John Allen Chau, The Sentinelese, and The Problem with “Sinner’s Prayer” Theology
Earlier this week I saw a news report on my Facebook timeline that would soon be picked up by the collective internet and transformed into the next viral sensation: a young missionary by the name of John Allen Chau traveled to North Sentinel Island in an attempt to convert the islanders who lived there, a group completely separate from the modern world, to Christianity. He accomplished this with the help of a friend from the area and some others including fishermen who were willing to break the law (it’s illegal for outsiders to venture to the island) in exchange for money from Mr. Chau. Almost instantaneously, as modern internet culture is inclined to do, I saw everyone and their mother commenting on the bizarre incident. Some were defending his actions, claiming that he was just trying to do the right thing by attempting to save these people, most were condemning his actions and stating that what happened was the logical conclusion to such a poorly thought out plan, others still were even celebrating his death and then, of course, there were the memes…
Throughout all of this I had myriad of feelings come and go as more and more about the incident was reported on and as I saw more and more folks commenting about it. I was saddened that a young man who seemed so full of life, not matter how misguided he may have been, was now dead and had left a family behind to mourn his passing. I was concerned for the tribe, hoping no ill will would be extended towards them and praying that they had not been exposed to illness and disease that they wouldn’t be equipped to recover from. I was frustrated that theology such as his was still wide spread enough for his actions to be praised and for him to be lifted up as a martyr of the faith by various Christian groups and individuals. I was disappointed to see so many making light of yet another person’s death, including myself as I couldn’t stop myself from laughing at one or two of the memes.
As I read on and brewed in my emotions, I realized there wasn’t a whole lot of understanding on either side about why he did what he did and how the problematic theology behind his actions could so easily lead to him journeying down the path that he took. I realized that it didn’t seem many folks could trace from point A to point B how what he believed about salvation and what he would have called “spreading the gospel” lead him to make such a dangerous and poorly thought out decision that ultimately ended up killing him. I feel that I can speak on such theology, because I came from a very similar world where the most loving and life changing thing you could do for a person is tell them about Jesus plus everything else Evangelical Christianity has attached to “telling people about Jesus,” which often consists of informing a person of heaven, hell, the rapture, and ultimately leading them in a prayer that would open the door for them to “give their life to Jesus.” For the purposes of this blog I’m going to refer to the type of Christianity practiced by Mr. Chau and others like him as “Sinner’s Prayer Christianity.”
Sinner’s Prayer Christianity is any form of Christianity where one must say a prayer where one verbally admits that they are a sinner, commits to believe in Jesus, which equates to believing that he is the son of God, that he died for your sins (in the name of God, by God’s hand, exhausting God’s wrath on a perfect sacrifice), that he was raised from the dead, is coming back one day, and generally includes an invitation directed at Jesus to “enter one’s heart.” In circles that use the sinner’s prayer, it acts as a form of initiation into the religion. The most important part of this prayer for those within various forms of Sinner’s Prayer Christianity is that it saves the person who utters it from ending up in hell to be tortured for all of eternity. After having said this prayer and entering into the community, one is encouraged to get as many people as they can, for the rest of their life, to hear the message within the prayer, get as many people as possible to believe the contents of the prayer, and also get as many people to say the prayer as one possibly can. I can’t say this for sure because I didn’t know the guy at all, but this is likely the gist of what John Allen Chau believed and what he set out to do during his mission.
In the mind of Mr.Chau, someone had to tell the islanders about Jesus or they were never going to have a chance to escape hell. He took what’s taught in so many Churches across the country and the world and followed that line of thinking to an inevitable conclusion and it got him killed.
