Venkata: The extent of evangelism

An American died trying to preach to a private, prehistoric North Sentinelese people.

Uma Venkata

Between the afternoon of November 16 and the morning of November 17, a 26-year-old American citizen named John Chau was murdered and allegedly buried in the sand on North Sentinel Island in India. The murder was committed by the isolated, prehistoric tribe that lives there, outside the reach of the modern world. North Sentinel lies south of the Andaman Islands of India, which by proxy is responsible for North Sentinel too. This means India’s police are in charge of the response to the Chau murder.

Chau came to preach the word of God to the North Sentinelese. But it is and was illegal under Indian law, even long before Chau’s arrival, to contact or disturb the North Sentinelese tribe. They are not friendly to outsiders, and more importantly, physical exposure to the bacterial cocktail of modern humanity spells inevitable disaster for isolated people like the North Sentinelese. On the other hand, it is similarly illegal to commit murder. Maybe the North Sentinelese should declare residency in some American state with stand-your-ground laws. (That is a joke.) 

However, there is a real reason why the North Sentinelese should not be held accountable for Chau’s death. The North Sentinelese are not part of our society; they actively and consistently refuse to be. Therefore, they have never consented to, however implicitly, our protections, rules, customs or culture. We, on the other hand, absolutely do give that consent by living and participating in the modern world, even though we never really think we do. 

Chau was absolutely aware of the illegality of his plan. He bribed local fishermen to smuggle him to and from the island; after his death, they were arrested. What’s most important, though, is what we know about Chau’s last few days. 

When he arrived on the island, he set himself up in a cove. He waited for tribe members to appear and when they didn’t, he sought them on the beach. From there, they chased him with arrows. He shouted and retreated. He stayed on the island daily, returning during the nights. Through his diary he called the island, “Satan’s last stronghold,” and asked what could make the residents so hostile. 

When he tried to speak to them, he shouted in Xhosa, which is a language from South Africa. What South Africa has to do with an island between India and Myanmar, I have no idea, other than centuries-old, small-minded denigration of all dark-colored people to the same thing. Chau also knew nothing, like the rest of us, about the religious beliefs of the North Sentinelese. But he was convinced that without him they were damned because they were not Christian. I don’t know what convinced him of this — mabye self-aggrandizement or religious brainwashing — but Chau’s attitude was merely destructive colonial history repeating itself.

I am not a theologian. The intricacies of theological philosophy are fascinating, and I’ve been hearing about deeper and more significant meanings as my life has gone on. But I don’t think I’ll ever be convinced the existence or extent of any god, even the Abrahamic one, will warrant or merit risking the lives of one of the purest human forms this world has the good fortune to preserve. That sounds pretty antithetical to God, anyway. The ethics of evangelism alone are a whole new issue — but this is beyond just spreading the Gospel. This is closer to the level of smallpox blankets. We should be past that point by now.