I write to memorialize John Allen Chau, the young man from Vancouver, Washington who after multiple trips to the Andaman Islands, preparing to land on the shore of the forbidden North Sentinel Island, did just that on Nov. 15 and 17, getting himself almost immediately skewered by a hail of primitive but highly effective arrows. (A reminder that Stone Age technology can kill as effectively as a 7.62 caliber AK-47 bullet.)
Chau’s tragic death is perhaps a small matter, a footnote to our troubled times when we need to be focusing on preparations for war on Iran based on lies, or war in Syria or Ukraine based on lies, or the descent of fascism on the west, or the melting of polar ice and rise of ocean levels, or other overriding historical issues. But just as another footnote—the murder of a journalist in a consulate in Turkey—causes us to linger a moment thinking about the banality of evil, so this episode causes one to reflect on the banality of stupidity.
Let us be honest about it. We’re talking about religious stupidity. This with patriotism is a final refuge of fools.
Chau was a devout Christian, a graduate of Oral Roberts University. He was 27. He had shared his dream of preaching the Gospel to the Sentinel Islanders as early as 2015. That’s when he confided his unusual aspiration to a classmate, while in Israel on a “Covenant Journey” trip. (This is a sort of Christians-only alternative to the “Birthright Israel” program for Jewish students only, which despite its obviously racist character is warmly endorsed by many U.S. universities including my own. It’s based on the myth that Jews are descended from a legendary figure named Abraham, supposed to have lived about 4000 years ago dying at age 175, who’d been promised the Holy Land would be held in perpetuity by the “Chosen People.” Hence any Jew anywhere can visit Israel and claim a “birthright” to settle down. Oral Roberts University preaches that God has a “covenant” with the Jewish people, that Christians too must recognize; hence the title of Chau’s trip. There are many Christians totally comfortable with this narrative that blinds their moral selves from any compassionate perception of the Palestinian problem. )
Chau had visited the Andamans in 2015 and 2016, surveying the site, no doubt planning his operation. Then this month he paid some Indian fishermen the equivalent of $ 350 to smuggle him onto the island for his sacred purpose.
Chau’s journal, now in the hands of his mother, includes a prayerful query to God: “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”
The journal records that on November 15 Chau having been dropped off on the beach saw some islanders and called out (as though there were any likelihood that his sounds might make some sense to them): “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you!”
This cheerful, uninvited and unwelcome greeting produced a response in the form of an arrow which, Chau recorded that night, pierced his waterproof Bible, presumably protecting him. A miracle!
Chau swam back to the Indian fishermen’s boat to record the encounter, intending to leave his journal in their keeping. “I have been so nice to them [the tribesman],” he wrote puzzledly. “Why are they so angry and so aggressive?” Why indeed when all he wants to do is save their souls?
He also declared in his diary that night, addressing his family and friends: “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people.” “I’m doing this,” he announced, “to establish the kingdom of Jesus on the island … Do not blame the natives if I am killed.”
This was followed curiously by “God, I don’t want to die.” (But don’t his actions have “death wish” painted all over them?) I hear an echo of Mark 14:36 here, or Matthew 26:39, or Luke 22:42. This is John Chau in Gethsemene.
The next day Brother John took scissors, safety pins and a football as gifts on his second mission t the benighted. The event ended badly, although it was mercifully quick. According to the fishermen, Sentinelese tribesman attacked Chau immediately with arrows. (Catholics, think St. Sebastian.) They tied a rope around his neck and dragged him around the beach. The fisherman saw the body on the shore the next day but did not retrieve it. (They’re in big legal trouble now for abetting Chau’s illegal action. The Sentinels cannot be prosecuted by Indian law.)
Okay, it is a sad, sad thing. A young man gave his life for a very stupid cause—the conversion of a Paleolithic culture whose religion is unknown to a two-thousand-year old belief system, Christianity, based on premises like like the creation of everything by a Supreme Being with a human-like mind, capable of creation and destruction, anger and love;, the existence of “sin” as an integral human trait damning us all to a fiery hell lest we “accept” Jesus—1/3 of God—as our savior; and the promise of an afterlife that the modern world increasingly rejects as unscientific and which would in any case do these healthy people absolutely no good.
