In the Old Testament, Proverbs 16:18 warns, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Haughty pride caused John Allen Chau’s destruction and fall.
He’s the young man from Washington state who decided that what a small tribe on a remote island needed was his personally delivered taste of that ol’ time religion. What he found was an early grave.
Chau didn’t die from the tribesmen’s arrows. He was killed by his own arrogance.
A self-styled Christian missionary, Chau tried to foist his presence and beliefs on the Sentinelese tribe. For centuries they have lived on North Sentinel Island, part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, hundreds of miles off the southeastern coast of India. Their lives are untouched by even a hint of modernity, and they do not welcome visitors. Ever.
Chau was an invader who breached their homeland; they stood their ground. Let no one else die or be punished for his hubris.
Those who helped Chau get to the island have been charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder and violating rules that protect aboriginal tribes. Even Chau’s grieving family doesn’t want to see others suffer for his ill-fated decision.
“We forgive those reportedly responsible for his death,” they posted on Chau’s Instagram page. “We also ask for the release of those friends he had in the Andaman Islands. He ventured out on his own free will and his local contacts need not be persecuted for his own actions.”
Others, meanwhile, are risking their lives trying to retrieve Chau’s body. Indian police this week took a boat near the island, but dared not step foot on it. Armed with bows and arrows, tribesmen were patrolling the beach near where Chau is believed to be buried.
This is what Chau’s foolishness has wrought against the Sentinelese, who only want to live in isolation and peace. Now that his exploits have raised awareness of their existence, there is also a risk that they will now be targeted by practitioners of so-called tribal tourism, voyeuristic travelers who intrude on indigenous cultures for an extreme vacation experience.
Any interactions with outsiders endangers the Sentinelese. “The risk of a deadly epidemic of flu, measles or other outside disease is very real, and increases with every contact,” Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, an advocacy group for tribal peoples’ rights, told the BBC. “Mr. Chau’s body should be left alone, as should the Sentinelese.”
In his zealotry, Chau viewed himself as a righteous man eager “to declare Jesus to these people.” In a letter to his parents, he also wondered if North Sentinel Island was “Satan’s last stronghold,” and asked “What makes [its residents] become this defensive and hostile?”
They’re defensive about protecting their homeland. They’re hostile only to intruders. Chau refused to see that.
Like centuries of self-aggrandizing missionaries before him, Chau saw himself as a humble servant of God. He sought to use his waterproof Bible to compel those he viewed as savages from their perceived godlessness. Their worth extended only as far as his ability to coerce them into accepting his beliefs. This is piety weaponized into a tool of domination and supremacy, meant to crush nonconforming cultures. It’s what white Europeans did to indigenous people and enslaved people to tame and control them.
Some Christian compatriots have already anointed Chau as “a martyr.” He’s not. He did not die in defense of his religion. Instead he made a fatal miscalculation in deciding that his way and his God were the only acceptable path. He cared more for his flawed ideas about saving souls than about respecting lives.
Chau died trying to force on others his way of life; the Sentinelese did what they deemed necessary to protect theirs.
Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.