This time we’re talking about a recent incident. A man named John Chau went to North Sentinel. He intended to talk to people whose language he didn’t know in order to bring them to Christ. He ended up dead. This is bringing up all sorts of ethical questions about missionaries working overseas.
We talk about how Robert Barclay’s theological assertion about universal redemption fits in.
God, in and by this light and seed, invites, calls, exhorts, and strives with every man, in order to save him. If this light is received and not resisted, it works the salvation of all, even of those who are ignorant of the death and sufferings of Christ, and of Adam’s fall.
When you believe a person is doomed to Hell for not hearing about Jesus, you end up with a different take on this than someone who thinks knowing Jesus’ story isn’t strictly necessary. We talked more about this in our episode on the Church visible and invisible.
Another topic we touch on is where missionary energy should be directed. This guy was focused on people who’d had no contact with Christianity before. How does that compare to focusing on people who are lapsed?
We also talk about the dangers outsiders pose. Despite media coverage saying the island is “uncontacted,” they have had some contact. The first known contact was really traumatic and during the lives of the current inhabitants’ grandparents. More recent contact has been by anthropologists, and they gave opinions on how to form relationships rather than just charging in. It builds up to language acquisition (though some of us do believe the Holy Spirit can miraculously provide language skills when needed).
And then a detour onto climate change. We need to figure out what guest we want for that.
- Johan Maurer’s blog post
- New York Times coverage
- Bartolomé de las Casas
- Twitter thread on the history of North Sentinel
- Romans 10:14–18
- The Nativity Story
- The Passion of the Christ (…made by an antisemite, so this is not an endorsement)
- Luke 17:21
Mackenzie: Welcome back to Quaker Faith and Podcast with your hosts, Mackenzie and Micah. This time we’re going to be talking about a recent news story, or we’re inspired by a recent news story of a guy named John, went to an island in the Indian Ocean and attempted to convert the inhabitants to Christianity. He did not survive this encounter and there’s a little bit of history regarding this island and outsiders, which probably plays it well, surely plays into this, but it has resulted in a whole bunch of sort of moral debates.
Micah: Yeah. I mean, there are several questions that I think people of a variety of religious and cultural and philosophical backgrounds can have. It was illegal for this man to go to this island because the Indian government had cordoned it off to preserve them from contact. Was it wrong to break Indian law to go to this island when he wasn’t supposed to? There’s the question of, these folks probably aren’t resistant to most diseases that they might be exposed to with the arrival of newcomers. Was it, was he endangering the lives of the people on the island by visiting them? Could he have given them the flu and killed all of them? That’s a legitimate question. Was that wrong of him? There are lots of questions in just about the history of imperialism and the fact that outsiders have often meant death to indigenous communities like these. When is it ever okay to visit a place where the power differential is so great technologically in other ways. Also, when the inhabitants have made it clear for a long time that they don’t want visitors, this group of people on this island have often attacked people who have come to visit.
Micah: As a society, they clearly don’t want contact. There are all those questions and then on top of that, and I think for us as specifically Quaker Podcast, perhaps the most relevant and interesting question among all these other very good questions is when is it appropriate? Is it ever appropriate for Christians to share the gospel with people who don’t want to hear it? What does that look like? What is the meaning of martyrdom? Because some Christians are going to look at this young man and see a martyr, see someone who died for the cause of Jesus and the gospel. What does that mean? How do we understand martyrdom? How do we understand sharing the gospel? What does it mean to share the gospel? Because for us in the quaker tradition, our understanding of how God works is that God and Christ are present and available to everybody through the Holy Spirit. In that context, what does it mean to share the gospel? What does it mean to share the gospel when in some sense we all have access to God already.
Mackenzie: Right. That’s a whole bunch of long list of questions. Actually, something that I thought of right away … While you were talking, something I thought of was the opening of Japan actually to the West aside from Portugal because Japan had had contact with Portugal from the renaissance time, which is why the Japanese word for bread is the same as the Portuguese and Spanish word for bread, pan because there was no bread in Japan until the Portuguese showed up. There were some Catholic missionaries way back and it even resulted a new art forms, like with japanning it’s actually like a woodworking technique or finishing technique. Suddenly there were these Christian religious artifacts being done using this technique and all sorts of stuff, but Japan did eventually close itself off from outsiders, go full isolationist with the exception of one, there was like one island where it was only the Portuguese could go to this one island and that was it. Anybody else who showed up, they would kill you. That was the rule.
