Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Question of Missions

Much has been written regarding the death of John Allen Chau.  The twenty-six year old was an adventurer and missionary, who traveled the world to spread the gospel, but felt a particular draw to the Sentinelese people on the North Sentinel Island off the coast of India.  The Sentinelese represent one of the major "unreached people groups" for evangelical Christianity.  They are a small population (15 to 200 people) of indigenous people of the Adamanese and are considered one of the world's last "uncontacted people."  In fact, they are openly hostile to outsiders and have refused contact with the outside world.  They have assaulted and killed people who have approached or landed on the island.  The tribe and island is protected by the Indian government, in particular protecting their way of life and privacy as there is a great fear the tribe could be wiped out by diseases they have no immunities to, like measles or influenza.  Accordingly, the Indian government enforces strict control on access to the island.

John Allen Chau had a zeal to spread Christianity to the island.  He had taken a scouting trip to the Andaman islands several years ago and had told friends of his desire to return.  This November, he returned and convinced local fishermen to help him in his quest.  On November 14, Chau paid local fishermen to take him to the island, starting after nightfall to avoid detection.  On November 15, he attempted his first visit.  The fishing boat took him around 500-700 meters from the shore and he continued in a canoe onto the shore.  Once he reached the shore, the islanders attacked him with arrows as he had greeted them with Christian quotes and attempted to offer gifts.  On further visits, the islanders greeted him with a mixture of amusement, bewilderment, and hostility.  On November 17, Chau instructed the fishermen to leave without him.  It is presumed on this attempt, the islanders fatally shot him with arrows.  The fishermen later saw the islanders dragging Chau's body and the next day they saw his body on the shore.  The fishermen have been arrested for their assistance in getting Chau close to the restricted island.  Attempts are being made to recover his body, but it is uncertain that they will have any success.  Human rights group Survival International is urging that no further attempts to recover his body be made, as to not further expose the Sentinelese to any foreign pathogens.

Reaction to Chau's death has been mixed.  Christian groups have praised him as a martyr for the spread of the gospel. Other groups, like the previously mentioned Survival International, have focused on the potential harm to the Sentinelese people, however unintentional, and have denounced his actions.

I must confess, I am extremely conflicted about John Allen Chau's actions.  While his zeal to spread the gospel is laudable, it can also be true that his actions were fooldhardy at best.  At what point do his actions go from noble to problematic?  From beneficial to endangering potentially for him and the entire tribe?  Would he have been better served working with a indigenous tribes' rights group like Survival International, to ensure that the tribe is well protected and including materials in any care packages that are sent to the island?  Or was there another way to achieve his goal that could better protect and serve the Sentinelese people?

There in lies the question in missions.  We know that there are benefits to missionary work that are relayed to the people the missionaries serve.  Beyond potential eternal benefits, studies have found positive societal impacts in the areas where they have worked.  "In cross-national statistical analysis Protestant missions are significantly and robustly associated with higher levels of printing, education, economic development, organizational civil society, protection of private property, and rule of law with lower levels of corruption."  Further, missionaries have made significant contributions to linguistics and the description and documentation of many languages.  "Without missionary documentation, the reclamation [of several languages] would have been completely impossible."  p. 223, 224.  Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. 2000. Linguistic Genocide in Education - Or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

We know the ills of historical missionaries.  Forced conversions and assimilation driving out all aspects of the old culture.  Introducing diseases to the new populations, such as smallpox, measles, and the common cold. The ties with slavery in mission work.  And that is excluding the more openly problematic missions like the Crusades. Even modern mission work, particular American mission work, still carries the associations of the "white savior" complex.

Jamie and I have often talked about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in relation to mission work.  Maslow's Hierarchy is represented by a pyramid of needs with physiological needs at the base, safety needs just above, love/belonging needs just above that, esteem needs just above that, and self-actualization needs at the top.  Some have added transcendence above self-actualization.  Originally, the idea was that each lower level must be completely satisfied and fulfilled before the next level can be addressed.  You cannot adequately address safety needs like personal security, emotional security, financial security, or health and well-being, until the most basic physiological needs like food, water, sleep, and shelter are addressed.  Likewise, you cannot get to addressing a transcendent need like spiritual needs, until the physical needs are addressed.  Modern interpretations of the Hierarchy recognize the overlapping nature of the different levels, but the core idea remains the same.  Can you attempt to address someone's spiritual need when they are starving?  Or naked? Or imprisoned?

I feel this is why Jesus placed such importance on feeding the hungry and thirsty, sheltering the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned.  Such importance on meeting the physical needs around us.  On loving our neighbors.

Then the King will say to those on His right, "Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me."  

Then the righteous will answer Him, "Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink?  When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You?  When did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?"

And the King will reply, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me."
Matthew 25: 34-40

We need to meet these needs in order to be able to get to a spiritual need.  These are prerequisites.  It's meeting people where they are, developing an understanding for their needs, and then appropriately assisting them and working with them.  It's getting involved where it's messy.  And it's so important, Jesus also included a warning for not doing so.

Then the King will answer, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me."
Matthew 25: 44

I do not know the answers for the Chau situation, but I still have so many questions.  Was he seeking to evangelize in a way that was truly concerned for the best for the Sentinelese people, or was he going about it the only way he knew how to?  Were there other needs he was needing to learn and address first?  Do we need to change how we view missions?  Is there a better way?

How do we change in response?

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