In the early days of 1956, five young American missionaries were murdered by the remote Ecuadorian tribe they were trying to reach with the Christian faith. The operative term here is not American, but missionary. They were not ambassadors of a culture, but of Christ.
This point is important because in recent days, another young American has been martyred by tribesmen on the remote frontier—this time in India. John Allen Chau, 26, of Washington state, was killed by the Indian government-protected Sentinelese after kayaking in with his Bible and a collection of gifts for the tribe.
As details of Chau’s life and the circumstances of his final days filter in, many Christians are starting to embrace one who considered his life worth nothing to testify to the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 20:24). Meanwhile, his brazen act to bring that message to North Sentinel Island has provoked widespread outrage.
There are three broad critiques leveled against Chau’s action: First, he was attempting to bring Christianity to a majority-Hindu nation. This was an affront to practitioners of Hinduism, who are already antagonistic toward the small Christian minority in India. Second, Chau blatantly violated Indian laws protecting the island from outsiders, who might introduce foreign customs and diseases to the 150 tribespeople. Third, Chau was seeking to corrupt this carefully protected and preserved culture with the ravages of western Christianity, displaying the same culturally imperialistic impulses many now deplore in our ancestors.
The first critique is the most clear-cut. Obviously, people of one religious group would not want to have their beliefs challenged by another religious group. Hindus believe their central tenets to be true, which would make competing religious claims false. The second critique is also quite reasonable—who doesn’t believe in respect for the law? Yet laws such as those “protecting” peoples and cultures from outside influence tend to assume the inherent goodness of the former and the malevolence of the latter. Why?
The final critique is the most suspect and lays bare a fundamental difference between historic Christianity and contemporary Western orthodoxy. The present orthodoxy declares that all culture is ultimate and must be preserved as a good in and of itself. Religion becomes the sideshow, which maintains a façade of neutrality toward religion.
Neutrality is indeed a façade because it carries the natural implication that religion is not a matter of ultimate consequence. This might be labeled “religious indifferentism.” This is the same thinly disguised worldview behind the religious neutrality of parents who want their kids to believe whatever they want. They are saying that no religion is worth believing.
At the same time, this enlightened indifference is supremely hypocritical. It is indifferent only if others share its claims to indifference. As soon as one asserts that religion is not a matter of indifference, a metanarrative stands over all cultural narratives, the indifferentists become positively outraged. Someone has stomped in their pseudo-spiritual mud puddle and exposed both its vacuity and the ambiguity that has concealed it.
Like the five martyred missionaries in Ecuador, Chau believed that religion is not a trifling matter of indifference. Religion is not a subset of culture—on the contrary, culture is a subset of religion. The primary and primal ordeal for mankind is to grapple with Truth. Entire cultures and civilizations rise and fall based on their truth claims. All cultures, like all people, must stand at the bar of Truth.
Yet Chau’s motivation was not philosophical in nature, but imminently practical. It was love. He wrote in his journal, “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” Where the Indian government and Western indifferentists see a people and culture in need of protection from malevolent influences, Chau saw a people deprived of the opportunity to be exposed to Truth. In a sense, this is the fundamental human right and the endeavor most worthy of our time, energy, and commitment.
Chau was so committed to this right, and that it should be extended to the most insulated and marginal of people, that he was willing to die for both the right and the people: “I think I could be more useful alive . . . but to you, God, I give all the glory of whatever happens,” Chau wrote. He asked God to forgive “any of the people on this island who try to kill me, and especially if they succeed.”
Christianity does not define men by culture, but by the dignity accorded all those created in the image of God. It recognizes that the wide expanse of humanity universally struggles with both sin and suffering. To these deepest of needs, Christianity offers the greatest of possible solutions—a savior who died for sinners from every tribe around the globe. This includes those secluded on remote islands.
In this way, Christianity is the ultimate obstacle to real imperialist agendas. It is cultural imperialism that protects indigenous cultures for their own good in the name of a religiously neutral value system that is uniquely Western. Christianity is not an American nor a Western religion. It is a global religion, addressing a global need before God, and offering a divine remedy that is freely offered to all people, regardless of culture.
There are some beliefs, that if true, are worth dying for. If Jesus Christ was truly, historically, bodily raised from the dead for sinners, then this truth takes immediate priority as the belief worth living and dying for. To protect a dying people in the name of culture is not only no protection, it is the height of cruelty and barbarism. If you love someone, you want them to live.
The armchair anti-imperialists of our day must question why their worldview leads to closed minds and closed cultures. They politely protect people—and themselves—by refusing to dig deep or reach out. Their kind intentions result in intellectual and humanitarian slothfulness. It is better to die at the sharp edge of truth and in the bitter throes of compassion than to live in such a malaise.
While there is still much to learn about Chau’s glories and failures, it seems we can sum up his life with the wise words of Jim Elliot, one of the missionaries martyred in Ecuador: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”