In my latest for Playboy, “On the Death of John Chau and the Madness of Missionaries,” I wrote:
That John Chau was a product of the radical apocalyptic evangelical milieu I grew up in, and driven by its approach to missions, thus seems undeniable. Why, then, is the commentary from the most prominent evangelical outlets relatively sparse? White evangelicals are well aware that they are currently under a microscope due to their overwhelming Trump support, and Chau’s recklessness may be something of an embarrassment to evangelicals deeply invested in a respectable image.
Ed Stetzer is arguably the respectable conservative evangelical par excellence, and yesterday, when my article also appeared, he finally weighed in on Chau in a Washington Post op-ed. On his Facebook page, he had previously urged caution until new details emerged, presumably the details that were also published in yesterday’s Washington Post. I did not have access to these details when I was writing my Playboy piece, but they change nothing about my take.
Playboy limits external links, by the way, so I want to link the main primary sources I used when writing about Chau here so that readers can easily see the receipts if they so desire. I used documents and information from Mat Staver and Covenant Journey; from the All Nations missionary organization based in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Lausanne Covenant it subscribes to; and from Albert Mohler’s podcast. Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Ed Stetzer’s Ph.D. is from. Said “doctorate” is in missions, which only fundamentalist Christians think should be an actual field. Yes, even “respectable” evangelicals like Stetzer, who has blocked me and many other exvies on Twitter, can be rightly classified as a variety of fundamentalist. But I digress.
Regarding Stetzer’s defensive train wreck of a take on Chau, I think it’s worth laying out exactly what’s wrong with it. On Black Friday, the exvangelical community launched a new viral hashtag, #EvangelicalIntoEnglish, which I came up with to help facilitate and broaden a conversation about evangelicals and language started by Bethany Sparkle. The topic is important, because, in addition to outright gaslighting and manipulatively peculiar definitions of words, authoritarians use specific language to define and communicate with those in the in-group, and they also employ deceptive rhetoric, relying on the ambiguity of competing definitions of terms, to make themselves seem palatable to those in out-groups.
In the spirit of #EvangelicalIntoEnglish, then, I’m going to proceed to translate key passages from Stetzer’s WaPo op-ed for those uninitiated into evangelical language patterns and conceptual framing. This will actually be the second time I’ve done this sort of translating evangelical into English on this blog; the first time I did it predated the hashtag. Do check out the hashtag on Twitter; it clearly resonated, and some of the tweets are really brilliant.
So, then, without further ado, let’s turn to Stetzter’s commentary on Chau. Some of it needs no translation, and in that case I’ll simply be posting my responses. In other cases, however, I’ll unpack the meanings that eyes unfamiliar with evangelicalism would most likely be unable to see.
Stetzer gives the game away immediately when he refers in the first paragraph to much of the criticism of Chau focusing on “what appeared to be his lack of preparation.” Stetzer has taken to WaPo to do damage control–which is in fact a lot of what he does when he publishes for popular audiences–in this case thinking that the “new details” he referred to in his Facebook post help his case. If Chau wasn’t so hopelessly unprepared as people thought he was, that makes missionaries look less bad!
The scene of the young American yelling, in English, “My name is John. I love you, and Jesus loves you,” before being killed by a bow and arrow isn’t the most sophisticated image of missionary outreach in 2018.
No, Ed. No, it is not.
But new information released Wednesday paints a more complicated picture of Chau, including an interview with Christianity Today.
But does it really?
In the interview, Mary Ho, who leads All Nations (the agency that sent Chau on missions), indicated that he was heavily vaccinated and even quarantined before going on the mission.
Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure that’s not how anything works when it comes to the possibility of accidentally bringing in microbes that could wipe out an entire people. But for the sake of argument, let’s say the only genocide likely to have resulted from Chau’s colonizing activity was cultural. That makes his arrogant behavior, if at all, negligibly less inexcusable.
Certainly, all of this needs more investigation and analysis. There are still medical and legal questions, but this new information does focus the debate more on the question of the central goal of evangelizing and less on the preparation for doing so.
Okay, apart from the “more investigation” and “medical and legal questions” ass-covering pablum, I am prepared to concede the point that for many of us the fundamental issue of whether the evangelizing of an isolated hunting and gathering people–an “unreached people” in typical evangelical speak–is valid. Stetzer is about to spend the rest of his space trying to convince us that it is. He is wrong.
