At first glance, it may seem that the religious right’s obstinate support for Donald Trump is the starkest example to date of fundamentalism–or rather, Christianism–in its most unacceptable form. Indeed, with it becoming more apparent that Trump is in danger of being voted off the island in November, it is equally apparent that his fundie supporters will have to answer for continuing to prop him up.
But believe it or not, there’s an example more outrageous than that. It takes some effort to get more outrageous than continuing to rally around a man who plastered a private cell phone number on social media, mocked the disabled, condones violence, revels in degrading women, and engages in blatant racism.
But as outrageous as it is, it did not directly put innocent people in mortal danger. I’m about to tell you about a case of Christianism run amok that actually put innocent people on a remote island in danger of being wiped out–all in the name of being reached for Jesus. And it looks even more outrageous when you consider that the coronavirus pandemic should have erased any doubt about why it was so outrageous.
On Thanksgiving Day 2018, the nation learned that John Allen Chau, a young Christian missionary, had died in a hail of arrows four days earlier while attempting to minister to the Sentinelese, an isolated tribe who live on North Sentinel Island off the coast of the Indian mainland.
At first glance, it looked like another case of Christians being persecuted in a country where Christians had frequently been targeted for persecution long before Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014. But any sympathy for Chau–at least in the reality-based world–quickly evaporated when more details of his adventure dribbled out.
The Sentinelese are among the few peoples who have never had any sustained contact with the outside world. Numbering anywhere between 15 and 500 people, they have lived as hunter-gatherers on North Sentinel for over 60,000 years. One side effect of this prolonged isolation is that they have no genetic immunity to diseases; something as mundane as a cold could kill them.
According to Survival International, an NGO that advocates for indigenous peoples, this was proven in brutal fashion during the British colonial era. A colonial administrator took some Sentinelese adults and children to his base to Port Blair, capital of the island chain that includes North Sentinel, ostensibly for research. The adults died in short order, but the children were sent back to the island with gifts. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that the kids brought pathogens back with them as well–with catastrophic results.
The Indian government has long barred any travelers from coming within three nautical miles of the island. After numerous attempts to contact the islanders from the 1960s onward, it largely abandoned any effort to reach out to them after it appeared they survived the 2004 tsunami. New Delhi dispatches naval patrols to the area.
As it turns out, Chau was well aware of this. He’d actually spent several years trying to network with people who could help him reach out to what he called “Satan’s last stronghold on Earth.” He’d spent a year training with All Nations, a missionary group based out of Kansas City, before traveling to India in 2018. He even bribed two fishermen to take him close to the island under cover of darkness to evade naval patrols.
Chau made three attempts to communicate with the Sentinelese. On the first occasion, he tried to sing praise songs to the islanders, but they replied by firing arrows at him. On the second, the Sentinelese broke his kayak in two. The fishermen who ferried him there on the third attempt later saw the islanders dragging his body away.
Chau was hailed as a martyr by a number of elements in the evangelical world. For instance, All Nations created a Website hailing him for having “pointed all to Jesus.” Its international executive leader, Mary Ho, gave an interview to Voice of the Martyrs Radio in November 2019 (part 1 here and part 2 here) hailing him for listening to his calling.
Anyone who does even a cursory amount of research on why North Sentinel Island is off limits will understand why All Nations’ memorializing of Chau is so much maudlin, mawkish and tone-deaf trash. He went to this island knowing full well that he could potentially wipe out the entire tribe just by being there.
Simply put, this was Christianism in its most unacceptable form. Chau didn’t see the Sentinelese as people. He saw them as mere notches in his Bible, leading him to demonstrate wanton and reckless disregard for their health and safety. For all intents and purposes, this was no different than a plane seeding the island with anthrax or ricin.
All Nations’ memorial to Chau would be outrageous enough by itself. But what takes this beyond typical Christianist/fundamentalist tone-deafness is that this site is still up in the wake of a pandemic that should have demonstrated beyond all doubt why his expedition was stupid, dangerous, reckless, and callous.
The reason that coronavirus has become such a scourge is that it’s an animal virus. While researchers are still trying to determine how it got to people, there is overwhelming evidence that the virus originated in bats.
What is beyond dispute is that since it’s an animal virus, humans have no genetic immunity to it. That’s why this virus spread so quickly. As we now know, it was spreading so rapidly that social distancing was the only way to control it.
That’s why state and local governments enacted a series of measures that ultimately resulted in over 90 percent of the country being under stay-at-home orders for much of the spring. And that’s why a number of social settings will likely remain closed for awhile.
In other words, the country is facing the same danger to which Chau exposed the Sentinelese–the risk of a disease for which the body has little to no natural defenses. So how in the world, knowing that risk, is All Nations still extolling Chau as a hero and martyr?
Looking at this, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the churches that obstinately refused to close their doors to in-person services during the worst of the pandemic. They maintained that doing so trampled on their First Amendment rights–and continue to do so in the face of multiple outbreaks that could be traced directly to churches.
One can only conclude that these tailenders believe the First Amendment gives them the right to make us sick. If there is any difference between this mentality and Chau’s twisted belief that his desire to preach to the Sentinelese trumped the islanders’ right to health and safety, I don’t see it. The fact that anyone is still calling Chau a hero would be outrageous enough by itself. But the fact they’re still doing so in the face of a pandemic is absolutely heinous, and deserves nothing short of condemnation.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.