The recent news of the John Allen Chau, the American missionary who was killed by tribals in India’s Andaman Islands prompted a lot of writing. Much ink has been spilled and many perspectives shared. One perspective suggests that since his actions – of wanting to spread Christianity- are part of the older narrative of wanting to ‘civilize’ the native, his actions are reprehensible. Another perspective – shared by his fellow missionaries is that he was just doing what he was supposed to do – spread the word of god. He died in his cause, as a martyr, according to them.
Which one is correct? Where does his ‘charitable’ act of trying to bring faith to a supposedly ‘godless’ people fall? It depends, in my opinion, on where you stand. This is one of those questions that has more grey than black and white. While a commonsense explanation of his action would be that he should have left the poor tribals alone, to do what they have been doing, for ages; others might disagree.
For a bit of history on this phenomenon, have a look at this report, prepared in 1932, titled ‘Rethinking Missions,‘ a report prepared in the aftermath of similar situations that arose in the developing world.
As the report says in the foreward “One of the chief advantages enjoyed by this Commission has been the circumstance that it includes contrasting views in the interpretation of Christianity and therefore of Christian missions. With less of a gamut it would have been by so much less representative of the membership of American churches. These differences are to some extent differences of expression, to some extent differences of substance. Such differences are not unimportant.” The commission that prepared this report points out that missions as they exist may continue to exist, though some of them ‘deserve to perish. (p.6)’ They consider the value of missions to be important, given that they are driven by one’s desire to share one’s faith.
‘By what standards should missions be judged’ the authors ask, before answering it saying that ‘objective’ criterion is impossible.
The criterion for judging the success or failure of a mission cannot be solely determined by any one perspective.
What about those who are at the receiving end of these missions, one might ask? What if they don’t want these missions showing up, like the tribals, in India?
These are some big questions that one has to deal with.