It’s sad when when religious ignorance, wedded with passion and perhaps a martyrdom complex, causes someone to behave so foolishly. But I do not want to err on the side of mourning for this sadly foolish martyr. No; one must be critical.
Because this young man did more than just get himself killed. Part of the Sentinelese hostility to outsiders seems to have resulted from disease introduced by outsiders since 1880. The Indian state believes it highly risky for indigenous people in the islands to have contacts with outsiders, to preserve their evidently excellent health. Not only do the mercilessly isolated Sentinelese not need a primitive Semitic monotheistic belief system, but none of us need the arrogance that pits a wannabe hero against a mythical Satan, imagining he’s delivering grace to fellow humans, experiencing a warm smug glow in the process, meeting death happily on the beach just before his brain functions cease and all goes dark, for no good reason ever at all. The most egotistical, meaningless form of death.
How dare this misguided person, inflated by an idiotic confidence that he possessed a Truth that others lacked, that others needed, that others in their heart of hearts wanted even if they didn’t know it, defy these people’s stated will—to others for decades, and to him personally on the day before his stupid death—to stay away! How dare he defy the Indian government’s law about avoiding the island; how dare he ignore the requirements of public health likely—through his very being, the body of his pompous holy self—exposing deathly pathogens to the Sentinels.
To any future fool, so misguided: It’s about science, dummy! You realize that the depopulation of North America from the fifteenth century mainly resulted from disease? And the tragic decline of the Hawaiian people in the nineteenth century, even as they abandoned their pagan ways and began to worship the Christian god, also stemmed from the missionaries’ sicknesses?
The Chau episode reminds us that the worst sickness is the arrogance of belief that insists on imposing it without respect for people as they are. There’s nothing good about bringing the islanders into our world against their will. Rather, the effort to breach their isolation and intimidate them with idiocy strikes me as the cardinal sin. To be clear on this unfortunate young man: He combined abject ignorance with the kind of extraordinary arrogance only possible by people deluded into the belief that a non-existent GOD figure fills their being and directs their oh-so-holy and justifiable actions. He did something so stupid it can only be understood as otherwise if it was deliberately suicidal. Maybe he achieved what he wanted and felt warm and fuzzy as his brain died.
But whatever his expectations of success, Chau did something unforgivably harmful. On the plus side, he gave us a vivid negative example of religious stupidity yielding the wages of death.
In the early decades of the Christian movement, frequent persecutions fed a cult of martyrdom. Those thought to have died for the faith were revered as special beings and accorded special treatment after death. Thus arose the cult of saints. This dovetailed with the cult of lifelong chastity (a likely Buddhist import via the Silk Road into the nascent Christian church) and the high valuation of virgins who died protecting their “virtue” from pagan men (St. Agnes, St. Cecilia, St. Agatha, St. Lucy etc.). Stories of martyrs’ heroic confrontations with all manner of foes of Christ, savior of the world—foes rallied by the mythical Satan (whom deluded John Chau imagined to haunt North Sentinel Island-)–fired the imaginations of early Christians who went willingly to their deaths confident that they would wake up in Heaven.
We can admire these people their courage. But we can admire Muslim jihadists too, who give their lives all too willingly, often for stupid or evil causes—but sure, they display a type of courage (as Bill Maher noted after 9/11, only to be savaged by the “free press” in this country for his honesty.). We can imagine Chau calling out to the Sentinelese, knowing the arrows were inevitable and would kill him, nonetheless enacting his self-aggrandizing script. Religions can grow on such suicidal material.
But missionary religions are not the global norm, you know. There are thousands of religions content to entertain the minds of communities all over the world but feel no need t reach out to convert others. There have been only a handful of aggressively missionary religions in the history of the world. These have been, in sequence: Zoroastrianism (long since waned as a force in the world); Buddhism (that spread from northern India throughout Eurasia); Christianity (that spread from Roman Judea throughout Europe and much of Asia and Northern Africa before subsidized by western imperialism colonized much of Africa, Asia and Latin America); Manichanenism (that after its birth in Persia also spread throughout Eurasia and Northern Africa before it was crushed); and Islam which spread through conquest and more normally trade from Morocco to Malaysia.
