Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: When evaluating risky missionary endeavors such as that of John Allen Chau, it’s important (as Dr. Armand Jones, Associate Professor of World Evangelism at Candler School of Theology, Emory Univ. reminds us) to consider three historical/theological aspects of missionary work.
Some Reflections on the Mission of John Allen Chau by Arun W. Jones, University of Chicago Divinity School, 12/13/18.
… these reflections come after my initial “What the heck?” reactions to Chau’s missiological adventures or misadventures, depending upon one’s point of view.
There are three points I would like to make. First of all, given the long and extremely varied history of Christian mission, it seems to me that there is surprisingly little that is unusual in John Allen Chau’s missionary endeavor. From the earliest days of the Christian movement, missionaries, as well as others who witnessed to their deepest religious beliefs in their own circumstances, have felt compelled to tell others—or let others know—about their faith. Sometimes those witnesses have been understood in their context, other times they have not. Sometimes, though certainly not always, they have suffered and even died for their actions. The eighth-century English monk and bishop Boniface was killed along with fifty companions by Frisians (in the Netherlands) whom he was trying to convert. (Not unlike Chau’s report of being saved from an arrow by his waterproof Bible, Boniface attempted to protect himself from his killers by holding a book containing Christian writings to his head.) The Indian missionary Sadhu Sundar Singh died (no one knows how) after he set off to evangelize Tibet in 1929. Chau’s most obvious predecessor in missionary strategy and death was the evangelical Jim Elliot of Portland, Oregon, who was killed trying to make contact with the Waorani people of Ecuador in 1956. Through two millennia, women and men from all over the world have sometimes died while undertaking Christian missionary work. To understand John Allen Chau is not necessarily to condone what he did, but it is to say that a person of sound mind and judgment in his religious tradition could very well have undertaken mission work in the ways that he did. In fact, it seems that Chau made several reasonable and even thoughtful preparations for his missionary expedition, and he knew that death was a very possible outcome of his forays into the North Sentinel Island. John Allen Chau was not mentally ill, nor intellectually impaired.
My second point hinges on the first one. I have been surprised at some of the vehemence with which Chau has been denounced by members of my own intellectual tribe (i.e., those of us who identify ourselves as “liberals” of one sort or another), including members of my own mainline Protestant community. What is it about his death that has made us so indignant? I think it is that in his mission and death, Chau represents a challenge to the systems of rationality with which we have become so comfortable—systems that are founded in the European Enlightenment…