Monday, November 26, 2018

This Is Exactly the Martyr Fairy Tale We Aspired To

Aerial photo of North Sentinel Island. Image source.
In the Christian culture I was part of in college, there were 2 types of people:
  1. Those who were totally willing to be "martyrs"- to die for Jesus if that's what Jesus wanted. Willing, and maybe even excited about the possibility.
  2. Those who were NOT willing to "follow the call" and die if that's what God wanted, and they felt guilty about that.
Feeling confident in one's unwillingness to die for Jesus was not an option. We couldn't "count the cost" and then decide "no."

Last week, I read the news about John Allen Chau, an American missionary who was killed while trying to "bring the gospel" to an isolated tribe off the coast of India. It's sad, it's terrible, and everything about it feels so familiar to me, as an ex-evangelical. Familiar, but also not. Familiar because what Chau did was exactly what we were encouraged to do, when the church taught us about missions. But not familiar, because I don't know anyone who actually literally went and died like that. It feels surreal and jarring and heartbreaking to see that ideology collide with reality like this.

Every detail I read about this feels like "yep, that rings true with my experience of Christian missions ideology" but also I cringe so hard seeing how completely wrong and destructive the outcome is when that ideology is applied to the actual real world.

So... Chau was killed by Sentinelese people- who are they? All right, a bit of history: This is a group of people completely isolated from the rest of the world. They live on an island that is part of India. Historically, when people on other islands in that area have been visited by outsiders, it hasn't gone well. Survival International says, "The tribe have made it clear that they do not want contact. It is a wise choice. Neighboring tribes were wiped out after the British colonized their islands, and they lack immunity to common diseases like flu or measles, which would decimate their population." Decades ago, the Indian government used to periodically send gifts and attempt to contact them, but they stopped because the Sentinelese seem fine on their own and don't want to be contacted.

It's an uncontacted tribe, that doesn't want anything to do with the rest of the world, but do you think that matters in American evangelical missions ideology? HA. Hahaha. No. Nope, evangelicals know what everybody else needs. Evangelicals know that if a group of people have never heard about Jesus, well that's a PROBLEM that needs to be SOLVED.

It just makes me sick, remembering how we took it for granted back then... the idea that it's so SAD that people somewhere far away have never "heard the gospel" and somebody needs to go tell them. Oh god, I feel disgusting thinking about it... the term "unreached people group." Uh, yeah let me define "unreached people group." So the idea is that people typically only have close interactions with other members of their own culture, their own "people group." So it's not necessarily useful to talk about being a missionary to a certain place, because you might go to a place and only interact with people from one certain subculture- one "people group"- and even if people from that group "get saved" that doesn't necessarily help the other "people groups" living in that area because they aren't likely to interact closely enough that "the gospel" would be transmitted from members of one group to another.

Take a look at what Chau wrote: "I DON'T WANT TO DIE. Would it be wiser to leave and let someone else to continue. No I don't think so." He's thinking along these exact lines. Somebody needs to "reach" the Sentinelese people. He's willing to do it, even if it costs him his life. This is exactly what I was taught in church.

The Joshua Project is a Christian missions group that keeps track of all the "people groups" in the world, and the "progress" that has been made with "reaching" each group with "the gospel." (This isn't directly connected to Chau's story; I have no idea if he was influenced by the Joshua Project or not. I am talking about it here to show how normal this way of thinking is for American evangelical Christians.) Oh god, it's gross, it's so gross. Using terminology like "progress" to indicate what percentage of each "people group" are evangelical Christians. "Progress"- as if changing the religious beliefs of strangers around the world is a project we are working on, an objectively good goal to work toward. Ewww. Actually, the Joshua Project has this phrase written right across the top of their website: "Bringing definition to the unfinished task." See that? "The unfinished task", ie, making sure every person in the world has an opportunity to hear about Jesus, which is realistically only going to happen if a good enough percentage of each people group is evangelical. (I love the trying-to-be-subtle language on the Joshua Project website, basically saying that real Christians are evangelical- even if a large percentage of the population identifies as Christian, well, that doesn't necessarily count. BARF.)

The Joshua Project... yep, back when I was a good evangelical, I had heard of them, and definitely believed they were doing a good thing. I remember I was at a Christian conference and representatives from the Joshua Project were giving out fliers with little descriptions of specific "unreached people groups", to prompt us to pray for them every day. Look at their website- there's even an app you can get that will tell you a different "unreached people group" to pray for every day. Predatory Christian-supremacist bullshit. Grossssssss.

Take a look at the Joshua Project's page about the Sentinelese. Look at this disgusting bit:
What Are Their Needs?
Sentinelese people need to know that Creator God exists, and that He loves them and paid the price for their sins.

They need basic medical care.

Prayer Points
* Pray that the Indian Government will allow Christians to earn the trust of the Sentinelese people, and that they will be permitted to live among them.
* Pray that God will open doors to Sentinelese people to receive the gospel message.
I am angry, because this is crap. "Sentinelese people need to know that Creator God exists-" no, stop right there. Who the **** are you, person writing this page. How can you claim you know what they need? They do not need our help, they do not want our help, leave them the **** alone.