Chau will become not only a topic of debate but of study for missiologists, people who train missionaries. That’s my field. I have a PhD in the subject and have trained missionaries to go to many places, including India. I am also the dean of the mission school at Wheaton College, where we unapologetically and enthusiastically train missionaries to engage their own cultures, as well as cross-culturally, from their culture to another.
Translation. “RESPECT MAH AUTHORITAH! Yes, as an insider pretending to some kind of unbiased expertise. I have a doctorate in missionaries, people! That is absolutely a thing and a valid credential!”
But wait, there’s more. Stetzer’s unqualified conflating of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands with India does nothing for his desired image as a reasonable “missiologist,” because if he really cared about “engaging cross-culturally,” he would need to note that while the islands are a part of the Indian state, they have little to do with any of the cultures and subcultures of mainland India. I am sure Stetzer knows this, which means we’re looking at typical Stetzer sleight of hand. He’s trying to normalize what Chau did by conflating it with missionary activity on the Indian subcontinent–an entirely different undertaking in every conceivable way–and hoping we won’t notice. But then how could we object to the pronouncements of such an eminent scholar, who is so eminent that he has just subtly fallen back on the fallacy of appeal to authority, also presumably hoping we won’t notice not only that this is this fallacious, but also that no one outside his toxic subculture considers “missiology” a valid scholarly field?
And even for me, even with the new details, Chau’s case is complex. It reveals more than anything the quandaries for those of us seeking to understand what it means in 2018 to share the gospel with all nations.
Translation: “Look at me using vague weasel words to distract you here, walking this line of neither embracing Chau too much nor fully accepting the criticism of him so that you will see me as reasonable. Because trying to ‘share the gospel with all nations’ is a completely reasonable thing to do, which, okay, puts me more on Chau’s side after all. But please, you mustn’t think of me as an extremist.”
From his social media postings, journals and reports of friends and family members, it is clear that Chau had a genuine passion to evangelize people who had little or no access to the Christian gospel.
Translation: “Please interpret this to mean that Chau had good intentions, and please grade him–and me!–on the basis of intentions over impact.”
Many concerns surfaced after initial media reports on Chau, including that he had arrived alone on the beach of the island, “hollering” in English. The new reports challenge the image of someone totally unprepared for this mission, but it doesn’t address the bigger issue for many reading this: the very notion of evangelism across cultures.
Translation: “You can convert an entire people without destroying their culture. You mustn’t see me as opposed to pluralism; I just want everyone to be Christian. Is that so wrong?”
Okay, Ed, you’re right that this is the bigger issue. And you’re on the wrong side of it.
Propagating one’s religious beliefs through missionary activity is practiced by segments of the world’s largest religious groups, including Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Even the United Nations affirms missionary activity as a legitimate expression of religion or belief.
Translation: “Everyone does proselytizing; therefore it’s a legitimate type of human activity. You would not accept this argument for literally anything else, but please see ‘RESPECT MY AUTHORITAH’ above. Heck, even the United Nations, the classic bugbear of apocalyptic evangelicalism, has not declared opposition to proselytizing yet (though admittedly that will probably change when the Antichrist arises and uses the UN to create a one-world government). Therefore, proselytizing is 100% legitimate. That follows because I say so.”
As I noted above, Jesus, in his final address to his followers, commanded them to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). And, speaking to Christians everywhere and in all eras, the apostle Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16).
Many Christians would say we deny the missionary call if we neglect the hard and difficult places in the world. We are truly called to go to “the ends of the earth” with the gospel (Acts 13:47).
Translation: “I have now wrung my hands enough to assert, with the utmost civility, that John Chau was basically right.”
From the perspective of much of Christianity through history, and millions of believers today, his motivation was good. But the conversation generated by his death focused more on his preparation and community.
Translation: “I have already said this 27 times because I really, really, want you to know how important it is that we focus on good intentions here.”
For some, the very idea of trying to convert others to a certain faith and taking any risk to do so is simply abhorrent. But Christians worldwide genuinely believe that people who hear and respond to the gospel are better off when they do.
