BBC publishes very fair article on, “John Allen Chau: Do missionaries help or harm?”

Group of Andaman men and women catching turtles. Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives; 1903 or earlier. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Group of Andaman men and women catching turtles. Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives; 1903 or earlier. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On 28 November 2018 the BBC website published a very fair article by Toby Luckhurst entitled, “John Allen Chau: Do missionaries help or harm?”

The article was one of a number of the BBC’s own news-related responses to the death of John Allen Chau, who was killed last week attempting to reach the Sentinelese tribe of North Sentinel island in India. Although not officially going to the island as a missionary, Chau’s stated aim was to introduce the tribe to Jesus.

“A great deal of bile has been spilt on social media declaring John Chau’s actions irresponsible, expressing delight at his ‘deserved’ death, and accusing Christian missionaries of ‘forcing’ their views on people. This last remark seems to be the new narrative about Christian mission worldwide.”

Since the news of Chau’s death broke on 21 November, a great deal of bile has been spilt on social media declaring Chau’s actions irresponsible, expressing delight at his “deserved” death, and accusing Christian missionaries of “forcing” their views on people. This last remark seems to be the new narrative about Christian mission worldwide — that it’s “forcing” your views onto somebody, even though those making such a claim have no evidence for this.

The BBC article cites a Facebook comment by Caitlin Lowery who says, “I used to be a missionary… I thought I was doing God’s work. But if I’m being honest, I was doing work that made me feel good.” In this Facebook post, Lowery is pretty scathing about Chau’s actions and calls cross-cultural missionary activity “colonization” — and this reflects another aspect of the social media narrative since last week, namely, that this is a form of “cultural imperialism” (the imposition of Western mores and values on other peoples).

But even she doesn’t claim that Christian mission is “forcing” your beliefs onto someone.

The ‘liberals’ who make such claims appear to have a very one-sided view of freedom of speech. Very often people of religious conviction are hauled into court for refusing to endorse their views — just think ‘gay cake’ both in the UK and in Colorado, US — but when Christian missionaries proclaim the message of Jesus it’s “forcing.” I would have a great deal more respect for the people who claim this if they ever presented any evidence of it.

Margin link on the BBC website to their article, ‘John Allen Chau: Do missionaries help or harm?’ Accessed 28 November 2018
Margin link on the BBC website to their article, ‘John Allen Chau: Do missionaries help or harm?’ Accessed 28 November 2018

The BBC article comments on a number of issues which Chau’s death raises.

One is the danger of spreading Western diseases among a people whose immune systems are not adapted to cope with them — and this has been a real and legitimate concern that has been expressed about Chau’s actions.

The article quotes Mark Plotkin, botanist and president of the Amazon Conservation Team, saying,

“Dragging uncontacted people out of the jungle for their own good is sometimes not for their own good,” he told the BBC.

He speaks of the Akuriyo people in Suriname, who were contacted by missionaries in 1969. Within two years, Mr Plotkin says, “40 to 50% of the Akuriyo were dead” due to respiratory diseases, but also due to what Mr Plotkin suspects could be stress or “culture shock”.

This is a legitimate point to make. It’s not a great deal of good sharing the gospel with an unreached people group if the act of making contact leads to mass fatalities owing to Western diseases. This is a lesson to Christian missionary organizations to be very careful in the way they approach such people groups — something which the BBC article acknowledges missionaries often are very careful about.

While [another missionary, John Allen] personally did not think of going to the islands, he speaks of colleagues of his who had talked of approaching the Sentinelese people.

“Though they weren’t seriously considering it, they tossed around ideas of how to approach the people safely, how to begin to make friendly contact, how to minimise their ‘footprint’ while at the same time reaching out to them to learn their language and culture,” he says.

“I’m not going to claim that Christian mission has never historically been used as a vehicle for cultural imperialism. Nor am I going to claim that Christian mission is never used today as a vehicle for cultural imperialism. However, those who impugn the motives of all Christian missionaries to relatively unreached parts of the world have missed something that is perfectly obvious to just about every real, believing Christian: that missionaries do what they do to tell people about Jesus.”

Another concern mentioned in the article is the aforementioned “cultural imperialism.”

Now I’m not going to claim that Christian mission has never historically been used as a vehicle for cultural imperialism.

Nor am I going to claim that Christian mission is never used today as a vehicle for cultural imperialism. Statistically, it is bound to be.

However, those who impugn the motives of all Christian missionaries to relatively unreached parts of the world — most of whom are willingly risking their lives daily for the sake of their vocation — have missed something that is perfectly obvious to just about every real, believing Christian: that missionaries do what they do to tell people about Jesus.

I know a number of missionaries myself — none admittedly to quite such remote parts as the North Sentinel islands — and I don’t believe that any of those I know have any wish to spread ‘cultural imperialism.’ Those I know have nothing but the most sincere motives in wishing to tell people the good news of our Lord Jesus.

I am grateful, therefore, that the BBC article recognizes this basic fact about Christian mission, and refuses to indulge in the blanket impugning of missionaries’ motives that has been so often expressed this week on social media.

 

 

Postscript (28 Nov 2018)
Subsequent to my posting this article, one reader, Edward Savich, raised a very good point about one thing the BBC article failed to mention: that Christian missionaries are often local:—

“[The BBC article] neglects to mention missionaries that are of any other race… considering Asia and Africa have the fastest growing Christian populations and most missionaries are local.”

Comment by Edward Savich, 28 Nov 2018

“[The BBC article] neglects to mention missionaries that are of any other race… considering Asia and Africa have the fastest growing Christian populations and most missionaries are local… Even in South & Central America, most of the missionaries are locals. Just because you have American doctors and nurses coming in for a few weeks is sad they ignore the local efforts.”

This is a fair observation. The BBC article may leave the reader with the impression that Christian mission is exclusively about Westerners ‘evangelizing’ the rest of the world. In fact, there are millions of Christian believers in Africa, Asia, Central & South America, many of whom are conducting their own missionary endeavours. Thank you, Mr. Savich, for raising this important point.

 

 

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