Mackenzie: As Americans, at some point in school we learn about Commodore Perry going and opening Japan to the West. This doesn’t actually explain or I mean, my school did not explain what this meant. I have since learned that what it meant was he showed up in these steel battleships and basically it was like, “Hey, check out. You see this big huge boat I have? It’s way bigger than any of yours. Watch what my cannons can do.” They saw demonstration.
Micah: It’s the origin of the term gunboat diplomacy.
Mackenzie: Yes. He did a demonstration of the destruction cannons could wreak and then went, “So, you’re going to trade with us, right?” Well, they wanted to live so they said yes. That was actually what I thought of when you were saying people who have made it clear that they don’t want contact is like Japan made it clear for hundreds of years that if you showed up, you are going to get-
Micah: Well, and I mean just to throw, I mean, we’re six minutes in this podcast. We mostly just ask questions at this point, but to throw another question in the mix, also, we say Japan did not want contact. We said these islanders do not want contact, but what does that mean? Does that mean that the emperor doesn’t want contact but maybe a lot of ordinary Japanese people might be interested in contact? Does it mean some elite in the tribe on this island doesn’t want contact, but maybe some people are very curious and would love to have contact? What does it mean to not want to have contact? Whose will are we obeying?
Mackenzie: Right. Of course Japan is, you know, hundreds of islands, which is why it’s an emperor, not just … Yeah. Whereas this one island, North Sentinel is a much smaller population, so I suspect it will be much easier for there to be agreement than across the thousands and thousands of people in Japan.
Mackenzie: Whose islands are sometimes very distant from each other. I took Japanese in high school and my teacher was from an island way off in the Pacific Ocean.
Micah: I think Mackenzie and I will probably agree and I think probably most, if not, all of our listeners will agree that it’s never okay to violently force people to do something that they don’t want to do. Particularly something like trade, violently force one nation to trade with another nation. That seems pretty clear, that’s not in keeping with our values as Quakers or as Christians. The issue at hand with this young man and the Sentinel Islands was not about trade. It was about sharing religious convictions, and the story of the gospel. It wasn’t about a violent on his side, on the young missionary’s side, it wasn’t about him violently forcing anything on the people. There’s no indication that he had any violent intent, in fact, quite the opposite. He wrote to family members and asked them to forgive the people of the Sentinel Islands if he was killed because it would not be their fault. In the sense that we think of violence, I mean, there’s a question about whether he would pass disease onto the people in the island so that you could view that as a form of violence or at the very least, neglect.
Micah: Negligence, but this was not a violent person. This was not a person trying to do something violent in a traditional sense, at least. He wasn’t doing it for personal gain and in any traditional sense. In that context, how do we handle? Especially for those of us who are Christians and who do think that the gospel is precious and important and should be shared, how do we handle what he did which seems to have had some pretty negative consequences?
Mackenzie: Okay. Before we started recording, I was pointing out to Micah something that we’ve talked about before. We talked about the church visible and invisible like I don’t know, about 20 episodes ago. We talked about how … Well, on that topic, we talked about that way back in the 1600s, Quakers were saying that knowing the history of Jesus is not actually necessary to be able to turn the light within you and do what is right. That it’s not turning to the light that is what is actually salvific. We might at least Micah and I as Christian Quakers believe that the light is Christ and so therefore, that is Christ’s method of saving people. Whereas others might not believe that the light is Christ and okay, whatever. It’s still in everybody. I think like that-
Mackenzie: Completely different mindset.
Micah: I mean, for those of us who believe that, there’s this really interesting … Okay, to take this back to scripture, there’s this really interesting place, I think it’s in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he’s talking about this whole idea actually, and he says, how can they hear if no one will bring them the good news, right. He’s talking about taking the message to people and saying how can they hear if no one will share the good news with them. Then after he says that, he says, but of course they already have heard because the gospel has been preached to every creature under heaven. The word is in their hearts and in their mouths. In one breath, he goes from saying, how can people receive the gospel unless it’s preached to them and it’s not rhetorical, he’s saying, the gospel needs to be preached. Then he also says, but of course they’ve heard it because the God has written the law on our hearts. It’s this weird, it’s actually weird. It is a weird thing. It’s this weird tension.
