Missionary Maniac or Martyr?

This essay is longer than most BTJ articles, but well worth the read.

The news headlines of the past week have been inundated with stories about the death of 26-year-old John Chau from the arrows of a primitive people group on North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean. Chau made three attempts to befriend the people. After he was shot by an arrow, which was stopped by his bible, he retreated to a boat nearby and wondered whether he should go back to the island. The conclusion he wrote in his journal was, “It’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people.” God had placed a burden of love in John Chau’s heart for the Sentinelese, and he was willing to pay the ultimate price in the hope that they would come to know Jesus themselves. His family and friends also described him as an ambassador of Christ who desired above all to share the love of Jesus.

Sarcastic headline in the Australian Daily Telegraph

The reaction around the world has been strong, and overwhelmingly negative. The Daily Telegraph in Australia sarcastically derided Chau’s plan to “establish the kingdom of Jesus” on the island as “bizarre” and “deluded.” A Washington Post article said, “Some see John Chau as a symbol of Western arrogance — a reckless evangelist who attempted to supplant a culture thousands of years old when he broke Indian law and set foot on North Sentinel Island.”

Compare these statements to sympathetic front page news headlines of the 1950’s when Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and their companions were killed by Auca warriors in Ecuador, or to glowing articles of the mid 1960’s describing Bruce Olson’s life with the Motilone tribe of Columbia.

Protecting the People

Indian law forbids visitors to North Sentinel Island. This is for the protection of the Sentinelese who, living in isolation for centuries, do not have immunities to common diseases, which is not without foundation. History, especially early American history, is full of terrible stories of entire people groups wiped out by smallpox, measles, and other diseases brought unknowingly by foreigners.

However, contrary to the media narrative, John Chau was not unknowing. He was as prepared as any PhD anthropologist could be, working for many years to gain the skills and knowledge and physical preparation. For two years he worked with All Nations, a missionary sending organization, to study anthropological, cultural, and missiological issues with PhD level teachers and experts. He studied linguistics at SIL, the world’s premier school for language, especially tribal languages. He was a certified EMT, and studied wilderness medicine. There were even more ways he prepared, but very importantly he took serious precautions against disease, being vaccinated against every known tropical disease, and then quarantining himself for a long period before setting out on the adventure. John Chau was aware of potential harm that outsiders could bring to the Sentinelese, and lovingly prepared himself. For more detail, listen to this podcast where you can hear an interview with Dr. Mary Ho of All Nations about this topic.

But disease is not the only danger to the Sentinelese. History also shows, along with contemporary events, that indigenous peoples are vulnerable to those who would steal their land and resources by force. Probably the greatest protection the Sentinelese have is the fact that they live on a small island where no one has yet found something valuable enough to steal. Indeed, if some great treasure or resource were discovered there, it would not be without precedent for the government to “legally” find a way to take it from the Sentinelese, along with their way of life. Truly, this legal “protection” is fragile at best.

Learning From History

The enlightened opinion of the world, as articulated by the press, is that Christianity is false, antiquated, and even dangerous. Therefore John Chau was just a “reckless” throwback to the ignorant religious colonialism of the past, “attempting to supplant a culture thousands of years old.” But contrary to this popular opinion, John Chau knew what he was doing. He was a student of history and acted accordingly. First, Chau was a student (disciple) of Jesus Christ, and so he understood the power of the Gospel to bring true good to human beings. He was also a student of missionary history, walking in the footsteps of those who obeyed God, and laid down their lives for the Auca in the 1950’s, the Motilone in the 1960’s, and many more around the world. History teaches us many things and the enlightened press is either ignorant of, or willfully suppressing, the well known stories of the Auca and the Motilone, stories which bear striking resemblances to the Sentinelese and John Chau.

The reality of our shrinking world is that all isolated people groups will eventually be affected by the encroachment of civilization. Sadly, more often than not, these people are affected by others who have evil intentions, such as stealing land, or resources, or people. Popular opinion would say that missionaries also steal from these isolated peoples by “attempting to supplant” their culture. To be fair, this opinion is supported by the sordid history of cultural imperialism, from the Spanish Conquistadors, to the East India Trading Company, to American Manifest Destiny, and more. Tragically, these impositions of one culture upon another were, more often than not, done in the name of religion, and often by the sword. Add to these violent events pictures of South American tribal people wearing uncomfortable Western clothes and living in rectangular houses with white picket fences, and you can begin to understand why the secular culture is so opposed to Christian missionaries.

