Death of a Martyr

I am not sure I agree completely with the author, but he has some points that bear consideration.
WSJ 11/26/2018 By Tunku Varadarajan

North Sentinel Island lies 500 miles to the east of India in the Bay of Bengal. It is inhabited by 50 to 150 people—no one knows how many for sure—descended from Stone Age migrants from Africa who settled there 50,000 years ago. Their way of life has changed little since those primordial times. No one in the world outside knows their language.

By anthropological accounts, the Sentinelese are the world’s most isolated and inaccessible people. But John Allen Chau, a 27-year-old missionary from Washington state, also saw them as godforsaken and took it upon himself to convert them to Christianity. “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold,” he wrote in his diary, “where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”

Chau paid for his evangelical foray with his life. Last week— probably on Wednesday—he was killed by Sentinelese men wielding bows and arrows while attempting to approach them on their island. His body was most likely riddled, bringing to mind St. Sebastian, who had arrows showered upon him on the order of Roman Emperor Diocletian. (“And the archers shot at him,” wrote a hagiographer, “till he was as full of arrows as a hedgehog is full of pricks.”) Given the symbolism, and the obvious tragedy of his death, there will be those who ascribe nobility to Chau, and courage. After all, he ventured into hostile territory to propagate his faith. There can be no doubt that he was a devout Christian, even a fanatical one. One suspects that an element of fanaticism has driven missionaries throughout history to venture into far-flung places where they’re not wanted (at least initially). Chau is the latest in a long line of Christian martyrs, although perhaps the first with his own Instagram account.

But go easy on the romance of Chau and his messy, martyred end. He broke Indian law by entering the country on a tourist visa while pursuing an evangelical mission. Chau’s application would have been refused if it so much as mentioned the words “North Sentinel Island.”

No one is permitted to land on the island, not because India disapproves of foreign evangelists— it most emphatically does—but because it has adopted a policy since 1947 (the year of India’s independence) of leaving the Sentinelese entirely to themselves. The policy is called, pithily, “Eyes on, hands off.” The Sentinelese are observed from a very watchful distance, but there is a resolute prohibition on any physical contact with them.

There are epidemiological reasons for this, quite apart from the aesthetic and anthropological ones that advocate the leaving alone of an isolated people whom modern civilization has bypassed. Contact with the outside world—with men like Chau—would likely kill off the Sentinelese. Think flu, measles, chickenpox.

What we had in the end, was one man’s futile—and fatal— theater. But there’s a moral aftermath: The missionary found martyrdom, the Sentinelese a new lease on life. Out of this tragedy will come a vigorous new awareness of who they are, and what they don’t need. And that includes waterproof Bibles.

Mr. Varadarajan, born in India, is executive editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.


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