To many, both Christian and not Christian, the version of Christianity that informed Mr.Chau’s theology is the only version of the religion that they’ve ever known. In fact, if you asked most people who’ve grown up primarily in areas where Evangelical Christianity is the primary religion what the ultimate mission of a Christian should be, they’d probably tell you that it was to get people to accept Jesus into their hearts and convert them so that they don’t end up in hell. The fact of the matter is, however, that Christianity is just as varied as other religions and that Sinner’s Prayer Christianity (or Evangelical Christianity) is but one expression of the faith. Myself, and countless others found everywhere from mainline Protestant denominations, Catholic Cathedrals, Quaker meeting places, and even many of those found within denominations such as Baptist and non-denominational Churches, understand the gospel, and the sacred texts that preach it, quite differently.
You see, when I read the Bible, I see a gospel of which the main focus isn’t getting people to say a prayer in order to ensure that their eternal destination doesn’t consist of torture and flames. When I read the gospels I see apocalyptic imagery in a few places, but I see said imagery and the bulk of the gospel as having little or nothing to do at all with heaven as a place out there and up there nor hell being a place out there and down there. When the gospels speak of “heaven” and “hell” they seem to almost exclusively be speaking about places and circumstances in this physical plane of existence, both those present during the time the gospel accounts were being written and those that were predicted to come later. When I read the gospels I see Jesus only allude to the afterlife outside of parables (not meant to be taken literally, mind you) a few times and when he does so he seems to be purposely allusive about what such an afterlife will be like. The gospels portray the message of Jesus as something having everything to do with how we relate to one another and how we relate to God in the here and now. He showed his followers, both those in the first century and those of us who follow him today, by example how to be both truly human and truly divine, and how our dualistic ways of seeing the world had kept us from perceiving and understanding that concept. He taught a kenotic (self giving) form of love that demanded nonviolence, love of self, love of neighbor, and even love of enemy. He taught that even when you’ve been unjustly sentenced to death by the very systems your message opposed, that your final action should be forgiveness and peace. He taught us to include and associate with those that society deems as outsiders, to stand with oppressed and marginalized communities, and to fight for their reconciliation and inclusion into the communities they come from. Finally, he taught us through his resurrection that he and his way were in fact vindicated by God and that by following him, we can learn to let go of fear to the point where our own death no longer concerns us. To me, all of THIS is salvation, and this salvation places very little focus on what the afterlife is like other than it must be good and founded in unconditional love because God is good and is Himself unconditional love.
When I think of salvation in this way I see very little need to tell people about Jesus in order to save them from eternal torment in a literal, post-humus hell. Rather, I feel a need to show people that the life Jesus modeled, the message Jesus taught, the way Jesus treated people and the way Jesus saw the world, the universe and beyond is the only way for us to realize our true humanity, the divine spark within everything, and the oneness the connects us all hidden just below the surface of our dualistic minds.
In regards to the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island, I feel no need to travel across the world with the intention to risk my own life and the well being of a tribe of people untouched by the outside world who would by hyper susceptible to any number of diseases that I might introduce to them that would likely kill them, all so that I can speak at them in a language they don’t understand about a religion they don’t understand born in another cultural climate that I myself hardly understand, in an attempt to save them from a hypothetical fiery torture chamber that I have no way of knowing actually exists or not. Risking my own life and the lives of innocents, who absolutely will have no way of understandings me, all because I believe that my religious beliefs are automatically superior to the beliefs the indigenous people conform to even though I have absolutely no idea WHAT they believe or how they live those beliefs out? Sounds a whole lot like ideological colonialism to me. Instead, I stand firm in my belief that, if God is like Jesus, that these people will be just fine in whatever afterlife awaits us all whether they ever hear the name “Jesus” or not. I’ll focus on living out my Christian walk the best that I can, surrendering my own ego to something greater, seeing the divine spark that exists in every person and in all things and imitating Jesus moment to moment all in the hope that I can be a light in the lives of those around me. Who knows? If I do all of this well, I may even get to teach this walk directly or indirectly to the people I encounter day in and day out. For me, this sounds much closer to the gospel of Jesus than what occurred on North Sentinel Island.
In short, no disrespect to Mr.Chau, but what happened was NOT the gospel in any way, shape or form. Thanks for reading.