Mackenzie: Okay, I just read that as he was answering his own question, you know what I mean? In that you may ask, and here’s my answer sort of way, you know.
Micah: Well, it’s interesting because a lot of Christians read that same passage and see him saying it’s impossible for people to receive the gospel without having it delivered to them by other people. I see him saying both at once that the gospel has to be preached and the gospel has to be shared by people, but at the same time that it’s received from and by the spirit. That it’s the inward witness of Christ that makes it possible to receive the gospel. There’s this like we need to be preaching the gospel. We need to be sharing the gospel and we as preachers and sharers are not the ones who can actually affect the change in people’s lives. It’s this weird tension between how much does it matter what we do and how much does it only matter what God does.
Mackenzie: Uh-huh (affirmative). I guess that leads into what God makes you do or what God tells you to do.
Micah: Presumably, this young missionary who was recently killed in the Sentinel Islands, presumably he thought that it was God’s will for him to go and share the gospel with these folks. What do we make of that? Because I mean certainly, I think most people of faith Christian or not will look back in history and say, there were lots of times when people were faithful to what God was telling them to do and they were killed for it, right? The fact that he was killed doesn’t mean he was wrong. I mean, what sense do we make of what happened? I mean, it’s hard to make sense of what happened, especially since we weren’t there. We don’t know what the interactions were like between him and the people who killed him. Right?
Mackenzie: Uh-huh (affirmative). Right. We don’t know how long he was on the island alive before he got killed or any of that.
Micah: Mackenzie, have you seen the movie The Mission?
Mackenzie: You said it’s a movie? Nope.
Micah: Yeah. It’s a really good movie that I recommend.
Mackenzie: I should perhaps clarify that the extent of movies I have watched about Christianity is basically like, there was one about the nativity, there’s The Passion and I’ve seen Dogma.
Micah: I’m not sure I can endorse any of those movies you mentioned, but one movie that I wholeheartedly endorse is called The Mission. It’s got Robert Deniro and I think it got someone else famous in it too, but it’s really, really, really good. It’s about this I think he’s Portuguese, about this Portuguese missionary going out in the jungle to try to bring Christianity to the tribes out there. The opening scene is this missionary trying to bring the gospel and they killed him. He comes to share it and they just kill him. Then the story goes on to the next priest who also feel like after that priest was killed, he also feels the call to go out and share the gospel with these people. Even though they just killed his friend and fellow priest, he goes out to do it too.
Micah: It’s a full length movie so there’s a lot of story here but basically he ends up becoming a priest to these indigenous people and ends up siding with them against the colonialist folks who are enslaving those people and misusing those people and mistreating those people. It’s an interesting thing of him going to share the gospel and the gospel becomes a counterpoint to … The gospel that is being preached by Europeans becomes a counterpoint to European colonialism, if that makes sense. The gospel actually is-
Mackenzie: In that situation-
Micah: Liberation and good news.
Mackenzie: As opposed to like, a lot of times there’s been like this very too close relationship going on between the imperial powers and capitalists and the church and missionaries going on when that stuff happens. Usually they work together on that.
Micah: Yeah, I mean there’s a lot of history of church leaders collaborating and working hand and glove with empire and validating one another. I mean, this wasn’t just made up for the movie. There have been a lot of times also when the church has stood as a counterpoint to what empire is doing. At the very least trying to contain the damage and reduce the harm being done even in the midst of very terrible situations. I think it’s Bartholomew de Las Casas in Mexico when colonialism was early on happening in Mexico.
Mackenzie: Wait, [crosstalk 00:17:38] Bartholomew was Puerto Rico.
