The Polarizing Story of John Allen Chau
John Allen Chau was an American adventure blogger and missionary who grew up in Northwest. He died on November 17th, 2018 at the age of 26 working as a missionary. On the eve of his death, he soberly confronted his in journal the reality that he may not make it through the next day and then wrote to his family:
“You guys might think I’m crazy in all this, but I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people.”
Growing up in Sunday school, Chau was enamoured by stories of Christian missionaries and martyrs such as Jim Elliot (whom he frequently quoted on social media through his high school years and beyond). These individuals touted as heroes of the faith went off to where no one else was willing to fulfill the great commission by preaching the gospel to all nations under the earth.
In high school, Chau material produced by an organization called called Joshua Project about a group of people on North Sentinel Island in India who have no contact with outside people groups. Under the section on their needs as a group the Joshua Project current reads, “Sentinelese people need to know that the Creator God exists, and that He loves them and paid the price for their sins.” It also mentioned a need for basic medical care. It seems that learning of the Sentinelese people sparked in Chau a passion to go and share with them the story of Jesus that persisted until his death.
The night before he died, Chau mused in his journal that this island could be, “satan’s last stronghold” on earth. If this was Satan’s last stronghold, Chau was ready to lay siege to this fortress suited up in the armour of God and carrying some rudimentary medical supplies. I can clearly imagine the younger version of myself hearing Chau’s story and feeling inspired by his boldness and zeal for the gospel. Missionaries like Jim Elliot were the venerated saints of my conservative evangelical upbringing and martyrdom was painted as the most holy of all calls. But, the present version of myself experienced a lot less inspiration and a lot more second hand embarrassment and maybe some disgust. These two polarized reactions to the story of Chau were represented well within conservative and progressive Christian circles respectively during the public outcry and worldwide news coverage that followed his death. Literally thousands of articles and new stories in large and small news outlets began the work of either valourizing or vilifying Chau in the public eye.
As is often the case with polarization and pendulum swings, both sides of the discussion bring some valid points but also requires criticism. In the following series of blog posts, I will seek to bring some of that critical feedback to both the conservative and progressive reactions to the missionary journey and eventual death of John Chau with a particular focus on the interaction between Christian Missions and Christianity’s ugly colonial history.
In the next post I’m going to spend time critiquing the more conservative perspectives that paint Chau as a hero and beautiful Christian example. In the following one, I’ll be challenging and critiquing more progressive views that paint Chau as a racist and a villain. In the third post, I’m going to suggest a more even handed respond and work to grapple with the legitimate ideas of both progressive and conservative Christians. Finally, I’ll try to present a more even handed response that helps to paint a picture for Christians moving forward as participants in the work of the kingdom with a sensitivity to our ugly history without throwing away a passion to see others know the new and full life that can be had in Christ.
**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 2, 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.**