Last week, the death of American John Allen Chau was thrust into the global spotlight as the young missionary was killed reaching the shores of North Sentinel Island. Chau sought to evangelize the indigenous inhabitants of the island, a people protected from outside contact by the Indian government, since “any contact with the islanders could wipe out their culture and possibly even their existence since their immune systems may be no match for modern microbes.” In a journal entry prior to his death, Chau highlighted the motivating force behind his journey into the Indian Ocean: “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this …. But I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people.”
There is no end to the commentary on the meaning of Chau’s death. To some, he’s a martyr invoked in the same breath as Jim Elliot and his fellow missionaries who lost their lives in efforts to reach the most remote populations for Christ in Ecuador in 1956. To others, he represents an imperialist impulse indoctrinated in a theology of American exceptionalism and a Western “civilizing” project. Yet few have interrogated how American Christianity’s past reckoning with the legacy of its foreign missions can inform the Chau case. It’s a tradition filled with debate over the ethics of its strategies, projects and goals. Never has there been a more urgent time to do so.
In 1932, a commission known as the Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry published a report reflecting on the salience and future of American Protestant missions abroad. Titled Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years, the report brought together perspectives from seven different Christian denominations to address pressing issues facing their foreign missions in India, Burma, China, and Japan. Based off a two-year study in consultation with foreign mission boards and missionary leaders abroad, the commission concluded by recommending a reorientation of missionary approach emphasizing education, social services, partnership with local communities, and respect for local religious traditions.
The Laymen’s Report marked a watershed moment when American missionaries engaged in self-reflection of not just their work, but the assumptions that undergirded their proselytizing efforts. While the report became a highly contested assessment among various Protestant missionaries, it also represented a unique moment in missiological history where Christian missionaries acknowledged the unequal power relationships that enabled their foreign endeavors and made a conscious decision to change course.
The historical amnesia over this commission, the ensuing report, and the profound impact it had upon the theater of global missionary operations is glaringly absent from discussions of Chau and his missiological approach. It exposes an embarrassing predicament for those who believe this issue presents new questions to which there are many old answers.
One of the more provocative expositions of the Chau situation comes from Marc LiVecche, executive editor of Providence, who contends the young American’s spiritual zeal is worthy of emulation. In his commentary for the journal, which is published by a pair of conservative Christian organizations, LiVecche argues that we should celebrate Chau’s “spark” as a “source of enormous good in the world.” He remarks that that even if Chau were impulsive, “there is, in the great economy of God, room still for wild success.”
What LiVecche doesn’t discuss is how, in the great economy of God, there’s also room for devastating failure. What this perspective doesn’t ask of Chau is responsibility and ownership over the consequences of his actions. Very little thought is given to what the North Sentinelese want or how to respect their sovereignty. Little consideration is given to the prospect that contact with this community could mean their extinction. The absence of these considerations begets a tone-deaf approach. Underscoring this absence is an arrogance in the belief that American Christians know what’s best for unbelievers in foreign lands and that bringing this progress to them “in love” justifies the means.
As a scholar of missionary history, I’ve seen how American missionaries have assisted those in need. During World War I, American missionaries across the Middle East were key protagonists in forming the Near East Relief, which administered aid to millions displaced by war and conflict. Into the mid-twentieth century, missionaries and faith-based organizations were at the forefront of addressing global refugee crises following World War II and subsequent civil conflicts such as the migration from the Horn of Africa in the 1990s.
The central feature of these efforts was humility—a willingness to listen to local populations, to respect their agency, and the ability to self-correct. What I’m asking is that we consider the antecedents to Chau’s example and learn from them. Moreover, to remember how self-reflection can and has been an aspect of American foreign missions.
One of the most curious and ironic statements from LiVecche comes at the end of his essay, when he states: “History teaches us that the living can help even a foolhardy sacrifice to not have been made in vain.” Instead of drawing from the not-too-distant past to contextualize Chau’s sacrifice, he reinforces a narrative that begs the question: must we once again reckon with the failures our missiology on foreign missions has wrought?
To address LiVecche’s fundamental inquiry, it’s not about what we can learn from Chau but what we’ve already learned from our foreign ventures in the past. If these histories and legacies remain in obscurity, we will only perpetuate modes of thought our predecessors sought to dismantle. To keep trying the same approaches and expecting different results is, as they say, madness.