The killing of a young American missionary on November 16 by an isolated indigenous group on a remote island in the Bay of Bengal has triggered an incredible reaction around the world. It has thrown up conversations about religious faith, globalisation, missionary zeal and human rights. Many evangelical groups are mourning the loss of a young defender of the faith. Where some see idiocy and arrogance in John Allen Chau’s determination to deliver a football and Bible to members of a group who clearly wanted to kill him, his supporters see “commitment to the Gospel of Christ”. In the non-religious community, he is scorned with a vehemence reserved for wealthy white game hunters who pose with the dead rhinos and elephants they have shot.
It is an ugly business anyway you look at it. But it is nothing new.
Sixty three years ago, a little airplane landed on a beach along the coast of Ecuador, in South America. The pilot was a man named, rather appropriately, Nate Saint. He and his four colleagues were evangelical missionaries who had, a few months previously, flown over a settlement of Huaorani people known to have “a desire to be left alone with a willingness to use force”. In previous flyovers they had lowered a bucket on a rope filled with goodies they thought might get the Huaorani to drop their spears. Encouragingly, the Huaorani took some things and put a few gifts of their own in the bucket. This was interpreted as a welcome.
On January 3, 1956, the missionaries returned. They set up camp a few kilometres from where the Huaorani people had their settlement. Apparently, the two groups had some contact and according to the men’s mission organisation, sipped lemonade together as the Huaorani jabbered “in their mysterious tongue”.
Two days later, the men were suddenly attacked and speared to death. Nate Saint was the first to die. His smashed wristwatch marked the time of his death as 12 minutes past 3 pm. Saint and his colleagues have become modern-day martyrs within the evangelical movement. And I have no doubt that Chau will as well.
I was born and raised in a missionary family in India, and was named after Nate Saint. One might expect I would have some sympathy for Chau, but my overwhelming feeling is one of disgust and anger.
Behind Chau’s smiling face lies the same sort of philosophy that motivates Islamic State beheaders in Syria, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh mosque demolishers in Ayodhya, and Buddhist ethnic cleansers in Myanmar. A terror of difference so deep it has to hide itself in the structures and language of love, tolerance, submission and peace, waiting to shove some fundamental, self-evident titbit of truth down the throats of all who disagree – or in this case, the blissfully unaware. It is a diabolical bloody-mindedness that insists in the most Faustian way, “this is so urgent, it matters not that you or I die in the process”.
When it came time to choose my own career, I knew I could not be a missionary. I never could muster the requisite faith or gumption to convince someone that their idea of God was wrong. Instead, I chose the path of community development and humanitarian affairs. I worked in refugee camps and war zones and in poor communities all over the world. I took pride that my work, unlike that of missionaries, came with no strings attached and no hidden trap doors. I am here to help. Full stop.
Of course, many years down the road, I am not so naive. The similarities between the two vocations are too many to ignore. As missionaries cleave to the gospel, my colleagues and I hold fast to a set of philosophical principles, which the most ardent are unable to truly critique. Both missionaries and aid workers exist only because they perceive the “Other” has certain deficits or sins. And that the answers they bring, backed up by their scriptures – be it the New Testament or the Oxfam Handbook of Development and Relief – are applicable to all people, nations and cultures everywhere. Both professions are happy to overlook power equations that give them and their backers an advantage. And sadly, as recent events have exposed, aid workers can be just as guilty as their religious cousins about covering up the sexual abuse of those in their charge.
So, as I considered Chau setting off for North Sentinel island in the Andamans in his canoe, having knowingly broken the laws of India to share his personal ray of sunshine with the Sentinelese, an ancient and evidently content group of people, my initial rage and self-righteousness evaporated pretty quickly. One does not need to dig too far to uncover any number of damaged people and cultural systems that are said to have benefited from the so-called opportunity of engaging with non-governmental organisations and UN agencies.
I once had a professor who told me, “Everything wrong with the world is because no one is prepared to suspend judgement.” And so it seems today. These days everyone, not just aid workers and religious kooks, seems to be driven by a conviction that they have all the answers, or that their single answer to a single problem is the single-most important crusade in the world. My-country-first politicians are willing to adopt a scorched earth policy (literally) to safeguard their shallow interests. Corporations are eager to leverage the privacy of their clients in order to monopolise the globe. Do not believe for a second that if the North Sentinel islands were deemed to be the perfect location for a luxury resort, the interested parties would not do exactly what Chau did. But they would succeed.
The Sentinelese people may be seen as primitive, and their ancient way of life and environment is sadly doomed – if not because of so-called civilised humans then by climate change – but earlier this month they showed that they understand something most of us have all but forgotten: that there are limits, and crossing them has consequences. There is only so much mucking about with our environment that humans can do before we face the abyss. There is only so much injustice and racism our fellows will tolerate before they strike back. There is only so many lies people can tell before nobody cares about the truth. With their arrows, the Sentinelese exposed not just the arrogance and hypocrisy of missionaries and secular do-gooders, but for a brief tragic and poignant second sent a warning to the rest of us too.