Furthermore, it is DISGUSTING to pray that God would violate these people's wishes. What is this crap- pray that the Indian government would allow Christians to go live among them. Pray that God would force people to do things they don't want to do. Because CLEARLY God agrees with us- God's going to side with us, American Christians, and do what we want instead of what the Sentinelese want.

When ex-evangelicals tell you that in church we never learned about consent and boundaries, this is the kind of shit we're talking about.

Yeah, I used to participate in that. I used to pray that God would manipulate people into changing religions. Gross.

I remember back then, sometimes we would express concern over how "arrogant" we seemed, like we were just barging into other people's personal lives and telling them they had to change. We felt a little weird about that, like it wasn't right. But... we believed in hell. We believed that everyone who didn't believe in Jesus was going to hell. (Maybe if someone has really never heard of Jesus they might get a free pass, maybe, but let's not bet on it.) So yes, I understood that I might come across as arrogant for my belief that I knew the correct things that everyone else needed to believe, but... if it's the truth, if I REALLY DO know the correct things that everyone else needs to believe... or else they go to hell, well... then I'm not wrong to barge into people's personal lives and tell them what to do.

And we called that "love."

In an Instagram post from Chau's family after his death, they wrote that he "had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people." I believe it... or rather, I believe he "loved" them in the way that Christians "love" their evangelism targets. The way Christians talk about "having a heart for [whatever place]." Seriously, this is language that missionaries (including kids who just go on short-term mission trips) use- they "have a heart for Japan" or "have a heart for Africa" or whatever. It means they see that place as needing help, and they love those people so much that they simply must go and help them.

For what it's worth, I very much rejected this kind of language back when I went on a mission trip to China and then ended up obsessed with it and wanting nothing more than to move there. (Ahem, here. I live in China now.) I did NOT say "I have a heart for China." I was evangelical, and people all around me used that language, it was the normal thing that you say about Christians who travel to non-western countries, but to me it always felt objectifying. Viewing a country with one billion people as if it's some kind of little hobby of mine, some special interest I have... eww, nope, I never liked that.

Chau "loved" the Sentinelese people... but how can you love someone you've never met or communicated with at all? If they don't want you to be there, but you go there anyway... how is that "love"? No, he "loved" them in the sense that he really believed they were in danger of going to hell because they didn't believe in Jesus, and he wanted to help them escape that fate. But it wasn't love in any sense that applies to the actual real world.

Over here in the actual real world, it's dangerous for isolated island people to come into contact with outsiders. Because of disease. But does that matter, in this evangelical missions ideology? Ha, do you even have to ask? No, of course it doesn't matter. If God "calls" you to go to some certain place, if God "gives you a heart for" that place, then you just go. You don't worry about those details, silly little details like diseases which have, historically, wiped out significant proportions of island societies. God will handle that. God will make sure that doesn't happen.

I'm serious, that's what I really believed back then. That's what Christians taught me. God might call you to do something risky. God might call you to do something that "the world" will think is a bad idea. But if God called you, then you have to do it. There were stories told in church, of people being told by God to do all sorts of things that seemed doomed to fail, but they just obeyed God and had amazing success and everything was great. That's what faith is, they said- doing stuff that God tells you to do, even if by all accounts it seems like a really bad idea. That's what Christians are supposed to do.

Another extremely familiar part of Chau's story is this, a statement from Dependra Pathak, director general of police of the Andaman and Nicobar islands:
"We refuse to call him a tourist. Yes, he came on a tourist visa but he came with a specific purpose to preach on a prohibited island," Pathak said.
Ah yes, the missionary on a tourist visa. That's the oldest trick in the book. When you go on a mission trip and you apply for your visa, you don't tell them the purpose of your trip is missions. You say you're a tourist, or whatever. When I came to China on a short-term mission trip, years ago, I was on a tourist visa. My whole group was. We made sure to never ever use Christian language in public, so that if we were being watched in China they wouldn't know we were there on a mission trip. Even in our emails, we avoided certain words- instead of "pray", we said "talk to Dad."

I've heard of long-term missionaries in China playing the tourist-visa game. They get a multiple-entry tourist visa, which means you can enter China as many times as you want, but each time you can only stay 90 days. So they live in China long-term, but they make sure that once every 90 days they go down to Hong Kong for the weekend. (Easiest way to do something that will count as "leaving the country.") That's how the game is played.

Oldest trick in the book.

Does it matter to Christians that it's sort of dishonest to hide one's real purpose in entering the country? LOLLLLL nope of course it doesn't matter. We are saving people from hell! God told us to come here! So what if some *earthly* government has *rules* against what we're doing? We follow God's rules instead.

Speaking of governments and rules: it is illegal to go within 5 nautical miles of North Sentinel Island, where the Sentinelese live. Am I shocked that Chau was willing to break the law in order to "bring the gospel to them"? Ha. Silly little things like laws- nope, Christian missionaries don't have to follow those. Obeying God is more important, no question about that. Like, of course it's a risk, of course we don't want to get arrested, but if you're a good enough Christian, then you're willing to take that risk for God.

