Last week, the world learned of the death of Alabama missionary, John Allen Chau. He had traveled illegally to North Sentinel Island, part of the Andaman Islands under the protection of the Indian government, to convert the last known pre-Neolithic tribe to Christianity. Within only a couple of days, his dead body was dragged out to the beach. The tragedy here lies in a young man (seemingly well intentioned), like many others before him, having been thoroughly indoctrinated and brainwashed to believe that the Christian faith is the only path to salvation and civilization. Even though Christianity has its known origins in the Middle East, like most major religions today, it was absorbed entirely into European culture, and through many reformations and the branching out of different sects, it became a staple of European imperialist power starting with the conquest of the Americas in the 16th century, and the scramble for Africa and seizure of Middle Eastern countries in the 18th century.
From this intertwinement of Christianity and Europe comes the idea that Imperialist powers in Europe were “saving” people from eternal doom when they took over their land and forcefully turned their civilizations into Christian ones. Evangelizing became synonymous with civilizing. Savages needed to be taught the Lord and savior Jesus Christ so that they could begin the process of modernizing. To scare a people into believing their soul is in danger of being burned in Hell for eternity unless they read and follow the Bible, is a powerful way to manipulate them. Missionaries appeared kind and open hearted, which was used to manipulate natives into trusting them. These tactics are still being used today, but in the form of white saviorism. A quote from former prime minister of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta comes to mind when speaking of missionaries and colonialism; “When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.” Christianity and Islam are among the major religions that have imperialist history, though Christianity’s history with colonialism is more recent and therefore its effects can still be seen today. This article does not aim to criticize the religious beliefs of missionaries and other Christians, it is criticizing the practice of using these beliefs to impose a certain dogma on and convert a group of people that have survived just fine without them for centuries. A practice rooted in colonialist and racist attitudes of called white saviorism.
Feminist philosopher Celia Edell, via Everyday Feminism, describes the white savior complex as “when a white character or person rescues people of color from their oppression.” The White Savior sees themselves as a beacon of hope for people in developing countries. The irony here lies that the reason why so many people in developing countries face struggles that most Western people don’t is because of this white savior imperialist attitude (back then characterized as ‘the white man’s burden’) some centuries ago. This complex is telling of the self serving nature of the practice, the positioning of oneself as the beacon of hope, the teacher, the hero, the good white person, ignores the actual needs of the people and further victimizes them instead of empowering or helping them in the long term. Missionaries are a striking example: Intentions may be to “save” non-Christians from hell, this results in imposing your beliefs on a culture that really never asked for it.
According to police officials, John Allen Chau kept a journal where he wrote down his experiences and thoughts on the days leading up to his death, in which his white savior complex really shines through. One day before he was killed, he wrote “I heard the whoops and shouts from the hunt, I made sure to stay out of arrow range… I tried to parrot their words back to them. They burst out laughing… I hollered, ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you’.” The “whoops and shouts from the hunt” evoke an image of savages loud and stomping, bloodthirsty, typical of Western adventure fiction deriving from European colonial discourse from the 17th century. Next he claims he tried to imitate the language they were speaking, and they laughed at him. Because who wouldn’t? What he was trying to accomplish by mimicking their words is a mystery. However Chau argued he was on a ‘divine mission’, passages in his journal describe specific desires he has that almost sound a little fetishist. “I can’t wait to see them around the throne of god worshiping in their own language”, Chau writes in his journal.
Aside from the obvious tactless approach, he made no effort to research untouched tribes. If he had, he would have been informed that contact with the outside world can transmit diseases and viruses that they don’t have, and can be fatal. Similar to the situation hundreds of years ago when the first Europeans wiped out millions of natives in the Americas. According to PBS, 90% of Native Americans died as a result of thriving germs and viruses Europeans brought with them. Then, the question arises, what would Chau have said in response to this, would it have been God’s work to endanger the Sentinelese people like that?
Many Western young people travel to developing countries on ‘missions’ to build schools, or teach them English, etc. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be involved in social projects and helping out, in fact many of these people are kind hearted and well intentioned. But their practice is rooted in colonialist strategy that brought oppression to too many people. Oppression whose effects are felt today and is the reason why these young people even feel the need to go and help out the “poor African kids”: It comes from a feeling of superiority that is often caused by too little knowledge on the countries they want to help. The result can be seen on Facebook, with cringey profile pictures of said white young modern “missionaries” posing with black or brown children, holding them like trophies. This is self serving because they cast themselves as the heroes when it shouldn’t be about them. The notion that our Western civilization is the only true civilization is bullshit. You relationship with your god/s or other worldview is your business, not anybody else’s.
Another issue surrounding the death of John Allen Chau, is the fact that his misadventure was illegal. Chau was very well aware of this, as he wrote in his journal the night that he had to hide from Indian patrol authorities guarding the island, that “God himself was hiding us from the Coastal Guard and some patrols.” The audacity in this statement is selfish and entitled. These kinds of statements romanticize the white savior and demonize the local authorities doing their jobs. The law was put in place to protect the Sentinelese, but whatever the reason, the fact that Chau took it upon himself to disrespect the laws of the country he was travelling in attests to a bigger issue of Western entitlement in this New Age traveller hipster culture. Young Western travellers have little regard for the laws and norms of the countries they visit, we saw it with US swimmer Ryan Lochte during the Rio Olympics where he and his friends vandalized a gas station bathroom then, lied that they were robbed at gunpoint (according to The Guardian), relying on the stereotype of Latin American drug dealers and men of color being aggressive and dangerous. We saw it again in 2017 when a group of American college spring breakers in Cancun, Mexico began chanting ‘build that wall’, in reference to Donald Trump’s campaign promise to build a big border wall with Mexico. This entitlement is a distant (or perhaps not so distant) cousin of colonial missionary attitude, where the laws of the locals can be ignored because it is assumed they are not sophisticated enough anyway, but God forbid foreigners from breaking the law in your country. Because your laws are sacred, they are God’s law after all, right?
Text: Anaël Jordan
Images: Helen Weeres