Micah: I’m forgetting, I think his first name is Bartholomew de Las Casas and this is in Mexico. He was a Roman Catholic priest who worked tirelessly to try to protect vulnerable people in the native populations who were being abused by the Spanish authorities and actually oppose slavery and things like that, which was rampant at that point. Did so on Christian principles and because he believed the gospel and because he believed the gospel was for the indigenous people, he’s not against them. Well, there have been lots of times when the church officials and hierarchy have sided with empire. There’s also been many times when the gospel has shined through and people have actually tried to follow Jesus even in the midst of all this mess. I wonder, I guess, yeah, for those of us who are Christians, do we feel like we have, like we as we as the church have a responsibility to share the gospel even with people like the inhabitants of the Sentinel Islands. Is that important? Is that worth risking lives for?
Mackenzie: Well, okay. My idea of what the Gospel is and some other Christians’ idea what the gospel is are not necessarily the same thing. I feel like there are probably at least five different versions because there were also something like a dozen different atonement theories. Right. I would say that the gospel, I would say that just like George Fox that I would say that the gospel is about Christ just comes and teaches people himself. The Kingdom of God is within you and you need no intermediaries and Christ is within you. That’s the good news, you know, in my opinion but I know that in evangelical Christianity, probably the sort of thing that this guy, this missionary believed was more about penal substitutionary’s atonement that we’re all terrible and we all deserve hell, but Jesus was killed in our place. Now if you believe in him, you get to go to heaven.
Mackenzie: That’s not how I think about it at all, but that’s also like the fact that he believes that you’re going to go to hell unless you believe in Jesus is also why he would feel much more motivated to go and tell people who haven’t heard about Jesus, like about him. Whereas I tend more toward the kind of opinion that I have heard Jews have about evangelism, which is like Jews do not go and try to convert people to Judaism. If you try to convert to Judaism, they’re going to tell you no at least three times and you have to persist through that and be like, no, really, look, I’ve been told no before and I still want to do this. What they do have within Judaism is Habad … I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly, C-H-A-B-A-D. It’s like a group that tries to, their missionary work is to get lapsed or secular Jews to be more observant.
Mackenzie: I feel like that is something that I feel more kinship toward, the idea of people who have been in the church but have they been hurt by it or I mean there’s a lot of harmful theology out there. There’s a lot of spiritual abuse out there. Meeting a new perspective on the church, a more safe and welcoming and life-giving church as opposed to, does that make sense? Taking a more fruit of the spirity version of Christianity to people who have not found the fruits of the spirit in the church before.
Micah: Yeah. No, I mean, that makes total sense. All I wonder is what’s the difference between that? I mean let’s say someone has been a part of a Christian community, but instead of life in it, they found death. How is it different to bring them, as George Fox would put it, to bring them into the life and the power and true Christianity, how is that different than doing the same thing with a person who wasn’t a part of a Christian community before?
Mackenzie: Well, so I think a lot of the time, a big part of what happens with Christianity is a lot of messing with cultures. You got the Catholic missionaries who sometimes [inaudible 00:23:01] but did a lot of mixing, blending, remixing the [cultures 00:23:08] they found. Exactly. Whereas then you also run into like your stories about … Different cultures have, for instance, different ideas of modesty. Right? You hear stories about Christian missionaries who go to a place, I can’t remember what the place was, but you know, there was a place where the standard for modesty was that only a prostitute covers her chest. Then the Christian missionaries are trying to get these women to cover up their chest because this is immodest by Christian standards. Right, but no, those are Western Christian standards, right? It’s different.
Mackenzie: Completely different cultural ideas and so change that or if you have different traditions and do you say, oh well that tradition is not Christian so you shouldn’t do it anymore. You know what I mean? I feel like if you’re dealing with people who already had a Christian background then you’re not talking about changing their tradition. It’s more of putting Christ back in Christmas thing as opposed to what is this? Christmas trees? No, those are pagan type of thing that was really, really popular with Quakers a long while ago.
Micah: Yeah. I mean I guess my mind is still back with whether non Christians need Christ as much as Christians do. My answer that would be yes. I think non Christians need Christ just as much as Christians do. Christians who aren’t living in the life and power of God, I need to be brought back when I’m not living in the life and power of God. I hope others will work to bring me back and to encourage me to be back in relationship with God. I need that as a Christian. I think other Christians who are straying from the truth and who are not living in the life and power of God who aren’t experiencing God’s power and presence, a part of our calling as Christians is to bring them back just like you said. I don’t know how to separate that from the calling to draw others who have never believed or never professed belief in Jesus or desire to follow Jesus to also invite them into his light and power transformation.
