You've probably seen it in the news lately: John Chau, the American guy who tried to evangelise the secluded Sentinelese tribe off the coast of India. Much of the debate in secular media has centered around the grief of his friends and family; how he could have brought outside disease to the tribespeople and potentially killed them all (despite this not being their first contact with outsiders, with no known ill effect), or that he ventured there completely in ignorance with no preparation or wisdom — something which the missionary agency, All Nations, has recently debunked.
But the question I want to look at is this: was Chau's mission total madness or is he a modern-day martyr?
Well first, what is a martyr? The dictionary definition is simply: “a person who is killed because of their religious or other beliefs”, and the word itself comes from ancient Greek meaning “witness”.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the whole story (as much as we can see), John Chau had said since 2011 that he felt called by God to go and tell the good news of Jesus to the Sentinelese people. After many years of preparation, about two weeks ago in late November, he succeeded in getting to the remote island via a fishing boat (which was illegal to visit under normal circumstances). But after a few attempts at making contact, he is believed to have been killed. The fishermen saw some tribespeople dragging Chau’s body across the beach, so it has been assumed that he is dead – and no one knows any differently to date.
So in the strictest sense as the definition above, he may not be a martyr as he wasn’t necessarily killed because of his beliefs, as the tribespeople couldn’t even understand his preaching, and on the face of it, it does seem like madness.
In the broader sense of the word, I think it’s fair to call him a martyr, as that would be one who “sacrifices his or her life, station, or something of great personal value, for the sake of principle or to sustain a cause”. His cause was Christ, his principle was to spread the Gospel and he sacrificed his life for it.
This was living out the message of Jesus to its fullest.
Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
There are those who argue that he died purely because the islanders were hostile towards any who would try and step foot on their land, and his death had nothing to do with whatever purpose Chau went there with, therefore he wasn’t technically martyred.
But if that is the case, then you could make the same point about many of the early Christian martyrs who were killed by the Romans. Sure, there were times of specific and targeted persecutions against the Church, but there was also times where persecution was more of a by-product of the Roman Empire’s hostility to those were disloyal to the Emperor. The men and women who were killed during those times were still seen and declared to be martyrs for the faith since they stood strong in their convictions in the face of death. For example in the early centuries, on pain of death, the people of the Roman Empire had to swear loyalty to the Emperor and publicly perform some act of worship and veneration towards him. This wasn’t an attempt to root out Christians necessarily, but they did refuse to partake due to their beliefs in worshipping God alone and not committing idolatry by performing an act of worship towards the reigning Caesar.
As far as the Romans were concerned, the Christians were traitors and committed a treasonous act. It didn’t really matter why, only that they couldn’t be convinced otherwise and were killed for it to be an example to others. Were these early Christians martyrs or completely mad? How you answer that, I suspect, will inform you of how you view young John Chau’s death.
I, for one, am willing to give him the honour of “martyr” as he truly did count the cost for following his call, which can be seen from his last few journal entries. He didn’t really want to die, and he could have turned around and gone home after his initial contact landed an arrow in his Bible! Interestingly, as Chau mentions in his journal, the arrow went through as far as Isaiah and stopped on a page with a pertinent passage of Scripture:
I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long
to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices
Despite the general perception of Chau and his mission, his plan of action, zeal and calling to this people group; the a amount of press coverage this has gained due to his death has no doubt opened a path for others to walk down in some way. Even if the initial missionary died before seeing his “fruit”, the global media is reporting this event widely at the moment, so maybe in some form the Gospel and Great Commission is being broadcast worldwide.
Maybe the coverage is enough to make people dig deeper into the faith that would drive a young man to “throw away” his life for the sake of Christ. Only time will tell and surely God will use all of this for his own glory and purpose, whatever we think of it.
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