John Chau Does NOT Meet the Measures for Christian Martyrdom

News reports of a young Christian’s violent death at the hands of the Sentinelese people has captured the world’s attention this week.

Martyrdom is the endurance of bodily death in witness to the Christian religion. —Dominic Prummer O.P.

John Allen Chau is being hailed a martyr by some and an arrogant and reckless, renegade zealot by others. Conservative evangelicals (like Ed Stetzer) see him as one on par with their missionary legends, Jim Elliot and Nate Saint. Ed Stetzer’s view is not surprising, since he has long been a spin doctor for improving and sanitizing the public image of white conservative / fundamentalist evangelicalism (see Pew Research, Ed Stetzer & Defining “Evangelical”). The rest of the world sees Chau as a ridiculous example of the worst sort of rogue glory seekers on a genocidal, colonizing effort. I fall into the latter category of critics, because I observe Chau does not meet the criteria common to most Christians for martyrdom (See Gordon-Conwell study and a Catholic Catechism or Answer).

The Standards of Christian Martyrdom:

  1. In virtue of the Faith. The Sentinelese do not know why Chau attempted contact with them twice; it is impossible to say they hate him for his Faith. They only know he returned after having disregarded their initial arrows. The principle reason no one is allowed contact with the Sentinelese is not primarily religious but for health and safety. A sending church with a recognized international missions agency will usually send a partner or team, fully researched and prepared and with proper permissions. Chau had no partner or team or (evidently) adequate preparation in approaching such a biologically vulnerable and security sensitive people. This catastrophic failure brings high suspicion and scrutiny to both Chau’s agency (All Nations) and of Chau himself. Either Chau or All Nations (or both) completely disregarded the laws of India and the known biological and cultural needs of the Sentinelese. Again, Chau knew (or should have known) the Indian government serves as legal protectors of the secluded islanders. Chau arrogantly disregarded this fact, literally trespassing repeatedly despite official warning from India’s statutes and warning by force from the islanders. In his last letter(s), Chau admits the ill-advised course of his actions. In this way, Chau showed calloused disregard not only for his own life but for the lives of these sovereign people, who merely exercised their right to reasonable self-defense and historical power of choice to be left undisturbed. Chau was insistent to the point of being a genuine, perceived threat and not a man persecuted for his Faith only.
  2. In situations of witness. The message of a potential martyr must be heard prior to death, and the message or Faith must be the only criterion upon which the individual or according group is persecuted. This requires the messenger(s) not only to intend no harm, but also, to present no harm and do no harm to the people approached. Of course, this assumes that both the All Nations agency and Chau thoroughly researched the history of the people and the laws of India, in addition to the claim of having had “some” language training. “Hollering” in English is hardly tactfully & peacefully communicating a message to a completely isolated people. The Sentinelese were simply defending their home against an unintelligible and loudly vocalizing invader, because of the deathly biological threat and physical harm, which historical contact with white colonizers had brought upon them as a people.
  • Thus, Chau’s death is little different than the phenomenon of suicide martyrs.
  • Other Important Christian Tenets John Chau Disregarded:

    1. Every Bible account of persecution and martyrdom reflects a desire to evade death if possible, not run to it. Jesus himself commands that when a team of messengers are not received, they should leave a place when not welcomed by the people as a whole (Matthew 10:14). Records of Christian Holy Writ show the persecuted faithful as evading death if at all possible and voluntarily accepting their deaths with meekness, when evasion is not possible. Although the people did not know his subject matter, Chau was warned off by arrows and still overzealously persisted.
    2. Individuals and entire peoples have the innate power to self-determine belief or disbelief. In the above-mentioned Bible verse, quoting Jesus, every Christian is commanded to honor the wishes of a people. For a Christian to disregard the soul sovereignty and power of choice of another individual and/or entire people is to show disregard for the words of Jesus. None should be flattered, manipulated, gifted, extorted, bribed, coerced, cajoled or forced (by law or physical domination) into hearing or submitting to a religious message. Such shameless and detestable tactics can never produce a legitimate faith, even if the hearer outwardly confesses said faith and performs according religious actions. Every person and every people have the power of self-determination, the power to choose their religious belief or disbelief.
    3. Christianity views others as worthy of more honor than self (Philippians 2:3). Just because the Sentinelese are not welcoming of the technological advances and self-perceived societal advances of the “developed world” (aka. white, European-colonized “1st world”) does not mean they are lesser or a “last stronghold of Satan.” To assert this is racist and repeats the historical ills of white, European Christian colonization ideology. Furthermore, the indigenous peoples of the islands near India have been engaged by (Christian) British officers in the 19th and 20th centuries. As a result, the people made their decision to refuse further contact; and, as written above, such a sovereign choice must be honored. Chau wrote about his view of the people. He effectively viewed them as agents of Satan, when it is demonstrable that the (Christian) British agents of past generations are the ones far from godliness—by invasion, kidnapping, perverse experimentation and introduction of deadly illness. Chau did not show humility. He did wish to change the lifestyle of the islanders.
    4. God is able to provide a witness. All Christians will attribute unmatched power to God. Both Bible record and modern to current-day accounts reflect those in restricted areas have received and do receive messages from (as the recipients describe) angelic messengers or even from appearances of Jesus himself. In the case of such a fragile population and sensitive intercultural situation [and if Christians are genuinely that concerned] would it not be safer and more beneficial and more reasonable for Christians to pray for God to give the people a spiritual visit?

    OTHER RESOURCES:

    ‪The “Great Commission” is NOT what Fundamentalist Evangelicals Say‬

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