Mackenzie: I mean, I guess I feel like how much they need to know about historical Jesus in addition to having the light that they’ve got any way would really be super individual because do Jews who are perfectly spiritually fulfilled by their own religious practice need Jesus? I don’t really think so. I think they got their thing down, you know. Muslims, Buddhist, wherever. If somebody has a spiritual path that is really working for them, then I don’t think that I need to try to get them to switch. If somebody is like, yeah, you know, I tried this thing, I tried that thing. I don’t really know, still a hole in my life, then okay, maybe I’ll explain to them the way that I think about Jesus that is different from how some other Christians do but that would be like super individual. Generally, [inaudible 00:26:46] somebody to ask me how do I think about it rather than just giving it to them. Obviously except in the case of this podcast where, I mean you all subscribed.
Micah: Right, you all have made the choice to listen to this man so that’s on you. No, I mean in the case of the folks on the Sentinel Island, right, they presumably they’ve not ever even heard of who Jesus is, they’ve not heard the gospel story. How could they make a choice without hearing it? Right? They don’t even know if they don’t like it, if they haven’t heard it.
Mackenzie: I mean that’s like I’m back to if they have something that’s working for them then I don’t see any reason to change it.
Micah: But we don’t know if it’s working for them. I mean to be quite fair and I’m in no way justifying any other society because American side is insanely, insanely violent. Okay. Just acknowledging that, but that being said, something’s not working when they feel the need to kill people who show up offering them a soccer ball.
Mackenzie: Well, okay. Now that brings me back to the thing that we talked about before we started recording, which was the history that these people have with outsiders because they’re being described in the media as uncontacted, but that’s not actually accurate. There has been contact, there’s been some contact in the last couple of decades with some Indian anthropologists who gave them coconuts. The first recorded contact is about 100 years ago. The grandchildren of those people are probably still alive. This guy was English Navy guy. He was basically adventuring around and he visited all these different islands and he was a pervert. Okay. I will put in the show notes a link to the Twitter thread that was about this, but he was measuring people’s intimate parts, we’ll put it that way and taking nude photos and there’s something wrong with this guy.
Mackenzie: That was like the next [inaudible 00:29:20]. Then when he came to North Sentinel, everybody there was like there’s somebody [meeting 00:29:24], we’re going to go hide. They mostly all head except for a few of them, there was an elderly couple and a couple of young kids who didn’t get hidden and he kidnapped them and eventually he returned the kids but the elderly couple died. I mean, and we don’t know what he did to the kids while they were gone but we do know that what he did with everybody else he met was take measurements and like squeeze their junk. That is weird. If the pattern holds, then these people who all hid, when their kids were returned to them, their kids came back and said, yeah, they’re child molesters. That would be why they hid the next time, the next time this guy showed up and why they have continued to be like, no, we don’t want the health techs because it turns out the outsiders are bunch of child molesters. You can understand why they would be like, we don’t want you here. We know what you do to people.
Micah: Yup. I mean it’s probably a fairly natural reaction to be afraid of modern humans because-
Mackenzie: Especially when your one contact with them has been like somebody who as far as we know, his thing was sexually abusing indigenous people. Yes, killing is wrong, but there are always times when you can see why somebody would go for that. The self-defense part of the peace testimony is definitely the most challenging bit. I think if we’re being honest that most or all Quakers would have to say that we don’t know if we would actually submit rather than go to self-defense.
Micah: I have to say though like I don’t feel like it’s that clear cut. I think one of the questions that you and I, before we did this episode read a couple different articles, one from New York Times that talked about this. One from Johan Mauer, a Quaker writer from Sierra Cascades yearly meeting, both were really helpful and actually interestingly enough, asked some of the same questions. I think one of the many questions raised in all this is at what point is it paternalistic to hold, to try to isolate these folks and keep them isolated and wall them off and treat them as if they’re like a museum specimen. I guess I just think I tend to think that humans are humans and that I don’t know, I’ll just admit that I have a difficult time getting myself into a head space where I could feel justified killing someone who came offering a soccer ball. Even regardless of all the history, right? I acknowledge that, but I don’t know, I just have a tough time putting myself in that head space.