Seven local Indian people who helped Chau get a boat and get to the island have been arrested, because yes, what they did was illegal. See, over here in the real world, breaking the law is a very serious thing and people get arrested and it's not pretty. I don't know if Chau thought about how his actions would affect them. But I can easily imagine a Christian believing that God's "mission" was more important, so it's okay to get other people to help you break the law.

You know what else isn't glamorous, here in the real world? Death. See back then, in church, Christians talked about dying for God like it was so cool. Obviously we don't want to die, but those stories about martyrs amazed us. Those people were the best Christians. Obeying God so much that they even died for it.

When I was at Urbana (InterVarsity's huge student missions conference), there was a speaker who told us it was worth it to die because of obedience to God's "call." I wrote about this in a post last year:
I remember one speaker at Urbana who talked about how her husband was murdered while working as a missionary in the Middle East. And she said even though it's very tragic that he lost his life, it would have been even worse if he hadn't obeyed God's call and hadn't become a missionary. He was living according to God's amazing plan for his life, and that's better than any alternative.
And we all nodded along and "amen"ed and wished we could be courageous enough to die for God. I didn't even question it- I totally believed her claim that it's better to die while obeying God's call than to live a long life and miss out on God's plan for your life. Thinking about this now, I feel sick. I can't believe I have to say this, but: Death is bad. Death is serious. It's not something we should just casually throw around, or aspire to... but oh god, we did aspire to it, back then. We wanted to be martyrs. (Well, we either wanted to be martyrs, or we felt guilty for not wanting to...)

This is a tragedy, and I really feel bad for Chau. And disgusted at the Christian missions ideology that caused this. It's not glamorous to suffer and die "for God." It's just ... heartbreaking.

What really bothers me is how perfect Chau's story is, from an evangelical perspective. This is the perfect fairy-tale martyr story. We all know that it's more godly to be a missionary than just a "regular" Christian, and being a missionary to an unreached people group is even better. And wow, the Sentinelese people are basically as "unreached" as you can possibly get. That is the very very best way to be a missionary! And he broke the law to get to their island, ooooh how exciting! (Chau wrote "God sheltered me" when he was able to get to the island without being stopped by Indian authorities.) He finally got there, and told them, "My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you." And then they killed him. Seriously, you could not make up a martyr story that sounds better than this.

From an evangelical perspective, it's perfect. But I'm not evangelical anymore, so I'm looking at this from a new angle and I'm horrified. The belief that a group of strangers on some faraway island need us to come and teach them our religion. WTF? Contacting an uncontacted tribe that wants to stay uncontacted. Breaking the law. The risk of infecting them with deadly diseases. The idea that it's fine to do dangerous and illegal things if that's what "God called" you to.

Chau is going to be seen as a hero and a role model. There is absolutely no part of this story that will come across as a cautionary tale for evangelicals, nothing that will serve as a warning that other people should NOT do what he did. It's perfect, and that scares me.

Do y'all remember Jim Elliot? Okay, here is the story of Jim Elliot- or at least, here's the story I heard in the evangelical church: Jim Elliot was a missionary who wanted to "share the gospel" with a remote tribe in South America, back in the 50's. But they killed him. He is a martyr! Then, years later, other missionaries went back to that same tribe and were able to "share the gospel", and some of them accepted Jesus! Hooray, it's a happy ending! Because of what Elliot did, those people were more "open" to "the gospel" and isn't that just great.

Christians LOVE this story. There was a movie about it in 2005, "The End of the Spear."

But now that I'm reading the news about Chau and seeing what this actually looks like in reality, how much of a mess and a nightmare it is, I'm starting to suspect maybe the story of Jim Elliot wasn't actually so perfect and wonderful either. Hmmmmmmmm...

So that's the sum of my thoughts on this. As far as I can tell, Chau was following the exact same evangelical missions ideology that I was taught. Back then, we talked excitedly about God "calling" each of us to some specific faraway place. We prayed for "unreached people groups"- prayed that God would send a good evangelical Christian to coerce them into changing their beliefs. What those "unreached people groups" actually wanted didn't matter- of course it didn't! We talked about giving everything for Jesus, and the most ultimate way to do that was to go get killed while obeying God's "call." Everything that Chau said or did feels so normal and familiar to me, like a perfect role-model missionary that everyone at church would admire. As if the only reason the rest of us Christians aren't doing the same thing is that God didn't "call" us- not because it's dangerous and illegal and a bad idea and does more harm than good. If God "calls" you then none of those other concerns matter.

It's the perfect martyr story. But now that I'm not evangelical anymore, now that I no longer see "God's plan" as more real than the actual reality of the actual real world, I'm horrified. This whole thing is just bad.


Evangelicals Agree With What Chau Did (And It Makes Me Angry): Here Are The Receipts 
Because of an Idea
Runaway Radical: Radical Christian Missions 
Runaway Radical: The Stories You Can't Tell In Church
On Zebedee's Sons and Counting the Cost 
Renee Bach, who had no medical training, opened a clinic in Africa. Just like missionaries are supposed to.

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