Christian Missionaries and Their Mistaken Message from God

As fans of the old The Phantom comic strip will recall, an island in the Bay of Bengal is the location of the Skull Cave, home base of The Ghost Who Walks, established by an ancestor washed ashore in a “half-drowned” state after an attack by “Singh pirates” and nurtured back to life by the island’s devoted natives.

North Sentinel Island could easily fit the description although subsequent events make it unlikely the natives were going to nurse anybody from outside back to life. Its people are often called “Negrito” for their crinkly hair and dark skin, suggesting they have kept pretty much to themselves since taking part in the great prehistoric human migration out of Africa. They get around naked, live by hunting and gathering, and fiercely attack intruders.

No wonder they attracted worldwide attention on November 17 when they greeted a young American would-be Christian missionary with a volley of arrows, killing him as he landed and burying his body on the beach. At least his body wasn’t put upon a stake facing out to sea as a warning, like those of two Indian fishermen who washed ashore in 2006.

The Indian government designates the Sentinelese a “Primitive Tribe” and bans anyone going closer than five kilometers from the island – partly to protect them from common infections like influenza and measles which have devastated tribal populations in other parts of the surrounding Andaman archipelago, partly to stop them becoming exhibits in a human zoo.

Nevertheless, John Allen Chau, 26, took it on himself to penetrate this island sanctuary with the aim of preaching Christianity. Indian police have arrested the six fishermen who took him to North Sentinel and witnessed the killing before they themselves escaped. They are also looking for two US evangelical preachers who encouraged Chau in his fatal mission.

Such “primitives” as the Sentinelese appear to be magnets for Christians of the evangelical bent, who seem drawn to reenact the 19th century tableau of the overdressed European missionary in isolated missions dispensing the Bible, cleanliness and modest clothing to the local population, with the aim of saving their souls and bringing them into the fold of decency.

My first encounter with this phenomenon was in 1976, when as a correspondent in Jakarta I got a rare clearance to visit West Papua. A huge earthquake had struck its precipitous central mountains: most of the food gardens of its villages had slid away. The impending famine got security officials to briefly open the screen around a former Dutch-held territory unhappily incorporated into Indonesia only seven years before.

The only way into the disaster zone was aboard one of the light aircraft run by the Missionary Aviation Fellowship, some of whose pilots were veterans of the CIA’s Air America operations in the just-concluded Indi-China wars. We flew into a grass airstrip running up the shoulder of a high mountain, where an American couple had opened a mission.

From there, I joined a helicopter dropping sacks of yams to small hamlets accessible otherwise only by days of walking across deep valleys. In one place, called Valley X, a team of social scientists from Germany had been camped for six months. Their linguist had mastered the local language, and was able to interpret the accounts of men wearing just penis-sheaths of the deaths and destruction from the landslides. It was a rare privilege to be suddenly dropped among people whose “first contact” with the outside world had been less than 20 years before.

The German academics were sympathetic interlocutors for them. Not entirely so the missionaries. One told me with some glee how weeks before they had preached about the wrath of the Lord for those who did not repent their sinful ways. Local people had coming rushing in after the earthquake, convinced of the prophecy, handing in their “grubby” carvings and totem objects for destruction. Another missionary spoke proudly of the first “white wedding” he had just conducted among the local Papuans.

After writing that up, I got into a battle with senior missionaries, who published open letters denigrating my reporting and complaining to the US ambassador. I was accused of falling for the hostile line of the old Catholic mission in West Papua, more accommodating of native cultures, and the wine (yes, alcohol!) they consumed in their dining room.

The chief spokesman for the evangelical missionaries was a man who worked among the Asmat people of West Papua’s south coast. A graduate of the Sumner Institute of Linguistics in California, a training school for such missions, he claimed to have found a “redemptive analogy” in the Asmat culture that corresponded to the self-sacrifice of Jesus and thought there must be a similar keyhole into any other culture. If true it would be a cunning twist on Creationism.

This kind of stuff still goes on. In 2015, an evangelical missionary in the US state of Indiana donated a rare first edition of the 1611 translation of the Bible to the Papua New Guinea parliament. Led by its then-speaker, Theodore Zurenuoc, a large delegation of politicians and churchmen went at public expense to the US to “escort” this King James Bible to Port Moresby, where a crowd of 20,000 assembled at the airport, shouting “Hallelujah!”

At the recent APEC summit there, US Vice-President Mike Pence, who was Indiana’s governor at the time and is a noted evangelical himself, hailed the translation’s presence. “On that foundation, I believe we can be confident that our vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific will prevail,” Pence said. “For, as it says in that old book, ‘where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.’”

A year earlier, in 2014, Zurenuoc was among politicians who made “Repentance Day” an annual public holiday, which features prayers and the public burning of traditional carvings to fight “idol worship and witchcraft.” As speaker, Zurenuoc also launched a “cleansing exercise” to remove and destroy some of the “demonic” traditional-style carvings in the PNG National Parliament, donated by Australia as the country moved to independence in 1975.

Such exercises, pushed by a group of Pentecostal pastors calling themselves the Body of Christ, have caused deep misgivings among older, mainstream churches, which were not consulted about Repentance Day. Catholic and Anglican bishops said that change should come from within, instead of being imposed externally in ways like the destruction of carvings. As Paul Hurricane, chair of PNG’s Catholic Professionals Society said at the time, these derived from “a distorted idea about faith, ­culture and theology pursued by a few pastors and their followers. They do not represent the ­majority of our people.”

John Chau did not deserve the fate of St. Sebastian. Instead he should have been put firmly back on his boat and told to go away, preferably back to America where plenty of people need help. The Sentinelese are not entirely “primitive” but according to anthropologists are gradually acquiring some modern things. They should be left to adapt to the outside world at their own pace. Attempts to convert and civilize tribals are often precursors to dispossession, then exploitation of their land. A truly forgiving God wouldn’t mind they hadn’t seen a book compiled in Rome 2,000 years ago.

Hamish McDonald has worked as a journalist in several Asian countries and was later political editor for the Far Eastern Economic Review and foreign editor for the Sydney Morning Herald.