Reflections on a Tragic Missionary Story

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I’ve been thinking about John Allen Chau a lot lately.

He was the missionary who was recently killed on the shore of a remote island called North Sentinel by a tribe which intentionally remains isolated from modern civilization.

Media coverage has mostly focused on two questions: first, was Chau a courageous martyr or a misguided fool; and second, what is the best way to evangelize anyway; isn’t missionary sending a thing of the past?

I don’t know if I’m really qualified to answer the first question. Obviously, it took courage to travel to North Sentinel; that was bravery, but I also think it was entirely inappropriate. For one, there was a very real danger that Chau would bring communicable diseases to people who had no natural resistance to them. Furthermore, he didn’t know their language, so he had no quick way to let them know why he was there. And they didn’t invite him to their island!

I seem to recall that just a few weeks ago, I led my Sunday School class through a lesson that included a quote from Jesus in which he clearly said to his disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (Matthew 10:14). Apparently, even Jesus thought it was a waste of time to go where you were not wanted!

In all seriousness, however, I want to move on to the second question, which has to do with the nature of evangelism itself. Put simply, does God want us to attempt to proselytize people, to convert them into believers in Jesus Christ?

It would appear so from the closing words of the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus tells his disciples, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:19-20).

This was obviously the impetus behind Chau’s evangelism efforts. He was trained and sent by an organization called All Nations, based in Kansas City, Missouri. According to their website, their vision is “to see Jesus worshiped by all the peoples of the earth,” and their mission is “to make disciples and train leaders to ignite church planting movements among the neglected peoples of the earth.”

Why is this the vision of All Nations? What drives them to make this their particular mission? According to their Statement of Faith, “We believe that when a follower of Jesus dies, he/she passes immediately into the presence of Christ, there to enjoy conscious fellowship with God until the day of the resurrection and transformation of the body. The saved will then forever dwell in fellowship with their great God. We also believe that when the unbeliever dies he/she is consigned to hell, there to await the day of judgment when he/she shall be punished with eternal, conscious separation from the presence of God.”

In this way of thinking, missionaries have the ultimate task of saving people from hell — literally! That’s why Chau felt driven to risk his life on a far off island. That’s why he believed his act of self-sacrifice might ultimately be worth it. If the North Sentinelese are eventually introduced to Jesus someday, they might be saved to go to heaven. That’s a bargain Chau would accept, because he knew he would be in heaven himself.

This logic is flawed to me, to be honest. I simply don’t believe that people who don’t have faith in Jesus Christ will spend the afterlife in perpetual torture, much less people who have never even heard of Jesus.

In fact, the story of Chau’s demise reminds me of a story I heard once about a missionary priest who traveled to a remote tribe in a far-off land. When he got there, he learned the language as quickly as he could, and then began teaching them the precepts of Christianity.

Finally, one of the tribesmen asked the priest, “Are you saying that we will go to hell if we don’t accept your Jesus?”

The priest said, “Yes, that is what I am saying.”

The tribesman asked, “But what if we never had heard of this Jesus? Would we still go to hell?”

The priest replied, “Well, no, not in that case. Because God would show you mercy.”

The tribesman then said, “Why did you come and preach to us then? We would all be going to heaven! Now some of us are doomed!”

Chau either believed a) that all people who don’t believe in Jesus are going to hell regardless of whether they had heard of him or not, or b) that only people who have heard about Jesus will be judged on the basis of whether they have believed in him; the rest will be judged on a different basis. If he believed option a, then I understand his urgent mission but pity his belief in an unmerciful and horrible God; if he believed in option b, then he was simply foolish — far better to leave them alone and let them go to heaven out of ignorance!

Frankly, I find both options to be equally problematic, but that’s a subject for a different column.

For now, let me simply close with this thought: the Gospel of Jesus Christ is meant to be good news to people, a liberating word, a fresh and transformative thing. Jesus himself once said, “I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly.”

Anything that doesn’t bring abundant life is not from God. Even if it comes from a so-called missionary.

Ungrateful? No, Inappropriate.

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A friend on Facebook posted the meme above today. It shows a child bending down to drink from a muddy and murky river. The caption reads, “Lord, if I’m ever ungrateful, forgive me.”

But something bothers me about the photo and caption.

I get why he posted it. He’s attempting to make a point about gratitude on this Thanksgiving week.

