By Elizabeth Prata
John Allen Chau, a 27-year-old American, was killed a few weeks ago on Sentinel Island, part of a series of islands owned by India in the middle of the Bay of Bengal. An isolated tribe dwells there with whom very few people have made successful contact over the last hundreds of years. Chau, desiring to contact the tribe for the purpose of telling them about Jesus, (as his notes and journal state), was appeared to have been speared on the beach by arrows. The same fate had awaited nearly all of the visitors to the island since written records first mentioned the place. [Photo above source]
It’s interesting to read and watch India news outlets on this story. Some there, believe Chau to have been a rogue adventurer out to get more likes on his social media. Others believe him to have been a passionate missionary desiring to share the name of Jesus.
Chau’s arrival wasn’t the first visit to the island by Chau, who had gone to or near the Sentinelese at least 5 times previously. He had brought gifts such as safety pins, a football, and other trinkets in hopes of proving his friendliness. This had been hard to do, as the first recorded contact in 1880 by British Officer Maurice Vidal Portman ended badly and all subsequent contact since has demonstrated only hostility by the natives.
Portman was stationed at Port Blair on nearby South Andaman Island (the port from which Chau had departed on his ill-fated trip). Portman was fascinated with the tribe, who were painfully timid, he wrote, and ate roots and turtles. He absconded with two elderly tribe members and four children, bringing them back to his house on the nearby island for observation, where the elderly members promptly died, having been exposed to diseases against which they had no immunity. Portman returned the children to North Sentinel Island and called the foray a failure.
In more recent times, a NatGeo group attempted to land on the island to film the tribe in the 1970s, but they were repelled in a hail of arrows, one of them striking the director in the leg. Sadly, in 2006 two local fishermen were stranded there after their boat engine failed, and were also immediately killed. Their bodies were impaled and erected like scarecrows on the beach, perhaps as a warning to others who might want to venture near.
Chau had stated that he was motivated by a missionary zeal. This is commendable. However, I strongly caution all of us to be discerning about those who go forth to proclaim Jesus to the nations. Just because someone claims to be a missionary, doesn’t mean they have a firm grasp of who Jesus is. Some Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesuits and other Catholics call themselves missionaries, yet they do not know Jesus. Chau also graduated from Oral Roberts University, which is not known for teaching the most solid of doctrine. We don’t know Chau’s doctrine. We don’t know which Jesus he was proclaiming. One hopes and prays that he was a true believer, laying down his life for his friends.
“The poor Heathen knew not that they had slain their best friends” ~John G. Paton
But moving on from that caution, Chau was motivated by a strong urge to proclaim Jesus to an unreached tribe. His writings demonstrate this.
His joy turned to sorrow as he was sadly killed on the beach. Fishermen observed the natives dragging Chau’s body and burying it in the sand. Some still hold out hope that Chau is alive, that the arrows did not slay him. This is not likely, however.
There are many facts and circumstances around the death of John Allen Chau that aren’t known yet. Some may never be known. However, I am satisfied that this death has captured the world’s attention. The lost do not know why Christians are willing to die in order to proclaim Jesus. Though there are Christian missionary deaths every day, sometimes in large groups at once, the fact that this death, a young man, solo, on the beach, with an unknown stone age tribe hostile to outsiders, captured the world’s attention for over a week and is still going strong. A week is a long time in the minute by minute news cycle.
Because of this, people now know of the tribe and are praying. Additionally, it’s sparked a discussion about dying for the Gospel. It has baptized the ground for Jesus and for perhaps an awakening to come.
People make many comparisons of Chau’s death to the 5 Ecuadorean martyrs in 1956 (Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian) but I see the comparison more toward the missionaries to the New Hebrides Islands in the 1800s. This is an excerpt from missionary to the New Hebrides, John Paton’s book, Thirty Years among the South Sea Cannibals-
Glance backwards over the story of the Gospel in the New Hebrides may help to bring my readers into touch with the events that are to follow. The ever-famous names of Williams and Harris are associated with the earliest efforts to introduce Christianity amongst this group of islands in the South Pacific Seas. John Williams and his young Missionary companion Harris, under the auspices of the London Missionary Society, landed on Erromanga on the 30th of November 1839. Alas, within a few minutes of their touching land, both were clubbed to death; and the savages proceeded to cook and feast upon their bodies. Thus were the New Hebrides baptized with the blood of Martyrs; and Christ thereby told the whole Christian world that He claimed these Islands as His own. His cross must yet be lifted up, where the blood of His saints has been poured forth in His name! The poor Heathen knew not that they had slain their best friends; but tears and prayers ascended for them from all Christian souls, wherever the story of the martyrdom on Erromanga was read or heard.
Again, therefore, in 1842, the London Missionary Society sent out Messrs. Turner and Nisbet to pierce this kingdom of Satan. They placed their standard on our chosen island of Tanna, the nearest to Erromanga. In less than seven months, however, their persecution by the savages became so dreadful, that we see them in a boat trying to escape by night with bare life. Out on that dangerous sea they would certainly have been lost, but the Ever-Merciful drove them back to land, and sent next morning a whaling vessel, which, contrary to custom, called there, and just in the nick of time. They, with all goods that could be rescued, were got safely on board, and sailed for Samoa. Say not their plans and prayers were baffled; for God heard and abundantly blessed them there, beyond all their dreams.
When these Missionaries “came to this Island, there were no Christians there; when they left it, there were no Heathens.”
Subsequent missions were more successful, and within some years, 3500 natives had thrown away their idols and been converted to the name of Christ. One may hope and pray, just as Williams and Harris, though killed almost immediately upon meeting the tribe in New Hebrides, that further approaches at North Sentinel Island will be met with Gospel success.
Time will tell of the results of Chau’s death. I do have a fear that we still do not know his doctrine, thus, ‘which Jesus’ (Acts 1:11) Chau proclaimed, but the Lord will take the global conversations, the worldwide shock, and the questions about these ‘strange Christians’, and open many hearts, I am sure. The slumbering world, immune to knowlege of the wrath to come, was awakened by one man’s lone act, his death ‘for Jesus’ both angering and perplexing it.
Below are some resources regarding the John Allen Chau issue and missions in general.
Interview via Quick to Listen/Christianity Today with the director of All Nations missionary organization Mary Ho about John Allen Chau
Segment 1: The morality of global missions: How should those in the developed world look at hunter-gatherer tribes?
Segment 2: Motivation vs. methodology: What the modern missions movement has taught us about how to most effectively reach the unreached.
Garrett Kell: Was murdered missionary John Chau and arrogant fool?
End of the Spear: Movie about Operation Auca and the five missionary deaths in 1956
Gladys Aylward: The Little Woman autobiography of first woman missionary to inland China