Words by Charles Baker
//When the days drew near for (Jesus) to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.// Luke 9:51-56 (NRSVCE)
The Internet has been abuzz the last two weeks with talk about John Allen Chau, the American Christian missionary who was killed on, or about, November 16th, by the indigenous peoples of North Sentinel Island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, off the western coast of Myanmar. Writings by Chau collected by authorities paint a portrait of a man with deep convictions, a devotion to Christianity, and a genuine love for the Sentinelese people. They also paint the portrait of a myopic 21st century colonizer, one who seemed quite willing to put a rare and unique culture – a special square in the patchwork of the human race – at great risk for a mission with essentially no chance of success. Internet reactions to the event have tended to exaggerate and even caricaturize both of these portraits, with one Christian group going so far as to call for punishment of the Sentinelese while the Internet churns out meme after meme after meme making light of Chau’s death for the sake of uncharitable humor; and while both of these response patterns lean to suggest that perhaps it is the Sentinelese who are the more civilized culture, nevertheless I am called to cut through all of this noise to comment on the actions and motives of John Allen Chau.
Evangelize Within Boundaries
John’s primary motive for trespassing on North Sentinel Island was the evangelization of its inhabitants to the Christian faith. As a Catholic, I find that general desire to be a good one, for obvious reasons. However, reason demands we make prudential judgments about both the evangelist and the means of evangelizing. To that end, I pose the following questions:
Did John have a reasonable plan for establishing safe contact with the Sentinelese people? Did John have a reasonable plan for learning their language and customs? Earning their trust? Preaching the Gospel in a way that will be received? How long would it have taken for John to achieve all of these things such that these people would seek a Christian baptism? Longer than their immune systems may need adapt to the swarm of foreign microorganisms John may have brought with him?
I assert that in 2018 it is irrational and immoral to evangelize the way Christians did in 1618. But for many evangelicals, this is insufficient – the soul matters more than the body, and the soul needs baptism into Christian life for salvation, therefore the motive and potential benefit of John’s mission mitigates other (more likely) consequences. But to these poor Christian souls, wracked with grief and in need of catechesis, I proclaim another perspective.
The Church (The Catholic Church, the Church that Jesus Christ founded in the year 33) teaches us about the fate of the unlearned – those who have no knowledge of Jesus and are thus unable to either accept or reject him. This is a very delicate teaching that requires understanding the nature of Baptism as a sacrament and also the very simple relationship between the Sacraments and the grace they bestow. Jesus Christ himself affirms to Nicodemus the necessity of Baptism (John 3:5), an act that signifies a death to the world and the rebirth to Christ. The Church, a human institution, knows of no other means to attain salvation. But while we who receive the Gospel are bound to follow it (including by receiving the Sacraments), God, who is eternally unconstrained, is not bound by His own sacraments, and may grant salvation to whomever He sees fit. Confident in this, the Church teaches that “Every person who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of His Church, but seeks the Truth and does the will of God, can be saved” (CCC 1260).
In the end, it was John Allen Chau himself who could not accept the Good News of Jesus Christ and the teaching of His Church, and took it upon himself to wage an ill-conceived attempt to supplant Christianity within a vulnerable people, risking their own lives as much as his own (perhaps more so). Looking back on the Gospel passage shared at the beginning of this piece, we can say with confidence that this is not what Jesus would have done or wanted His disciples to do; He rebukes the disciples for suggesting righteous destruction against the Samaritan village that wouldn’t receive Jesus; I can imagine him saying shame on them for even thinking such a thing. Chau’s writings show us that he did not believe himself proud in his endeavors, signing some of his letters ‘Sol Gloria Deo’ – To God Alone the Glory – but to humble yourself and exalt in the Lord requires your mind as much as your heart. Chau’s mind had not properly discerned his course, and sadly he died a fool’s death because of it.
Protection for the Vulnerable
I close with a few final remarks about the Sentinelese people: They are KNOWN by God even if they do not know of Jesus Christ and His Church. And because they are KNOWN, they are loved – before, during, and after these events have passed. They are still loved even now – loved beyond measure. Just like you and I, If they were not loved by God they would never have existed in the first place. Chau knew this, and sought desperately to communicate this to them. But I say this now as a word of gentle caution to steer clear of improper demands of Justice, and instead search fearlessly inward, and root out whatever prevents us from loving these people and all people properly. It is our place as Christians who carry His Spirit in the temple of our bodies to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). If we care so much about the Sentinelese we will worry less about colonizing them and more about preventing the destruction of North Sentinel Island due to rising sea levels caused by man-made climate change. If we care so much about them, then we will make sure not to carelessly expose them to pathogens against which they have no defense. We, who are as yet unable to safely deliver the Gospel to them, must find our proper place in doing no harm to them, praying for their care, and entrusting their souls to the Divine Mercy of the God of Life.