John Chau, Jim Elliot, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
As it happened, when news broke that John Allen Chau had been killed while trying to evangelize an isolated tribe far off the coast of India, I had been re-reading one of my favorite works of fiction: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
The story, written around 1899, is among the most famous critiques of colonialism in its ignorant and damaging forays into tribal cultures. Conrad wrote it from experience. He had gone to the Congo in 1890 to serve as a river pilot. Long before that, at the young age of nine, he had placed his finger on the blank space of a map that represented Africa, and proclaimed: “When I grow up I shall go there.”
The reality did not live up to his hopes.
Near the beginning of Heart of Darkness, the narrator (Marlow) recalls a scene that functions as a kind of allegory:
Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.
Blindly firing into a continent.
For Conrad, this was a metaphor for western meddling in tribal cultures. It was a wasteful farce; a mix of ignorance and arrogance. And it resulted in unnecessary death.
But what does this have to do with John Allen Chau?
MUST MISSIONS BE COLONIAL?
For many, Chau’s decision to evangelize an unreached tribe on North Sentinel Island bears a resemblance to Conrad’s vessel. In Chau’s defense, his aim was not to pillage, colonize, or do violence. His goal was to minister or die trying.
Yet he did so with a frightful ignorance of the harm that he could bring—and not merely to himself. Even the slightest exposure to the germs Chau carried on his person or his gifts could wipe out the people that he sought to save. Yet “there [he] was, incomprehensible,” firing himself into an island.
JUST FATAL, FUTILE THEATER?
While many have been critical of Chau (and rightly so at points), it is the incomprehensibility of his act that interests me. That same word appeared in Conrad’s quote (above).
And in some ways, Chau’s thinking is as incomprehensible to the secular mind as is that of the islanders that killed him.
But it wasn’t always.
As Thomas S. Kidd notes, there is a striking difference in how journalists covered the death of Jim Elliot, the Christian missionary who was speared to death when he and others attempted to evangelize an unreached tribe of Ecuador in 1956. At that time, Life Magazine offered almost fawning coverage of Elliot’s noble attempt to “civilize” the “Stone Age savages.” (Yes, they used those words.)
Are Chau and Elliot so different?
In some ways they were. It seems that Chau was more of a rogue actor. He was more naïve; more careless with the health of those he sought to help. And undoubtedly, there are differences between the Ecuadorian Huaorani and the tribe that Chau sought out.
Still, note how a recent column in The Wall Street Journal spoke of Chau’s death, and then contrast that with Life Magazine, 1956:
there will be those who ascribe nobility to Chau, and courage. . . But go easy on the romance of Chau and his messy, martyred end.
He broke Indian law by entering the country on a tourist visa while pursuing an evangelical mission. Chau’s application would have been refused if it so much as mentioned the words “North Sentinel Island.” . . . What we had in the end, was one man’s futile—and fatal—theater.
An adventure tourist. A theatrical fame-seeker who broke the law. Don’t cry for him.
But is that fair?
Enough context. Now for my own imperfect takeaways from this odd mashup of
- Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)
- Life Magazine (1956)
- The Wall Street Journal (2018)
First, it seems quite clear to me that not all missionary efforts are praiseworthy. Despite good intentions, Chau was terribly naïve about the dangers that he brought to North Sentinel. When a couple of the islanders were kidnapped by a 19th c. British naval officer (Not Conrad), they died almost immediately for lack of an immune resistance. This matters; and especially given that far more indigenous people (in North America) were killed by germs from white conquerors, settlers, and missionaries than by anything else.
Would you go evangelize your neighbors and their children if you knew you carried the equivalent of Ebola?
If the apostle Paul was right that “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Rom 13:10), then Chau was either terribly ignorant or terribly cavalier about the result of “firing” himself like a human bomb into a very vulnerable culture.
Second, thank God that many westerners are now more sensitive in the way they think of what Life Magazine called uncivilized “savages.” Not even Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is immune from these stereotypes (see Achebe’s famous, if overdone critique).
But neither Elliot nor Chau would have thought of indigenous communities in this way. Whatever other flaws they might have had, Chau and Elliot would have thought of such tribespersons as fellow image-bearers who deserve the gospel as much as anyone else. That’s not colonialism; it’s Christianity — even if Chau was wrong to go about it as he did.
Third, a final lesson from this whole sad tale is just how inscrutable it is for modern folks (e.g., the fairly conservative Wall Street Journal) to understand the historic Christian idea that neither “law” nor threat of “death” should stop one from sharing Jesus. Yes, this can be done badly (as it likely was in Chau’s case). But it can also be done with great care and bravery.
MY NEXT DOOR NEIGHBOR
Allow a final example: Right next-door to my office sits a PhD in Linguistics and Cultural Anthropology: “Dr. Mike.” He is a legend around campus for his open door, open ears, and oft-imitated-but-never-duplicated laugh. Students love him.
He also lived in the jungles of New Guinea for ten years as a missionary with a VERY isolated tribal culture. He learned their language, customs, and their names. He was sensitive to many things that white missionaries often take for granted, and he teaches this to students.
It was quite possible, of course, that Mike too could have been killed as were Chau and Elliot in a tribal region prone to violence.
Why then did he go? And why especially with a wife and two small children born during his decade in the jungles?
Was it all “futile, [nearly] fatal theater”?
I don’t think so.
But I don’t doubt that it seems incomprehensible – to all except the tribal people that he came to know and love.
UPDATE: The always-thoughtful Ed Stetzer has a piece out now at The Washington Post that debunks some of the early news reports on Chau (see here for that). While Chau may well have posed grave dangers to the tribe he sought to reach, it also appears that initial news reports were not working (or caring) with all the facts.
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