t have thought it mattered.

I don’t know if John Allen Chau deliberately wanted to be a martyr, or what he thought would happen, but it seems plain that someone has taught him that this is what he had to do to earn God’s approval, or save himself from wrath, or some such, and he died futilely because of it. Whoever taught him this killed him as surely as the guy with the bow and arrows, and without the justification that the guy who shot him had, that he was simply (and arguably not even misguidedly) defending his family and home.

I feel sorry for John Allen Chau and his family and hope he can find the rest and peace in death he clearly could not find in life, which drove him to this tragic and foolish death.

Jean writes,

…Mr. Chau had to hire someone to get him into space he was forbidden to enter, evade Indian patrol boats, risk (and ultimately lose) his own life, in order to reach a people who didn’t want to be reached, whose language he did not know, to “tell them about Christ.” He returned to the island after he had been injured by an arrow the day before. He seems, to me, to have been a man seeking martyrdom for his own reasons. He left behind a grieving family, a people possibly exposed to diseases to which they have no immunity, and seven Indian fishermen arrested for helping him break the law. What good did any of that do?

Lastly, some interesting food for thought from Christiane

…I know Mr. Chau wanted to bring Christ to them, but maybe they are already in His care, unbeknownst to Mr. Chau or to themselves. Such is the lack of humility that many who see such tribes as ‘the lost’ may not realize that our lives exist because of the breath of God in our nostrils. Those primitive people ARE in the hands of the Lord, and to impatiently cause them to wound, injure, or kill out of fearfulness seems more the action of a ‘lost’ person than of someone seeking to bring them salvation…

You can add your thoughts to the discussion at Internet Monk. (There is no specific article there per se; the comments were following a short link which appeared in the Saturday news roundup.)

In the end, I think that Christian Today and those leaving comments today at Internet Monk do need to ask the critical questions; if only so that valuable lessons can be learned and we can avoid repetition of this horrible tragedy.

That may be John Chau’s greatest contribution to world missions.

photo: All Nations (mission agency); map: Wikipedia commons

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January 6, 2014

We Track a Story People Were Willing to Die For

Crucifixion of St. Peter (Wikipedia Commons) Click image for link

Crucifixion of St. Peter (Wikipedia Commons) Click image for link

This appeared back in August — that’s forever ago in blog years — at Nailing It To The Door, a blog by Dan Martin. It was the eighth in a series of posts titled, Why I Believe; this one being The Testimony of Witnesses. To read this at source and then navigate to find the other parts, click this link.

There is no question in my mind that one of the most compelling reasons to believe specifically the accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings is the testimony of those who were there.  This is, I’m quite sure, a problematic claim for those who object to faith; I’ve encountered many rants on the unreliability of the gospel accounts, though I find that the same people who protest about the unreliability of the gospels tend to be far more credulous when looking at any other ancient written histories.  But there are two particular things about the Apostles and other first-century Christians that I find highly compelling.

The first is specific to the Evangelists who wrote the four canonical gospels (and I really do mean the canonical ones; I’ve read a number of the others and they differ so much in character that the judgment of the councils in rejecting them seems to me quite sound).  C.S. Lewis probably said it best in his 1959 lecture “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism:”

“I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one [of the stories in the Gospel of John, for example] is like this… Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.” (see the full essay here; quote on p. 155)

Put perhaps a little more simply, the gospels just don’t look like anybody else’s idea of what mythical or divine characters ought to be, do, or say.  Weird and off-center as they might seem now, they were even weirder and less-probable in the time they were written.  Things only turn out that oddly if they’re either real (truth really is stranger than fiction) or very creatively written.

But even more compelling to me is the fact that the authors and their other compatriots were willing to die for the truth of what they had written or said.  And die they did, in some pretty horrible ways.  According to tradition and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563):

  • Philip was crucified
  • Matthew was “slain with a halberd”
  • James the brother of Jesus was beaten, stoned, and clubbed to death
  • Matthias (elected to replace Judas) was stoned and beheaded
  • Andrew was crucified
  • Mark was “dragged to pieces”
  • Peter was crucified upside-down
  • Paul was beheaded
  • Jude was crucified
  • Bartholomew was beaten and then crucified
  • Thomas was speared
  • Simon the Zealot was crucified
  • John was “cast into a cauldron of boiling oil,” survived, and was later exiled to the island of Patmos; “He was the only apostle who escaped a violent death.”
  • Barnabas is said to be martyred, though the means of his death is not reported.

These guys, unlike later generations of Christians killed by the thousands under various rulers, knew exactly what they were dying for.  They claimed to have seen and heard it themselves.  If they were faking it, they sure were willing to take their deception to a really crazy, extreme end.

I’m not saying that death alone testifies to truth.  Many hundreds and thousands have died for falsehoods throughout history … I think of the infamous Jonestown mass suicide in the 70s … but the difference, at least as I see it, is that these people were deluded by a charismatic leader who ordered them to their deaths.  Jesus did no such thing, and in fact he was already dead and gone (if we presume fakery) or dead and raised (if we accept the Gospels) before any of the apostles faced their deaths.  These men went willingly to gruesome deaths because they couldn’t recant the truth of what they’d spent their lives teaching.

