The world has responded in shock to the news that John Allen Chau was killed by the Sentinelese tribe last week. There have been a range of opinions. Some have been incredulous that he dared to be “arrogant enough to think that he had the right to preach”, and that his very presence could introduce a disease and wipe the tribe out. There have been others, including Christians who say that Jesus would want John Chau to leave the Sentinelese alone because they have the witness of creation (Romans 2), and that is enough. Some Christians have said that he acted in love but was unwise, and yet other Christians who knew him insist that John Chau worked for years to prepare for his task.
This event brings up questions for many and we can not ignore them. The deepest questions actually surround the mandate to preach the gospel at all. When people argue that the Sentinelese should be left alone, there is a deep primal urge from many that perhaps we would live happier lives if we weren’t troubled by the constraints and burdens of the modern world. This is a sentiment I can actually connect with, although many will not articulate it that clearly. When people say that we should not preach to the Sentinelese, what they are really saying is that we should not preach the gospel to anyone, and it would make them a lot more comfortable if we stopped speaking about Jesus altogether.
How are we to respond to the need of the most isolated peoples in the world to hear the good news of Jesus Christ? In deed how are we to respond to Jesus call to preach the gospel at all? The first thing that we need to agree with is that Jesus does indeed call us to preach the gospel. In Matthew 24 Jesus tells his disciples that “the gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Maybe not all Christians agree with that point. If that is the case then we are on a very different wave length and there is not much more I can say.
The scripture reveals to us God’s glory, and we see in Revelation that God is waiting and deserves to be glorified in ways that are almost beyond our imagination. We get a glimpse of the throne of God in Revelation 7, and there we see a great multitude that no one can even count from every tribe, people, language and nation. That’s everyone. Not a single ethnic group is unrepresented in the multitude. The Sentinelese will be there, as will the Jarawa from the neighbouring Andaman islands. If we are motivated by God’s passion then we should be motivated by his desire that the Sentinelese and Jarawa will be worshipping before his throne in heaven. Indeed it is their destiny and purpose for which they have been created.
Let’s for a moment switch up the perspective on all of this. Let’s try to place ourselves in the shoes of the Sentinelese people. The island that they live on is their entire world. I know enough people for whom their city or town is their entire world and have traveled very little outside their own context, yet they still know an outside world exists. For the Sentinelese, they are not even aware that an outside world does exist. Every time that someone has approached their island throughout history, which has not been very many times, would become a part of their mythology. Every encounter they have had would be seen through the eyes of their own world view. We can be guaranteed that their own world view includes spirits. They may have an understanding of the Creator God, or they might be clouded by evil spirits to barely notice the Creator. This has certainly happened in other tribal cultures around the world. So every time a fishing boat comes too close to the island as one did in 2006, or John Chau did in 2018 they would view this as a visit from the spiritual realm. This does not mean they wish to be left alone by other well meaning people. It means they are freaked out that some evil spirit will do something bad to them.
Even amidst the spiritual fear that the Sentinelese live in, there were some who were not aggressive towards John Chau. In fact some members of the tribe were good to him while others were aggressive. Is it possible that some of them have already had spiritual visions from the Creator God that they should receive a visitor who will bring them the truth? If we go on the stories of other tribal groups from the past this is indeed even highly likely.
We must be careful not to judge too quickly. My initial reaction was to think John Chau was a fool. I pictured some tourist who heard about the Sentinelese and on a whim thought he would achieve the impossible. But the more I have learned about this case the more I realise that is far from the truth. John Chau prepared for years to go to the Sentinelese. It seems he was very focused. He learnt all of the possible skills he could think would be needed. He had wilderness survival skills, was a paramedic, had even learnt language of the Andaman Islands hoping the words would be related, for the articles about him cite that he tried to speak in their language. John Chau had been to Bible college, been on various missions trips to difficult places around the world (including Iraq and Kurdistan), and joined a mission agency. He had sought the advice of those wiser and more mature than himself. John Chau had been to North Sentinel Island on four previous trips, proving that he was employing first contact protocols and even having some success.
Before this story came up in the news, very few people talked about the Sentinelese. They were on our radar though. The task seemed impossible, even for someone who has already been to remote unreached people groups in the world. I wondered how I would attempt such a task. Perhaps I would live in Port Blair. I would pray, a lot. I would pray that God would send someone from the related tribes on the Andaman islands out of their jungle and into Port Blair (for it is also illegal to make contact with the other tribes on the main island). Perhaps my methods would be correct. Perhaps God would have patience for my slow approach. Just possibly after living in Port Blair for some years God would have spoken to me saying, “the time is now, get on a boat and go to the island, I want you to make contact with the Sentinelese.” If God were to say such a thing to me then I would be obedient, no matter the criticism that I might receive. I know that some people don’t like this kind of talk, but the naysayers are often people who never hear God’s voice at all.
So it comes to the bottom line. Did John Chau have a relationship with God? Indeed it seems he had a very close relationship with God. Did he act on a whim? Definitely not, he planned and prepared for years. Did he act out of his own thinking? I would say almost definitely not. Why would he go to such painstaking efforts in every other means than spiritual ones? I would argue that he put in as much spiritual preparation as he did physical, and that he most likely was listening to God very closely. If this is the case, then it is most likely that God did indeed tell John Chau to go to the Sentinelese and even to lay down his life. If we have a problem with this then our only argument is with God.
I take my hat off to John Chau. I acknowledge the sacrifice he made for the gospel of Jesus Christ. I applaud his love for the Sentinelese. I admire the depths of his preparation. I congratulate him for his obedience to God. Oh that the world may know the depths and height and width of the love of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice that he made to pay for our sins and to bring us into God’s presence. Oh that the world may know just why John Chau laid down his life with the same conviction that Jesus laid down his. I stand with John Chau. And if the Lord calls me to I will also lay down my life in any way that Jesus calls. To God be the Glory.