Since Islam spread out from the Arabian Peninsula in the sixth century, the tide of missionary religions has receded on the planet. There are still people who think they have received or inherited a “truth” that the very Creator of the World wants them to share with their fellow beings. Protestant Christians and Sunni Muslims are the most vigorous, especially in Africa and Latin America. But for the most part the world wearies of this nonsense, these people with nothing to say broadcasting it loudly here and there. Any Boston-area taxi cab passenger hears Haitian Creole sermons on the radio. And sure, surfing the cable stations you will find round-the-clock religious material raging from traditional liturgical (and often highly beautiful) rites to boring antics and ridiculous ignorant ravings by people who may or may not wave the Bible or cite it, but invoke some sort of spiritual authority to justify their subterfuge. There are still missionaries out there, good and bad I suppose.
Historically the Buddhist, Christian and Muslim movements spread all kinds of culture from place to place; missionary movements have been great vans of cultural dissemination. Monks from the Himalayan foothills brought not Buddhist teachings into Central Asia, China and beyond; they brought the Pali and Sanskrit written languages, Indian mathematics, sugar and tea production, new techniques of architecture and bridge-building. Similarly, northward-wandering Christian monks brought more than Jesus to the Celtic, Germanic and Slavic tribes of Europe; they brought the Roman script, law, roads, aqueducts, Aristotle. There are many admirable missionary figures; a favorite of mine is Ganjin (Jianzhen, 688-763), a monk from Yangzhou who from 743 to 753 made five attempts to visit Japan by invitation of a Japanese temple. Each failed due to weather or government intervention; finally, having gone blind, Ganjin arrived in Kyushu in 753 and set about his mission: instructing and enforcing the vinaya, or monastic rules, which had been neglected in Japan up to this time. He wanted to elevate the status of the Buddhist clergy by insuring they observe appropriate monastic discipline. His mission was arguably benign.
But I’m sure he had his enemies. The Buddhist religion, officially embraced by the Japanese court in 587 (after the pro-Buddhist faction won a battle ensuring the succession of a pro-Buddhist ruler) had had its enemies. There were several anti-Buddhist uprisings in the eighth century, including one in 754, reflecting envy at the monasteries’ wealth and political power. In later centuries, the promotion of Neo-Confucianism, with its emphasis on filial piety and family values, conflicted with the Buddhists’ promotion of celibacy. A mounting critique of Buddhism resulted in a brief period of persecution (the haibutsu-kishaku, “abolish Buddhism, smash Shakamuni” movement) at the outset of Japan’s modern period. From 1868 to 1872 thousands of temples were destroyed in Japan, and clerics defrocked as the new regime attempted to establish State Shinto as the national religion. (The Buddhist establishment weathered the storm, and through a variety of strategies, including cooperation with the state’s evolving militarism and support for the Emperor-cult, regained legitimacy and sustained parishioners’ support.)
Christianity’s most beloved missionary is perhaps St. Patrick, the monk of part-British, part-Roman background who in the fifth century supposedly converted the Irish to the Roman Catholic faith, establishing a church that, cut off from western Christianity as a result of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain, evolved independently for several centuries. We know little about him; he may well be two men conflated in the lore. He is supposed to have driven the snakes out of Ireland, and his walking stick grew into a real tree. Seventh century writings state that he communicated with his ancient ancestors. Probably not a real historic figure, but not unattractive, as a myth.
Modern Christian missionary movements are something else. (I exclude those that are primarily medical and humanitarian.) The movements rooted in the firm conviction that the Bible is the Word of God—and positively mandates that Christian believers “go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world”—are another matter. Chau’s fate shows how this is so. He was not concerned with the health and happiness of his targeted audience, scissors gesture notwithstanding. He wanted to colonize their benighted, Satan-plagued minds to make them understand what’s true: that God loves them and wants them to worship him and Jesus (which are One, in a way, although that requires advanced training). The arrogance accompanying his ignorance was astounding. He ended the only way he could, in a shallow grave beneath impenetrable sands, on a beach he chose. A sad buried monument to religious futility.