There’s a lot at stake in conversations surrounding missions.
Most missionaries have packed up their belongings and made a huge life-altering move to another side of the world—their change of address is transcontinental. They’ve likely fundraised from multiple churches and individuals, invested months and even years of their lives discerning their calling before going all-in to a missions organization—all because they are certain it is good and right and true to give up all that you have (creaturely comforts, family support system, familiarity to your own language) to gain what you cannot lose (the eternal salvation of those you try to reach.)
I know, because I did it.
No one makes a decision to become a missionary lightly, because the cost is high. In fact, the high cost is the point, it is a demonstration of how loosely you hold things that are valuable to you in this world in order to serve God. It may cost even the ultimate price—your very life, and again, that is exactly the point.
This radicalizing message is likely what compelled John Allen Chau to risk his own life by trying to reach an island protected by Indian law, inhabited by the tribe of the Sentinelese people, to share the gospel with them.
Sadly, John was killed by the Sentinelese.
Killing him can be justified as self defense, as his arrival on the island had the potential to bring diseases the Sentinelese people are not immune to, which could threaten their very survival.
It is worth noting that they had injured him with arrows on his first trip, and he returned a second time to meet his demise.
As much as I want to respect a loss of life, this news story is an opportunity for us to have a conversation regarding whether the missionary enterprise is bringing healing or harm to the world.
To me, the story of John Allen Chau is a tragedy—a story of hubris and arrogance that unfortunately didn’t leave him time to learn from his mistakes.
It is an example of how the Great Commission, and the accompanying theologies that teach our goal in life should be to convert everyone to Christianity lest they face eternal damnation, leads to the logical conclusion that in light of eternal consequences, human laws like the very sensible ones the Indian government set up in place to protect the Sentinelese, should be ignored.
It allows the sanctity of the missionary calling to disregard common sense and respect for these people’s choices to live the way they desire.
In the history of missions, this has translated directly into colonization: the act of establishing power and control over indigenous people in the name of Christian conversion. It is abhorrent and yet colonizing attitudes continue to prevail even in modern missions.
Inherent in the history of colonization is white supremacy: the idea that the white man has superior ways of living while indigenous people are “savage,” and needs to be forcefully “civilized.” Therefore, in order to decolonize missions, we have to dismantle white supremacy, which requires a massive upset of the status quo.
And yet, I find there is very little subversion happening in missionary communities because of those stakes I mentioned earlier. It’s hard to begin to challenge the very foundations of missions (The Great Commission) when you’ve given up so much for the missionary life.
It’s hard to upset the sending organizations and churches who have become your livelihood, and trust me I know from personal experience that jobs are not readily available for ex-missionaries.
But mostly, it is hard to critique missions when so many of your missionary friends, whom you’ve partnered with, watched their children grow up, lived through difficult and bonding times of cross cultural living, are well intentioned people who are doing their best to love those whom they’ve come to serve.
There’s something beautiful and poetic about devoting one’s life to another in a foreign land. I have personally encountered many of these people who are frankly, far more loving than me.
But well intentions does not and should not blind us to what’s problematic about the system of missions the way it exists.
And it is problematic. Not just in the dramatic tragedy of John Allen Chau, but in the ways white people plant churches according to their western customs, theologies, and methods.
In the ways white people harm with their white saviorism, unwittingly crippling local economies by making them dependent on western resources. In the ways white people center their experience of the gospel and universalizes it for the people they claim to serve.
In the ways they prosletyze the children without the consent of their parents because children are easier to convert. In the ways white people export the culture war rhetoric of their home country to societies with their own social problems that are best solved by locals who understand the issues of their own nation. And the list goes on.
This is why I am pessimistic about whether it’s possible to decolonize missions. I have personally chosen to leave that vocation and every year since then, I become more certain my choice was the right one, because I haven’t seen compelling change in the system but a continuation of the cycle of harm adjacent to colonization if not outright colonizing.
I want to be clear I’m not saying Christians can’t travel and live and work cross culturally. This would be a silly suggestion given globalization trends and ease of travel. And I am well aware that missions is not the only colonizing force.
But until I see evidence that Christian sending churches and organizations are actively dismantling white supremacy and white saviorism, I maintain my pessimistic view that the missions enterprise is anything but Good News for the world.