Opinion | Missionary training endangers other cultures


Via Wikimedia Commons/NASA Earth Observatory

The Indian government monitors the Andaman Islands territories, including North Sentinel Island (pictured), home to the Sentinelese tribe, one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes that has little to no contact with outside populations.

By Kim Rooney, Contributing Editor

When preparing to visit an island in the Andaman Sea, one might focus on travel logistics or which bathing suit to pack. But John Chau’s preparation to go to North Sentinel Island was founded on teachings that assume the island’s inhabitants are neglected people who need to know that the Creator God exists.

These beliefs, taught to some missionaries before they go abroad, are part of a larger pattern of dehumanizing people of other cultures, treating them and their religions as less legitimate and harming the people missionaries are trying to help.

Missionary work has a long history of colonialism and paternalism. Recent missionary work has shifted to focus on humanitarian efforts rather than just conversion, but Chau’s death on North Sentinel Island has called secular and missionary attention to the dubious ethics of missionary work.

Chau violated the chosen isolation of the Sentinelese and broke Indian laws protecting their choice. His repeated attempts at contact ultimately led to his death around Nov. 16 after several nonfatal attempts by the Sentinelese to drive him away. But his actions were preceded by dehumanizing missionary training that encourages harmful ways of thinking about and approaching people of other cultures.

North Sentinel Island was relatively obscure before Chau’s visit. Its inhabitants are among the estimated 100 uncontacted tribes in an increasingly globalizing world and they have protected their isolation with attacks on visitors stretching back to the 19th century. While there have been a few successful attempts at contact, experts discourage people from traveling there.

Despite these warnings, Chau wanted to bring Christianity to the Sentinelese for years. He learned of them in high school through the Joshua Project, a Christian nonprofit that researches populations with the fewest Christians to encourage church-planting movements and conversions. The project’s description of the Sentinelese includes limited information on their housing and diets, as well as their “need to know that the Creator God exists, and that He loves them and paid the price for their sins,” which prompted Chau’s interest in the group.

The goal of the worldwide spread of Christianity is driven by the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, in which Jesus tells his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations … and teac[h] them to obey everything I have commanded you.” This passage, referred to as the Great Commission, makes missionary work worth the risk in the hopes of converting others and saving their eternal souls.  

Before traveling to North Sentinel Island, Chau completed training at All Nations, an organization whose name and mission is based on the Gospel of Matthew excerpt. It aims to spread Christianity to the “neglected peoples of the Earth.” As part of the training, Chau was dropped off in a remote location in Kansas and had to engage missionaries dressed in thrift-store clothes who approached with fake spears and spoke gibberish.

To Chau’s credit, he also studied linguistics and became an emergency medical technician. Yet the bootcamp training in which he participated puts some of the worst assumptions about missionaries on display.

Having people imitate a different language by speaking gibberish shows disrespect for the systems of organization that languages have. Equating other languages as disorganized nonsense vocalizations ignores the potential to communicate by paying attention to patterns of communication.

The clothing, when coupled with the gibberish, leads to the assumption that target populations are impenetrably foreign. It may seem harmless, but it fails to lay the groundwork for understanding other cultures, which requires an acknowledgement of an internal logic within their beliefs. In the context of training Westerners to interact with people of non-Western cultures, the costumes reinforce the othering and dehumanization of those groups.

The use of spears obscures the purpose of the weapons and fails to adequately prepare missionaries for how other cultures may actually react to their presence. Instead, the violence seems random and not an effect of different backgrounds and histories of violence and self-defense.

But knowing and understanding a group’s past is vital to understanding what shaped their ways of behavior and thought. In the case of the Sentinelese, they are known for their violent history with outsiders, but it may be rooted in their interactions with colonial Britain in 1880, when six Sentinelese were kidnapped, two of whom died in British captivity. They also tend to use bows and arrows, rather than spears, when interacting with outsiders.

Treating other beliefs as less legitimate is condescending to other cultures but is a central part of the legacy of Western colonization. Christianity existed long before European countries began colonizing Asia, Africa and the Americas, but the effects of the believed superiority were harmful and have had lasting impacts on how people, cultures and nations interact today.

Even if missionaries believe that other religions are false or misguided, a basic respect for other beliefs is necessary to engage with people in a way that minimizes harm. But the belief that all ethnic groups need Christianity is grounded in religious prejudice and a sense of superiority that precludes full understanding and empathy for others.

Some nations such as India and Iran make their rejection of Christianity and distrust of missionaries clear. But even those who do not make Christianity explicitly illegal should still be allowed to reject Christianity and the presence of missionaries, especially given its history of destroying other cultures.

Spreading Christianity to people of other cultures and religions should be balanced with the importance of respecting others’ religious autonomy, especially for less-practiced religions and cultures. Whether people want to accept or even be introduced to Christianity should be their choice, and if a group of people makes it clear that they do not want to be converted, missionaries should respect that choice.

But if missionaries are still determined to convert, then concurrent goals should be understanding and empathy for other groups so that potential converts are more likely to listen and understand in turn. This requires missionaries to respect the histories of other peoples and to see their languages as more than gibberish. Failure to do so would only reinforce dehumanizing attitudes toward other cultures.