Translation: “I will note the position of the godless, politely, so that I can make my rejection of pluralism more palatable. And if you don’t think the Sentinelese would be better off losing their culture and likely their lives so that we can share the gospel with them? Well, you’re wrong. Again, see ‘RESPECT MAH AUTHORITAH’ above.'”
After Chau’s family and friends have mourned and the media attention has died down, mission agencies need to consider the lessons from this moment. There are things that I, as a missiologist, and others prefer Chau would have done differently.
Translation: “Missionary agencies need to get much better at their own PR so we don’t have to scramble to put a positive spin on a fundamentally toxic, colonizing enterprise after the fact. I am having to do way too much damage control for evangelicals this year. Please clap.”
For example, when Jesus sent his disciples, he instructed them to pray and then go, while showing them how to honor the dignity and humanity of others’ choices. He also sent his disciples out two by two. The Bible has much to say about the importance of teams and community. Teams bring collective discernment and provide a safeguard against unwise attempts at missionary endeavors. According to Ho, there was a team willing to go with Chau, but he chose to go alone.
Also, in regard to people’s choices, Jesus makes it quite clear in Mark 6:11, saying, “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place.” It appears that Chau returned to North Sentinel even after being shot at with arrows, one of which, according to his journal, stuck in his Bible.
Translation: “I will now wring my hands some more and engage in a little mild criticism of Chau’s approach in order to make my overarching support for colonizing missionary work and my rejection of pluralism more acceptable to readers who are suspicious of evangelicals.”
Both critics and supporters have compared Chau to Jim Elliot, a 20th-century Christian missionary who learned a native language, gathered a team of like-minded people and carefully planned to visit a remote Ecuadoran tribe. On Jan. 8, 1956, Elliot and four other Christian missionaries were, like Chau, killed by the people they were trying to reach.
Elliot and his team ended up on the front page of Life magazine, prompting a surge in modern missions. Chau’s story is in countless media feeds that have prompted a missions backlash.
Translation: “As a result of the Chau scandal, those of us engaging in and supporting missions are so, so very persecuted. And we’re worried that it may seem to tarnish one of our most cherished stories of ‘martyrdom’ on the mission field. Please feel sorry for us.”
There are certainly differences between Elliot and Chau, but what has really changed is our culture. People are much more negative about missions, partly because of mistakes that missionaries have made, such as colonialism, a lack of cultural awareness and more. But, for many critics, it is the core goal of conversion itself they object to.
Translation: “Once we translate the Bible into the language of the North Sentinelese and convert them, and force them to wear Western clothes–if any of them survives contact, that is–they can totally keep their own cuisine and perhaps some approved traditional handicrafts. Maybe they can even open some quaint Setinelese restaurants in America where Christians can go on Sunday after church, butcher the pronunciation of the dishes, and tip poorly. See how benevolently multicultural we anti-pluralist missionaries are? Why is everyone so mean to us?”
I grieve for John Chau and his family. He made his choices because he loved the North Sentinelese.
Translation: “You can love people you’ve never meaningfully interacted with and that you know next to nothing about. Christian love is nothing if not agenda-based objectification. And don’t forget, God is love.”
Oh wait. Those of us who have left toxic Christianity have another word for that.
Here at Elliot’s alma mater, we still believe and train missionaries. To some, that makes us the fools. But we pray our students will engage in their culture and others well and in appropriate ways, with care for the health and well-being of all, and with others in partnership.
If that makes us fools, we will be “fools for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10).
Translation: “I am using a lot of words to say essentially nothing other than that, again, everyone should be Christian (that’s what ‘health and well-being’ refer to). And I sincerely hope that, as I appeal to a missionary hero who graduated from Wheaton, ‘the evangelical Harvard,’ you will come away thinking that missionary work is respectable.
“If not, well, evangelical anti-intellectualism ftw.”
In fact, despite the best efforts of the Ed Stetzers of the world to convince us otherwise, proselytizing is always objectification. It is by the same token impossible to decouple foreign missionary efforts from Western colonialism, to say nothing of how unethical it is to illegally approach protected “unreached peoples.” Stetzer is one of a number of slick evangelicals skilled at spin doctoring and getting good press for evangelicalism, but scratch just below the surface, and it’s easy to see that his own views are fundamentalist and should not be acceptable to the American mainstream. Here’s hoping that after the disaster of Trumpism, we will somehow wind up in an America where white evangelicals are politically marginalized.