But even in the midst of those awful events, there were those who genuinely knew God, who actually read their Bibles, and worked against a mere cultural Christianity. The fact is that there are beautiful examples of missionaries who believe that Jesus Himself will transform and redeem a culture from the inside, and they rejoice in the fact that this will result in a unique expression of faith that is different from the culture of the missionary. I suspect that John Chau was a man like this, and he would have given the Sentinelese a gift that not only would bring spiritual revolution, but would equip them to adapt the the inevitable encroachment of civilization on their own terms. How do I know this? History.

Disease and The Great Physician

The Auca people (who call themselves Huaorani), live in the remote jungles of Ecuador. Until the 1960’s, they were isolated much like the Sentinelese are today. While they still live today much like they always have, they do have contact with the outside world. They have been empowered by personal faith in Jesus, education, medicine, etc. to be able to adapt to the changing world and yet maintain their unique “primitive” culture.

John Chau is criticized for “recklessly” exposing the Sentinelese to the risk of disease. Even before missionaries reached out to the Huaorani in 1956, they were infected with a fatal disease called hatred and murder. They were in real danger of being wiped out by this disease.

The news of the five missionaries lost while trying to reach the Auca people of Ecuador was reported differently in 1956.

In their first contact with five missionaries, they spread this disease to the missionaries by spearing each of them to death, much like what has happened to John Chau. One of those who died was Nate Saint. His sister, Rachel, went to live with the Huaorani for 40 years until cancer took her. This individual sacrifice–of her privileged Western lifestyle and opportunities–and her genuine expression of forgiveness for her brother’s murderer, ignited a powerful healing in the Huaorani, and replaced the disease of hatred in them with the cure of love, as they each repented, forgave, and encountered the Great Physician, Jesus.

Nate’s son Steve, who was only a toddler when his father was speared, has also lived with the Huaorani. His father’s murderer is now a beloved friend and a surrogate grandfather to Steve’s children. Steve tells of a visit to the Huaorani of a group of 34 students from the University of Washington and Western Washington University. They were sitting around a fire in the Huaorani village after completing a 14 hour trek through the jungle to get there.

I suggested they ask some of the Huaorani who were middle-aged or older where their fathers were. One student, taking up the challenge, nodded toward a Huaorani woman. I translated.

“Boto maempo doobae wendapa,” she replied—”He is already dead a long time ago. Having been speared, he died.” Her tone of voice suggested any other cause would have been unusual.

Four more Huaorani around the circle gave similar answers, graphically showing on their own bodies where each victim had been impaled.

“Ask Ompodae,” one student urged another. Several of the young ladies had taken a liking to Ompodae, an unusually warm and affectionate woman who was a wife and a mother of ten.

“My father, too,” she said, the pain of the memory showing in her expression. Then, holding out her arm, she pointed at old Dabo, who was listening to our conversation a couple of feet away. “He killed my father and almost all of the rest of my family, too. Living angry, he speared them all.”

“My God, I was just sitting next to him,” exclaimed one of the young men from the tour group. Another added, “I’ve heard enough about killing.”


It occurred to me that they didn’t yet know my [Steve Saint] relationship to the Huaorani. Dawa had just finished telling how Kimo had killed her family and made her his wife. Now I put my arm around Kimo’s shoulders and informed them, “He killed my father, too.”

Silence. At last, the question on everyone’s mind found a voice: “What changed these people?”

I interpreted the question, and Dawa, Kimo, and other Huaorani began to describe a life where everyone did as they willed. They explained how they threw babies away when they weren’t convenient to care for. They talked about how people begged to be buried alive when they knew they were dying so their spirits wouldn’t wander without solace when freed from their decomposing and unburied bodies.

One of the Huaorani, a gentle and happy woman, told the group how she had strangled her daughter with her own hands to meet the demands of her speared and dying husband, who wanted his children to be buried with him to keep him company. The one son she had refused to kill was the students’ lead guide.

Then they explained to our 34 highly educated young people from the most technologically advanced society in history how they learned from the missionaries that the Man Maker sent his Son to die for people full of hate, fear, and desire for revenge.

“Badly, badly we lived back then,” Dawa said. “Now, walking God’s trail which he has marked for us on paper [the Bible], we live well. All people still die, but if living you follow God’s trail, then dying will lead you to heaven. But only one trail leads there. All other trails lead to where God will never be after death.”


Quoted from Steve Saint’s article in Christianity Today, in which he discusses some of the challenges faced by new generations of Huaorani as they live in closer contact to the rest of the world.

The story of what God has done for the Huaorani is truly amazing. You can read about it in Steve Saint’s book The End of the Spear, or Elizabeth Elliot’s Through the Gates of Splendor, or you can watch the movie End of the Spear (included with Amazon Prime) or Beyond the Gates of Splendor.

Supplant a Culture?

John Chau is accused of being “a symbol of Western arrogance — a reckless evangelist who attempted to supplant a culture thousands of years old.” This criticism is coming from people who have never encountered Jesus for themselves. Not having met Him, it is impossible for them to see how He will redeem everything that is redeemable, if He is allowed to do so.

