Is John Allen Chau a Christian Hero?
**John Allen Chau was an American adventure blogger and missionary who grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He was killed by the people he was trying to reach on in 2018 at the age of 26. This is the second post in a series, if you haven’t read the first yet, it may be helpful for some context. You can find that first post here.**
In response to public outcry surrounding Chau’s missionary venture, his friend John Middelton Ramsey said, “If you believe in heaven and hell then what he did was the most loving thing anyone could do.” This seems to be a fairly strong summary of the voices celebrating Chau. Many people came forward to say that his actions were loving, some admitted that they may have been misguided and perhaps better strategies could have been implored but generally people suggested that Chau was acting out of love, that he was an outstanding young man who died an untimely death. All Nations, the organization that sent Chau to reach the Sentinelese people said, “sharing the gospel has often involved great cost.” But they insisted that their prayers would be for “eternal fruit” to come from Chau’s sacrifice.
On the surface, these sentiments seem noble—a young man motivated by love risks his life so that others might come to know Jesus—and there is a certain nobility in it. Self-sacrificial love is a central within Christianity. Also, it seems that Chau is seeking to follow the teachings of Christ in the great commission. But, I’m not sure that it’s so simple.
As I mentioned in my last post, my gut reaction to John Chau’s story was not positive. There are a many different reasons for my negative reaction including things like an belief that the fear-based hell-centric thinking of Chau in regards to mission is problematic. But, the piece of that puzzle I’d like to focus on in this post is the impact of colonial on Chau’s missionary venture. To get a better picture of this, we only need to look at a continuation of my earlier quote from Chau’s friend John Middelton Ramsey.
A lot of people have said these people obviously want to be left alone, so we should respect their wishes. Well my ancestors were also savages that wanted to be left alone. I’m sure glad missionaries like [Saints] Kilian and Boniface stepped up and were willing to give their lives, and that I don’t live in a society like that any more.
Middelton Ramsey’s assumption that the way he is now is better than how the other is currently is a familiar one. It has been used by racist and colonial powers to justify horrendous actions throughout history and it demonstrates an assumption of superiority. Now it looks like trying to make converts. Now, the missionary journey begins to centre the missionary rather than the people they are seeking to reach.
This is no longer a picture selfless loving action.
These same types of ideologies were used by Zurara in the mid 1400s to convince the church that the work of Prince Henry enslaving thousands was actually an extension of mission. Ibram X Kendi sums up the thought by writing, “Zurara imagined slavery in Portugal as an improvement over their [the individuals being enslaved] free state in Africa.” In making this argument Zurara was able to convince the pope and other key leaders in the day that the enslavement of African people was actually an act of selfless other-centric love. This is also the kind of ideology used by Christians in Canadian history to justify forcibly removing indigenous children from their families, moving them into residential schools, and systematically erasing their heritage and culture in a horribly misguided attempt to save them from their ways.
These supremicist thoughts do not lift up and acknowledge the innate value of other individuals or cultures. Instead they arrogantly come in assuming the self as greater or at least preferable. Unfortunately, this type of thought and action is common in Christian mission throughout history and even today. I cannot say for certain what the heart of Chau was like as he went out on his missionary journey, but I would argued based upon his journal entries and the important influence of people like Middelton Ramsey colonial and supremicist thoughts were formative for Chau and I think that this kind of thought in missions is not christ-like and is truly indefensible.
Making a hero of Chau refuses to acknowledge the racist history of Christian mission and the supremicist thought that shaped his missionary endeavours. This centres the missionary not the mission and I would suggest that entering into missions with these sorts of ideas about the inferiority or savageness of the people you’re trying to reach does not reflect a picture of authentic Christian witness.
While I’m sure people are being genuine when they describe Chau as a nice guy and reflect upon his loving motivation, but without an acknowledgement of the brokenness beneath we will be unable to move forward into something greater.
**I understand that you probably have questions. Before passing judgement and leaving an angry comment, take a look at the rest of the series. You can find them here: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4. Also, if you’re looking for more resources on the topic you can find my annotated bibliography here. While it’s far from exhaustive, it should be an okay place to start.**