In one sense, I agree with the sentiment. Those of us who have plenty ought to be fully aware of the fact that there are millions of people in the world who are deprived of basic needs, including clean water. And we ought to be thankful that we don’t struggle to make ends meet.

Gratitude is about appreciating what one has, rather than lamenting what one doesn’t have. We are especially called to give thanks when we gather to celebrate with our families and friends this week.

Yet there is something fundamentally twisted and corrupt about this picture.

First of all, I am uncomfortable with the fact that there is a real human child in this photo. There is no way to know anything about where the picture was taken, who took it, and who the child is. If it’s a staged picture, then I am disturbed that somebody has faked the shot in order to make a point.

But if it’s a real-life situation, I’m bothered that a photographer took a picture of what is a truly desperate and dangerous moment. I want to know if the photographer approached the child after taking the picture and offered him or her a drink of clean water. I want to know if the photographer asked his or her permission to share the image with others. I want to know if the photographer profited in any way from the picture. If so, did the photographer share the profits with the child?

I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I have to refer to the child as only that — a child. I don’t know his or her name. The photo completely objectifies a precious human being, for the sake of making a point.

And what is the point being made?

That we should be grateful that we’re NOT LIKE THAT CHILD.

That’s what bothers me most. The caption tells us to give thanks to God that we have it better than others. And it attempts to shame us into this position of thankfulness by pointing out that there are people worse off than us.

Throughout my life, I’ve heard lots of people come back from mission trips and say things like, “I’m so glad I went to Far-Away-Third-World-Country because I realized how good I have it here at home, and I recognize that I need to be thankful for what I have and where I live.”

This line of talk has always bothered me. Because it makes mission about us, about “me.” I want to say in reply, “But what about them? In what way did you give hope to someone in despair? How did you feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, comfort the hurting? Did you give anyone a reason to be thankful for YOU?”

Another thing that bothers me about the picture is the fact that it’s a black child. I recognize that the fact that the child is black doesn’t necessarily mean the picture was taken on the continent of Africa, but it seems clear that this is what is implied. The image plays on a stereotyped idea of Africa as a continent of great poverty, need, and deprivation — and ends up confirming the stereotype.

However, we should never forget that the problem of clean drinking water is NOT merely a Third World problem; look at Flint, Michigan, where water supplies only became safe a few months ago, after several years of dangerous lead levels.

The worst thing about this picture? I can’t imagine Jesus would have responded with platitudes about being thankful.

No, if Jesus saw a picture like this, I believe his response would be something closer to this:

“What’s wrong with you people? Why don’t you make sure every child of mine has clean water to drink? How can you enjoy your Thanksgiving meal when kids are drinking disease?”

I know that’s not what any of us want to hear on Thanksgiving, but it’s the truth of the world we live in.

And the only way to live faithfully in this world is to maintain an attitude of gratitude while, at the same time, working to relieve the suffering of the world’s poor.

But let’s not attempt to make ourselves feel better by saying, “There’s always someone worse off than me — thank you, God!”

The Parable of Living Water

The following story comes from a sermon preached by Bishop Michael McKee on Monday night at the Clergy Retreat, which Kay and I attended. I don’t remember who originally told it, but I thought it was worth stealing:

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Once upon a time, a holy man discovered a spring of water that had magical powers. The waters healed those who were sick, inspired those who were depressed, and gave immortality to those who drank it. The man built a little hut next to the spring and spent all his time there. Soon word began to spread of the living water, and other people began to build huts nearby. A thriving community built up around the waters.

One day, as yet another family moved into the area, someone suggested that they build a fence around the village. A fence with a door and lock was hastily constructed. But as soon as the fence was built, the water stopped flowing.

When the holy man discovered what had happened, he packed up his things and left the village. He wandered through the countryside until he came upon another spring with living water. Once again, he constructed a hut and moved in to stay. Soon word began to spread, and other people followed him. A thriving community built up around the spring.

As the population swelled, again someone suggested that they build a fence around the community. Again, a fence with a door and lock was built. And again, the water immediately stopped flowing.

When the holy man saw what had happened, he packed up his things again and left the village. This time he wandered farther and longer, but again he found a spring of living water. Once again, he built a small place to live.

You can imagine what happened — word got around, and the people came. They built a thriving community again. And once again, someone suggested they build a fence around the village.

This time, however, the holy man said, “No. We won’t build a fence, or install a door, or put in a lock.”

To this day, the holy man still lives in that place, in the midst of a thriving community, for the spring of living water still flows.

How are we constructing fences around the living water of the gospel?