There are, of course, many more martyrs since the first century.  While I have no desire to diminish their testimony, it seems to me that it’s of a different category.  Except for however they may have experienced the Holy Spirit in their own lives, the thing for which they died was removed from them in that they no longer could testify to having seen Jesus with their eyes, heard his teachings from his very lips with their own ears, and even sat and broken bread with him.  No one, however intense their experience, has had the same level of personal, experiential linkage to Jesus Christ that those first-century apostles had.  And when they were invited to either confess to their lie or die in pain, they insisted it was no lie and accepted the consequences.  Two millenia later, that testimony remains, to me, difficult to refute.

May 28, 2011

What Modern Worship Has Done to Church History

On March 27th, 2009, I took the unusual step of posting an item on this blog which linked to a contemporary song having its basis in the biography of Mona Mahmudnizhad, a young woman martyr in the history of the Baha’i faith.    For the past week or so, the song and story have come back to me, and they continue to haunt me.  I feel that we’ve lost the channel by which to communicate to our next generation the stories of the past.  By creating one particular genre of music, we’re denying the power of music to accomplish other goals.

A movie commemorates John Newton, but what of Wycliffe?   John Calvin gets daily space in the blogosphere, but what of Athanasius?  Oswald Chambers’ devotional book is read by millions, but what of Thomas Chambers?  C. S. Lewis is beloved by children, but who has heard of G. K Chesterson? What of Don Richardson’s story as told in Peace Child or the prayer saga of Brother Lawrence?  Or what of doctrine?  The recent “rapture weekend” discussions frequently quoted the Larry Norman song, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready;” but are songs like that being written today? …And more to the point, have we lost the ability to use our music in non-worship settings?   That was what was on my mind two years ago when I wrote this…

With the entire cast of Christian musicians currently preoccupied with writing vertical worship music, it does the beg the question, who will tell our stories? What aspects of our faith is not being transmitted to the next generation due to our sidelining of music with narrative or didactic lyrics?

mona_mahmudnizhadWhat got me thinking about this was a YouTube viewing of a song by Canadian musician Doug Cameron, Mona With The Children, which tells the story of a young Baha’i girl, Mona Mahmudnizhad, who was one of ten women martyred in Iran for teaching her faith to children. Her heroic story is inspiring on so many levels. It is hard to just dismiss the strength of her conviction just because our beliefs are different. But more important is my longing for a Christian equivalent to this type of music. Sadly, there isn’t much out there.

Kids that form Christian bands believe that they are bound lyrically to what they sing in church and at youth group. It was not always this way. I love modern worship, but I believe we are severely limiting ourselves. As Christians, we need to the huge resources of our “Christian music industry” to praise God and to teach and tell stories to the next generation of personal salvation and heroes of our faith.

 

 

January 14, 2010

Haiti – The Pictures

Presidential Palace before and after the quake from i.Telegraph.co.uk

It’s hard to get enthusiastic today about blogging when the world has just witnessed one of the saddest catastrophes we’ve seen in a long time.

Of the various media online, Boston’s Big Picture website probably brings the story into most vivid focus.   There are about 40 full-screen photos here, all taken within hours of the earthquake.

Boston.com – The Big Picture – Haiti Earthquake Devastation.

I was going to choose one of the pictures to include in this blog post, but I decided that I really want you to click the link.   However [update Friday morning] I decided to show this picture of contrasts — from a different source — before and after at the Presidential Palace, the one building in the country you would think would be the most fortified.


Coincidentally, I was going to link to another Big Picture picture yesterday, but the directions for finding the picture — the 37th in a longer collection — were a little too complex for the link list.  Without taking away from the Haiti story, I want to share it today.

This picture connects to me and to this Christian blog as it relates to John 8; the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, or Acts 8, the stoning of Stephen.   I had never thought about the fact that in a similar situation, most of us might try to raise our hands to deflect the rocks, so in this picture of a Muslim man being stoned for committing adultery — though not stated, the caption says “illicit sexual intercourse” — he is buried halfway in the dirt to stop him from doing anything to protect himself.   The picture shows his lifeless body being removed afterward.

I think for me, this changes my whole future perspective when I hear someone talking about someone being stoned.   As I watched this I thought about the New Testament phrase, “They took up stones…” in reference to Jesus.    Justice of this type was carried out quickly, and the only preparation required was that of finding rocks the right size.

Boston.com – The Big Picture – Best of 2009 (Part 3) SCROLL TO PICTURE #37 and click the link to view it.

I also thought it was interesting that this picture was only one of a couple in the whole series (all three parts) that was considered too graphic.   Boston.com seems to feel some sensitivity toward pictures of dead people, yet the media in general has no problem sharing with us the faces of grief.

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