I have a childhood friend, Bill. We all liked Bill, though he could be pretty selfish sometimes. In his early twenties, Bill met Jesus and was powerfully changed. He was completely different, and yet he was still Bill. In fact, he was more Bill than he had ever been. Everything we loved about Bill was magnified, while the not so lovely things faded away. This is exactly what God does with a culture, which is simply the personality of a group. Probably the most powerfully documented example of this is the Motilone people of Columbia.

The 1966 special Sunday section of the Chicago Tribune you see below is the precursor to one of the most influential books on modern Christian missions. Bruchko tells the story of 19 year old Bruce Olson who, much like John Chau, felt the call of God to a specific people — a specific, isolated, murderous group of people living in the remote jungles on the border of Venezuela and Columbia.

Note the tone of the July 10, 1966 Chicago Tribune special Sunday section about Bruce Olson, aka Bruchko. “An American youth ventures into the heart of darkness, disease, and death, bearing promises of a better life.

Like John Chau, Bruce Olson was shot with arrows by the very ones he came to love. Fortunately, Olson did not die, though his experience with infection in the jungle was a harrowing introduction to the place where he would spend the rest of his life. He still lives there today. Here’s a wonderful quote from a 2007 article in Charisma.

Whatever the future holds for Olson, he knows it will not be easy to leave the people who have become, in many ways, family. When Charisma asked how he would want to be remembered, the man who counts presidents and kings among his friends said simply, “As someone who got adopted by the Motilone-Bari.”

Olson believes that, after nearly a half-century, the tribe itself considers him a part of the family too. “A while back we were bathing in the headwaters of the Rio de Oro river,” Olson says. “Bisandora came and thrust his finger into the scar on my leg and said: ‘Do you know who shot you? It was I. If I hadn’t shot you, you would have run away.’

“Do you understand what that means? He wouldn’t say, ‘I love you.’ But after 45 years he’s saying to me, ‘Don’t go.’ I appreciate that.”

The story of the Motilones flies in the face of the idea that a culture is destroyed by finding Jesus. To the Motilones, Jesus is one of them. After all, He died for each one of them, and calls each one of them into relationship with Himself.

After five years with the Motilones, Olson was frustrated as a missionary. Like John Chau, Jesus was (is) Olson’s entire life, and he desperately wished that his new Motilone friends could meet Jesus too. Suddenly, as a result of an unlikely event, Olson’s best friend, nicknamed Bobby, decided to “walk on Jesus’ trail.” He simply walked off into the forest one day and came back a changed man. Olson was skeptical, but not only did Bobby continue to change, but he led nearly 100% of the tribe to Jesus all at once. Then the tribe began to change. Olson did not tell them, “Now that you are Christians, you need to do thus and such.” Instead, the Holy Spirit removed the selfishness, pride, and hatred from the people. The Motilone individuals were redeemed, and the Motilone culture was redeemed. Far from being “supplanted,” it became even more beautifully Motilone.

The Motilones were not strictly isolated like the Huaorani or the Sentinelese. They had been repelling illegal settlers who were trying to drive the Motilone off their land, in spite of official government protection. The fact was that they were so far into the wilderness, that law enforcement was powerless. The Motilones were known to kill anyone who came too close, much like the Sentinelese. An activist group, Survival International, said about the Sentinelese, “The Sentinelese have shown again and again that they want to be left alone,” and this has been quoted throughout the media. The same could have been said of the Motilone people, but Jesus had better plans.

After the Motilones began to walk on Jesus’ trail, they began to be other-centered. They became concerned about their neighbors. They learned medicine, even sending some to medical school in Columbia. When the settlers became sick or injured, they went to Motilone clinics and were healed. This is the power of the gospel, to turn warriors into healers. With things like this they earned respect and protection from those who would try to drive them off their ancestral lands. In short, everything that the world complains about on behalf of tribal peoples has been gloriously solved by Jesus in the Motilones, and even more, they have become a blessing to other people.

John Chau listed Bruce Olson as one of his inspirations.

John Chau was a hero to follow Jesus to the ends of the earth. May his death be the seed that brings true redemption to the Sentinelese people he loved. This is not an empty sentiment. It is supported by history.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but it if dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)

One Comment

  1. Marty

    Beautifully written article. My husband and I just finished reading Bruchko again after reading it almost 30 years ago.
    I feel blessed to read more about the heart and intention of this young man, John Chau, in your article. There was a very ignorant assumption in my heart that because he was not “successful” that the Holy Spirit must not have led him. I can see from your telling that this is not at all true. A love that causes one to lay down their life for a people group they do not know can only come from one place. Thank you.


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