Last week, John Allen Chau, a young Christian missionary from Vancouver, Washington, had his body riddled with arrows while trying to reach out to the Sentinelese, an isolated tribe who lives on North Sentinel Island on the Bay of Bengal off the coast of the Indian mainland.
Chau was hoping to share the Christian message with one of the few peoples to have never had any real contact with the outside world. They have lived on North Sentinel Island for almost 60,000 years in near-total isolation and presently number anywhere from 15 to 500 people at most.
Never mind that the Sentinelese have made it clear on several previous occasions that they want to be left alone. According to Survival International, a human rights organization that advocates for indigenous people, this is largely because of a harrowing incident that happened during the British colonial era. A colonial administrator took some Sentinelese adults and children to Port Blair, the largest settlement in the Andaman Islands, for reasons of “science.” However, the adults quickly died; then as now, their isolation made them vulnerable to illnesses to which they had no immunity. The children were brought back with gifts, though Survival International has good reason to believe they also passed on diseases they picked up on Port Blair.
Several other attempts to make contact over the years went awry. Most notably, when the Indian Coast Guard sent helicopters to check on the Sentinelese in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, a Sentinelese man fired an arrow at one of the choppers. Before then, the Indian government had banned any visitors from coming within three miles of the North Sentinel coast. Not only had New Delhi realized that the Sentinelese wanted to be left alone, but they must have realized that any contact with them would have had catastrophic consequences due to their lack of genetic immunity.
When Chau arrived for the first time, he tried to sing worship songs to them while they fired arrows at him. When he came for the second time, he took a kayak to the island—only to have it broken in two by the islanders. On the third time, he came to the island, only to be shot to death and buried on the shore.
Incredibly, though, a number of people are calling this kid a martyr. That kind of talk is laughable and insulting when you consider that Chau was putting the Sentinelese in danger just by coming to the island. According to Survival International director Stephen Corry, it’s very likely that Chau’s attempts, brief as they were, may have infected the people with “deadly pathogens” that could decimate the tribe.
Chau knew that he was taking a big risk. He’d made no fewer than two previous attempts to visit the island, and bribed seven fishermen to take him there; those fishermen have been arrested. Indeed, he started his trips under cover of darkness to evade Indian Navy patrols. But had he done any kind of research, he would have known why this was a bad idea. So how did this happen?
But then I saw that Chau graduated from Oral Roberts University, the hyper-fundie school in Tulsa founded by the infamous televangelist Oral Roberts. The great majority of that school’s students grew up in a bubble of Christian schools or Christianist-oriented homeschool curricula, filtered Internet service, and the likes of “The 700 Club” and Christian radio stations as news sources.
Is it possible that Chau didn’t know to find out why the Sentinelese didn’t want to be contacted by anyone, let alone Christian missionaries? His diaries, provided by his family to The Washington Post, certainly suggest this. In one entry, he wondered, “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”
In other words, someone fixated on getting more notches in his Bible, and everything else be hanged. I encountered this mentality at Carolina when I got pulled into a hyper-charismatic campus ministry that believed while the person wants to hear about Jesus, their spirit has been so screwed around with by the devil that they don’t want to listen.
When all is said and done, whoever helped Chau get to India should share responsibility for his death. But to my mind, his death should also be an indictment of the fundie mentality. Keeping kids away from the outside world doesn’t just leave them unprepared for the real world. It could potentially kill them.
Addendum: Note that Survival International blasted the Indian government for lifting one of the restrictions on visiting North Sentinel Island. To be clear, I think Chau bears the bulk of the responsibility. Does anyone seriously believe that nobody in India told him why the island was off limits? That removed any defensible reason for him to be there. While I think the Indian government should have patrolled more, the near-certainty that Chau kept trying to go despite being told why it was a bad idea puts the bulk of the blame on him.