29 November 2018

The dilemma of the uninvited missionary

John Chau and his mother Lynda (Instagram); source.
News story:
The family of an American missionary has forgiven the native tribe which killed him when he arrived uninvited on their island last week and are urging authorities not to hold anyone but him responsible for his death.

John Chau, 27, was killed on North Sentinel Island last week as he attempted to visit the tribe. Local fisherman reported seeing the tribe drag his body days after Chau paid them to take him as close as they would to the island before he kayaked over to it.

He had written to his family beforehand and told them not to blame the Sentinelese people if he did not make it out alive. [Source.]
Dilemma? What dilemma? Isn't it totally obvious to everyone that, if you and I are not wanted in some remote (to us) corner of the world, we shouldn't go there?

Well, maybe not to exactly everyone:
  • If you are a religious skeptic, or an exvangelical, you might be 99% sure that there could be no justification for John Chau and his ilk to intrude on North Sentinel Island.
  • If, however, you are in the Christian culture described by Chrissie Stroop in Stroop's Playboy article exploring Chau's motivations, you might be 99% sure that such intrusion might not only be justified, but possibly imperative.
Admittedly, I've set up this polarity to put myself somewhere in the middle. When I first heard the sad news about John Chau, I actually started out agreeing with the no-justification point of view. But here's some of what began nagging at me almost immediately.

I'm stating up front that I believe the Holy Spirit can ask us to do something that is entirely against conventional wisdom, secular skepticism, and even the law.

Don't worry, I'm not saying this to one-up skeptics with my heroic piety. For one thing, I do not believe Christianity is undergoing persecution in the secular West, nor do I believe that every criticism of Christianity and the Christian establishment from those skeptics is wrong. They're often right! Furthermore, if I propose an action that is completely out of step with law and culture, and claim supernatural inspiration, I had better be under the discipline of a praying community that's committed to biblical reflection, and not just relying on my own pretensions -- especially if those pretensions are a residue of the kind of uncritical glorification of missionary martyrs described in Stroop's article.

Within this frame as a believer, George Fox's famous exhortation (my emphases) came unbidden to mind:
This is the word of the Lord God to you all, a charge to you all in the presence of the living God; be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour, and a blessing.
In these words, Fox elaborates the charge Jesus gave his disciples in Acts 1:8 (context) to be his witnesses "to the ends of the earth." He outlines an essential component of Quaker missiology: we are not transferring knowledge, but directing people to the witness of God that is already within them. Although it's hard to see how any specific island is automatically off limits for someone who actually believes in God, I don't interpret these words as open-ended encouragement to get in everyone's face everywhere with just any form of contact. Early generations of Quakers established practices of discernment by which their ministers obtained their communities' permission to make journeys for both evangelism and pastoral care beyond those communities' boundaries.

I don't know whether John Chau's mission to North Sentinel Island, and his service with All Nations, met that kind of discernment threshold. I'm simply trying to get past the all-or-nothing polarization on the question of uninvited, intrusive missions.

Certainly, any prospective missionaries' proposed invasive mission to a hitherto-uncontacted people group should get a serious challenge from their home communities:
  • How and why do you feel directed to this mission? Convince us despite our great misgivings!
  • How have you prepared -- what research and training have you done -- for this specific service? What do you still need to do? (We might add our own requirements.)
  • How have you been influenced by the history of Christian missions and martyrdom? Can you regard that very mixed history with critical reflection as well as admiration?
  • Are you prepared to die in the service of your mission? And, given that you propose to be a "sweet savour" to God and "a blessing" to those you contact, how do you evaluate the possibility that you could cause them to die?
  • Whether you are accepted or rejected, live or die, how do you envision the continuation of your mission?
Many churches put candidates through these tests and much more. Doubts about invasive missions, however, go well beyond questions of individual suitability. Even the most qualified, dedicated, consecrated missionary threatens the receiving community with all sorts of dangers, as skeptics justifiably point out: diseases, cultural distortions, ecological and economic disruptions, even genocide. Why isn't this list of dangers absolutely decisive in any discussion of uninvited mission?

For one thing, a genuine leading to contact a hitherto-isolated community presumably carries God's wisdom that the contact will eventually result in blessing. The first contact-initiators may die (as in the "reckless colonialism" of Operation Auca, mentioned in Stroop's article), but in God's timing, the long-term outcome is redemptive.

This reasoning relies on belief that valid prophetic leadings really do happen. But there are some less spiritual aspects to consider as well:
  • When does military or police enforcement of an uncontacted community's isolation become imprisonment as well as protection? (North Sentinel Island is guarded by India's military.) Is there a form of infantilization involved with deciding that no contact can be allowed? What assumptions are being made about the power structure on the island, the consequences of genetic isolation, the hopes and fears of minorities within that culture, the intellectual capacity of its people to evaluate and adapt to change? Are those who repel invaders speaking for everyone in the community, or for an elite? Is it enough just to assume the best? (I acknowledge that the motivations of those asking these questions should also be under scrutiny! What do they hope to gain from their intrusion?)
  • With global warming and the rise of ocean levels, and other impending ecological dangers facing all humanity, do we have the right to assume that the world's uncontacted communities must sink or swim on their own? When, if ever, do they get a voice in meeting our common fate?
  • Finally, humanity always seeks contact. In human history, most boundaries prove to be temporary, and many are actually destructive. If eventual contact might be inevitable (based on such factors as great-power military claims on land and sea, detection of mineral wealth, acquisition of desirable isolated spots by oligarchs, etc.), is it better that the initial contact be made by a genuine missionary driven by love, rather than a more mercenary representative of humanity?
As the film The Mission illustrated, there is no simple answer to any of these questions.

Screenshot from The Mission.

A couple more links to thoughtful articles related to John Chau's mission and fate:

Mere imperialism? (GetReligion)

The missionary-martyr dilemma and the rest of the Jim Elliot story. (Christianity Today.)

Update: Morgan Pomaika'i Lee and Mark Galli interview All Nations' executive Mary Ho on the podcast Quick to Listen.

Speaking of Quakers and mission: As the Bolivian Yearly Meeting of Friends (INELA) prepares to celebrate its 100th birthday, its history is about to be published. Over the next couple of months, Nancy Thomas's blog will tell parts of the story, including the question of when that history actually began.

Craig Barnett on shape and meaninglessness.
For the Quaker way too, as practised for its first three centuries, life has a definite purpose; to become completely responsive to the leadings of the Inward Guide. This means allowing ourselves to be led, loosening our grip on the reins of our life and consenting to the life that wants to be lived in us. The goal of the Quaker way is not autonomy and independence, but the ‘guided life’, an experience of life that is surrendered to the healing and transforming power of the Spirit within.
Jonathan Merritt on America's epidemic of empty churches.

Russia, Ukraine, and maritime confrontations: Andrew Roth on Ukraine's Azov Sea ports. Natalia Antonova on what's in it for Putin. Jim Kovpak on the decisions facing Ukraine. Tetiana Bezruk on what more we can expect.

Going to the Netherlands for tonight's blues dessert, with Shakedown Tim and James Harman...

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