And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
Passages like Mark 16:15-16, excitedly calling upon followers of Christ to spread the gospel they believe in, can be found all throughout the Bible. For 27 year old American tourist John Allen Chau, this call-to-action led him to the Andaman Islands, a remote destination off the coast of India. There he believed he’d find a protected indigenous population known as the Sentinelese, a group he referred to as “Satan’s last stronghold”. When Chau embarked on this mission to save souls, he likely did so with the best of intentions. Unfortunately for Chau, the journey would end 7,838 miles from home with a stern reminder that not all souls are up for grabs. Chau believed that the message he intended to share with the Sentinelese was far more important than any belief system they had established over the course of their 60,000 years on the island and for that reason he ignored every regulation put in place to protect the uncontacted tribe. When faced with the possibility of his untimely death, Chau remained unwilling to consider that he was the threat the Sentinelese needed protection from. Chau continued to operate with the conviction that any resistance to the message of Jesus Christ was the work of the enemy, and with that in mind he persisted through the red tape and the warning signs. Unfortunately for Chau, his blind conviction cost him his life, but who are we kidding? Chau is just one of many. While his efforts may have appeared extreme to even the most devout Christian, the idea that religious conversion is an act of charity and therefore gives members of dominant religions the authority to target other belief systems for eradication is widely accepted. So what do you do when the erasure of your culture is built into the bylaws of someone else’s? How does one cope with having their civilization targeted for extinction in the name of spiritual expansion? The answer is very simple, you don’t.
If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him.
When I first heard about Chau and his journey to the Andaman Islands, one word came to mind: proselytization. Proselytization refers to any attempt of a religion or religious individual to convert people to their beliefs. Highly popular with followers of the two main prophetic religions, Christianity and Islam, the justification for proselytization rests upon an arrogant assumption that says “My religion is the only right one, I have the only truth, all other religions are wrong, and it is my obligation to get others to believe what I believe and think like me. Otherwise, they will burn eternally.” Upon hearing about his repeated attempts on the Sentinelese, I became convinced that John Allen Chau was suffering from the maddening effects of this othering-syndrome and I knew exactly where I’d seen it before.
The same thought process had been used to justify the coercion, enslavement, torture, bribery and even murder of countless “potential converts” over the last millennium. It was evident that Chau’s behavior was rooted in the idea that only two groups existed on the earth, believers and non-believers, one being good and pure, the other being lesser and potentially evil. Throughout history, this idea has served as the blueprint for how Christ’s followers have interfaced with the rest of the world and it’s my opinion that it also laid the foundation for Chau’s attempted conquest of the Sentinelese. The “us vs them” dynamic is a common one in the Judeo-Christian doctrine. We see countless Biblical examples of sanctioned divide between man and woman, parent and child, older and younger generations and people of different sexual orientations, not to mention ethnic groups, nationalities and the like. While anti-women and anti-LGBTQ narratives are being challenged by believers all over the globe, very little is being done to address the brazen religious intolerance we see promoted in Christianity. And therein lies the problem.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
When a religion admittedly has its groundwork laid by men with myopic views of the world, diversity of any kind is bound to ruffle feathers. While some read passages like Galatians 3:28 and hear a message of love and oneness, others hear an intentional removal of diverse perspectives. This may seem like a stretch but missionary interaction with indigenous populations tells us it’s not too far off. My father for example, a man who lived through Colonial-era Nigeria, carries a replacement first name given to him by Christian missionaries. And along with that first name, an abbreviated last name due to their struggle with the original. In addition to his brand new name, he was provided with an age deemed more appropriate for his stature, new “modest” clothing and a primary language to learn, English. In order for my father to become more of a Christian, he had to be less of everything he knew up until that point, including himself. And if he had any second thoughts, he could reflect back to my grandfather. A man who refused conversion and was chased from his village by converts who were convinced his defiance would bring about the wrath of a God they’d just met. The “all one in Christ or else” campaign attempts to take orchestrated social commotion and dress it up as spiritual evolution. But history has shown us that there is nothing evolved about an unwillingness to recognize and value differences, especially those which exist on a spiritual level.
For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
On Chau’s quest to make the world a little more Christ-like, he hit some snags but none enough to deter his mission. When local fisherman discouraged him from approaching the island for safety and legal reasons, he found some he could bribe. When residents warned him of military personnel stationed throughout the waters, he devised a plan to travel late in the evening as to go undetected by the coast guard. Oddly enough, no amount of deception or dishonesty was too much for Chau in this battle for lost souls. When operating through a religion that promotes a spiritual caste system, of which you occupy the moral high ground, you suffer from an inability to see humanity outside of the confines of your religious structure. In Chau’s mind, the Sentinelese were simply potential wins for the good guys, either that or logs in Satan’s eternal fire. But not men, women and children with a right to live and worship without the interference of those who disagree. As Chau brought fish and a football to bribe the islanders, he had completely lost sight of how un-Christian it was of him to be there in the first place. All the laws he broke, all the people he deceived, all the innocent fishermen he bribed into being his accomplices, and not once did Chau question whether or not he could save sinners while sinning himself. In any corner of the globe where an indigenous belief system rounds the corner to extinction, we see a John Allen Chau not too far behind. A well-intentioned egotistic who uses religiousness to exert dominance over those he believes himself to be superior to. Unfortunately for untouched populations like the Sentinelese, John Chau was just one of many. Which means as long as this hierarchy exists within the faith-based community, the attacks on their freedoms will continue. The death of John Allen Chau was an avoidable tragedy. One which highlighted a very fundamental truth often overlooked by religious populations privileged with normalization and exposure, other belief systems do not exist for your conquering.