Mackenzie: The list of things he brought was scissors, a safety pin and a soccer ball. I’m not sure why he chose those particular items.
Micah: Yeah, it’s weird.
Mackenzie: However, one thing I do know what the history there is that, so there was a shipping, there was a ship that ran aground on the coral reef ages and ages ago. Obviously after the pervert, but before the coconut gifting. It was made of metal because that’s how ships are made nowadays and those people were airlifted out by helicopter, but the ship is still there and when they did the coconut gifting that the people on the island accept the coconut gifts and after a while they got tired of this and they brandished daggers that they had made from the metal of the ship. I actually wonder would the scissors have looked like a weapon to them? It’s metal and pointy.
Micah: That’s a good question.
Mackenzie: Seeing as there’s no linguistic contact, nobody outside the island knows their language, I don’t know that there is a way that he could have explained to them that yes, this metal sharp thing I brought is for cutting stuff, but I’m not going to use it on you.
Micah: Yeah. There’s so much we don’t know. It’s hard to know what really happened and how it all went down. I think the question that this all raises for me is, well, one of the questions that was raised in the New York Times article was basically like, at what point is it actually harmful to the folks on this island to keep them isolated? Even if they want to be isolated, at what point is it actually not good because such a small population where they think we’re probably talking about 50 people here. Just on a genetic level, they’re not going to do too well. I guess it seemed like a really hard and complicated situation of knowing like at what point is contact good and if there is good contact, how is that best conducted? It’s probably not best conducted by one lone person coming with soccer ball and scissors and initiating that context. I think that’s probably safe to say.
Mackenzie: Yeah, and I mean the anthropologists who contacted them in 1998, I think that was the one who is in the New York Times article, is an anthropologist, I think it was the same one, said that the way that you go about this work thing is it takes years to make contact with people who have chosen isolationism. He was saying that the coconut gifting basically making that a recurring thing of doing a we come in peace type of contact where they didn’t do this on the island, they did this in the water. They met them in the water so they were not coming onto their land and just providing the gifts and that over time then the same person over and over. Right. They get used to, okay, we know this person is our friend at least. Right, and then that can then allow you to get to having language exchange happening so that eventually you can have like real conversations.
Micah: Although apparently it never made it that far with them because they told him to leave after they got tired of the coconuts.
Mackenzie: They didn’t do it every year. They didn’t do, I think they said that they only made contact three times. You’re saying that if they wanted to actually have a relationship with these people then they would need to actually have it be a recurring thing. A relationship isn’t built in meeting once.
Micah: Yeah, well given the reality of climate change and sea level rise, they probably will need to be evacuated eventually. I hope some work is being done on this to consider how to make contact in a way that is not harmful.
Mackenzie: I’m not sure what the geography is of the island. I don’t know how high it is, you know what I mean? Some islands, even with sea level rise, they’re still going to be there, those smaller, you know what I mean? Hawaii for instance, very tall so sea level goes up 10 feet. All right. You lost a bit of beach but you still have a bunch of island.
Micah: All right, we’ll have to leave that for an exercise for the reader to figure out whether Sentinel Island will go under or not when we have polar ice cap melt.
Mackenzie: Climate change, what are they saying? Like 12 years in which to drastically change things if we want to make the results be only not so bad.
Micah: Yeah. Hey, we had a climate change episode yet? We should probably do that soon.
Mackenzie: No, we haven’t. We talked about whether we should get Jay O’Hara or Peterson Toscano on for that.
Micah: All right. Well, Jay O’Hara or Peterson Toscano, if you’re listening, this will be a good time to reach out to us and say, “Yup. I would love to do that.”
Mackenzie: I mean I’ve been buddies with Peterson for 15 years so we can totally easily get him.
Micah: All right, cool.
Mackenzie: All right. I guess this would be wrapping up time. See you all listeners again or whatever in about soon. We don’t really see you, but if you comment on the blog, we’ll see you some more. In about two weeks and I don’t know what we’re going to be talking about that. We’ll figure it out.
Speaker 1: You can find us on the web at quakerpodcast.org, as Quaker Podcast on Twitter, Facebook, or Patreon and on iTunes.