John Chau & Why We Need A Deeper Conversation About Missions

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John Chau.

Who do people say he is?

To some he is a Christian martyr. To others he was a misguided religious zealot. Some say he is a heroic missionary. Others say he is an example of all that’s wrong with Christianity. There are those that mourned his death. There are others who ‘celebrated’ his killing as a life-saving act of resistance. (It is reported that contact with outsiders could have potentially put the entire population at risk of a deadly epidemic of measles, flu, & other diseases.) Some have juxtaposed “Chau’s passion for the unreached” with what they describe as lazy Christians who critique from the comfort of their couches. Others have pointed to the hypocrisy of those who would on one hand cheer Chau’s illegal crossing of a border to evangelize while jeering the caravan of asylum-seeking Christians at our southern border.

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But, what do you say about him?

What you say about Chau’s effort reveals a lot about your theological commitments, sociological assumptions, historical awareness, & understanding of what the mission of God is. My objective here is not to debate about what was wrong or right about Chau or the Sentinelese people’s actions. I do not wish to contribute to the dehumanization or demonization of the Sentinelese people or to John Chau. My aim is simply to get us to think about the broader context of this story.

As I’ve watched the vastly different responses to this tragedy it has once again confirmed to me that we need a deeper conversation about “missions”. One that doesn’t begin & end with the “good intentions” of individual missionaries, but deals honestly with the collective, historic, & present *IMPACT* of their work. We need to wrestle with how often the version of Christianity imported into places like Africa, The Americas, & Asia the last 500 years was in the words of Willie Jennings, “diseased in form & distorted in performance.”

We need a conversation that de-centers the heroic tales of missionary movements (past & present), and centers the experiences of those who had missions done TO them. To quote womanist theologian & anthropologist Linda E. Thomas, we need to see ourselves as “guests privileged to privilege the voices of Africans and their histories of Christian mission. I do not look to the colonists or European priest. I look to the people who did not need to file reports detailing how many people they baptized. I listen to the voices that can save me & you from repeating inexcusable violence that so dominates what we call Missio Dei.”

We need a conversation that decolonizes our understanding of God’s sovereignty. One in which phrases like “God was in control” and “at least they got the gospel” are not flung out to excuse genocidal imperialism in “missionary garb.”

“When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “let us close our eyes and pray.” When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land.”

We need to talk about how “conspicuous humanitarianism” hides the reality that those doing the “missions work” are, to varying degrees, complicit in upholding the very structures that CREATE the need for their efforts. Metaphorically, it’s like setting our neighbor’s house on fire & showing up the next day to bandage burn wounds & take selfies as if you had no hand in causing the damage.

We need to talk about how missionaries often import their cultural & political distinctions into The Gospel & thereby call people into assimilation to western white norms. To paraphrase the late Lakota theologian Richard Twiss:

“If Jesus can’t be expressed & experienced equally in all cultures you have preached a foreign religion, not the Good News of God’s Kingdom.”

This convo may ”un-house” and unsettle some of us, but the cognitive dissonance won’t kill us. It may in fact heal us & change how we understand & practice the Missio Dei (Mission of God). For too long, the so-called “Great Commission” has subverted the Greatest Commandment: “love God & neighbor”. This is what I call the Great *Omission. It gives cover to those who want to “preach Christ” while omitting what Christ actually preached/embodied. Jesus preached & practiced good news to the materially poor, freedom for the incarcerated, healing embrace for the disabled/sick, liberation for the oppressed, & jubilee for the economically exploited.

As long as these elements of the messianic movement founded by Jesus of Nazareth are omitted, colonialism will continue to fly in on the wings of missions efforts.

“…triumphant reports by the missions in fact tell us how deep the seeds of alienation have been sown among the colonized. I am talking of Christianity and this should come as no surprise to anybody. The Church in the colonies is a white man’s Church, a foreigners’ Church.”

-Frantz Fanon

written by T. Hawkins