A few days ago I saw in one of my news feeds an odd story about an American who approached North Sentinel Island by himself and was killed by the natives. Almost nothing is known about the natives, but “the Sentinelese keep to themselves and are known to act hostile to outsiders,” read the report, a profound understatement. Apparently this guy went to great lengths to get there, hiring a fisherman to take him within a mile or so of the coast, and then going in alone in a kayak. I thought about this story and even printed it off, I had some thoughts about what it would mean if the natives were or were not prosecuted for murder. (The island is a protectorate of India). Apparently similar murderous incidents of outsiders landing on North Sentinel Island have gone unanswered.
This is a real test of our attitudes about human agency. Do we mean what we say when we say humans have agency; that is, the ability to make moral choices and responsibility for those choices? If the Sentinelese are left alone, after this, it suggests that we don’t take human agency seriously. Or perhaps worse, we apply it selectively. The attitude toward these people unreached by civilization is that they are less than human, really – anthropological oddities with no more agency than animals in a zoo. We wouldn’t hold a tiger morally responsible for eating someone who falls into its cage. Neither does the Indian government hold the Sentinelese people responsible for the death of an outsider who lands on their shore.
Those initial thoughts aside, I thought there was something odd about that initial news story. Why did this young American man go to North Sentinel Island? Was this some kind of extreme tourism? There must be more to it.
Sure enough, the next day I got a report from one of the Christian mission programs I hear from occasionally. It turns out this guy wasn’t the world’s stupidest tourist. Here’s the rest of the story. His name was John Allen Chau. He was 26. Matt Staver of Covenant Journey (which sponsors trips to Israel and Christian/Jewish goodwill) wrote: “John loved people, and he loved Jesus. Ever since high school, John wanted to go to North Sentinel to share Jesus with this indigenous people.”
There’s room to criticize Chau’s preparedness for this mission, I suppose, but this wasn’t just a spontaneous hare-brained scheme. Nor was Chau just a kook. He was a college graduate and aspired to medical school. He frequently took short-term mission trips in the United States and Africa. He had prepared for this for years. I happened upon the fact that Chau was born on the same day as my oldest son, making the story more personal, in a way.
Later I saw in the secular press an acknowledgement that Chau was a Christian and was trying to reach the Sentinelese for Christ. Before leaving the fishing boat, he wrote in his journal “you guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people.” Among his final journaled words: “Why does this beautiful place have to have so much death here? I hope this isn’t one of my last notes but if it is ‘to God be the Glory.’”
So now there are half-hearted attempts to recover Chau’s body, and much hand-wringing about whether the Sentinelese are really even responsible for what they did, and whether Chau’s efforts were worth the price. Some criticize him for jeopardizing the health of the islanders. We’re seeing the outworking of stark differences in how people think of reality. On the one hand, the Sentinelese can be regarded like animals, and Chau’s risk of his earthly life foolhardy. On the other hand, the Sentinelese are morally responsible for the murder, and Chau’s efforts were laudable and brave.
This event was not materially different than the loss of missionary Jim Eliot in Ecuador in 1956. That earlier death was greeted much differently than Chau’s is now, however, simply because times have changed. The idea that there is something more important than this life is foreign to most people now, and so they feel free to criticize, starting from a thoroughly secular set of assumptions. A good discussion of why is contained in a Gospel Coalition article here. Chau’s effort seems foolhardy to one who assumes there is no afterlife; that what one believes about God is inconsequential to one’s eternal fate.
Is Christianity true, or not? As Jim Eliot wrote before he was killed: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”