The Romanticism of Uncontacted Peoples Isn’t So Romantic

In Death of a Missionary Tunku Varadarajan criticizes the motivation and seeming foolishness of missionary John Allen Chau, the young man recently killed by the North Sentinel Islanders as Chau attempted to bring them the Christian Gospel.

Varadarajan defends an anthropological theory popular with many concerning uncontacted people groups. The uncontacted peoples theory argues that these tribes deep in the forests of the Amazon, the remote islands of the Indian and Pacific oceans, and elsewhere are to be protected from outsiders. For one, we, in modern society, carry immunities from centuries of battling disease that the uncontacted people do not. A mere cold virus can wipe out a tribe in weeks, as has happened many times in the past. As well, modern society has other corrupting influences that disrupt traditional societies in ways beyond repair. Government agencies, like Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, non-profits, and university anthropology departments promote an “eyes on, hands off” approach. Keep an eye on where these tribes reside, and keep our modern hands off them and their way of life.

Varadarajan is right to question the “romance of Chau and his messy, martyred end” which broke Indian law, risked the islanders health, and resulted in his own demise. There are a plethora of updated evangelization techniques employed by denominations and mission agencies across the Christian church which are improvements from past mistakes demonstrated by this sincere young man. The problem with Varadarajan’s argument, however, is that he denigrates one romance while uncritically supporting another.

Supporters of the eye on, hands off approach with uncontacted peoples paternalisticly view these tribes as blessed utopias unscathed by the detriments of modernity. Varadarajan would have us pretend living so close to nature, half naked, and un-corrupted by today’s complex societal issues is preferable, and subversively, our gift to them. Hearing such theorists argue for a blissful tribal life brings to our mind’s eye Gauguin’s Tahitian women and we wonder what happened to our copy of Thoreau’s Walden from college.

May we not replace one romanticized view of the valiant colonizing missionary with the romanticism of remote civilization.

Uncontacted peoples have not the benefits of modern medicine, advance technology, and evolved tribal systems like ours. Simple diseases and basic malformations like cleft palates, skin ailments, and rotten teeth make life miserable. Tribal life is dominated by physical power and brute authority, with which even we today continue to struggle. Perhaps they do not want, or even need, an iPhone, but even yesteryear’s tools can radically improve the quality of life when you need to eat, feed your children, and build adequate shelter.

Finally, what Varadarajan fails to recognize in Chau’s Christian zeal is that the Gospel is more than merely one’s personal salvation. The whole Gospel leads the Christ follower, after a confession of faith, to love the world as God loves the world, and that leads to flourishing communities in which Christian and non-Christian alike benefit. Should Chau’s vision, and mine, ever unfold in which the Sentinelese embrace Christ and exercise His vision for community in their midst, we know from the trajectory of human history that great flourishing would come to them, even in the most basic elements of a quality life.

Women’s rights emerged out of Christian Europe which prevent men from exercising a might-makes-right authority, and often abuse. Dignity for the vulnerable, like the unborn, children, and the elderly, is a societal improvement notably introduced by the Christ followers of the Roman empire. Universal education, hospices, and the abolition of slavery are just a few of the benefits Chau would have hoped to see uncontacted peoples enjoy.

On the one hand, Chau’s missional wisdom was shortsighted and did not incorporate the generations of wisdom that has matured the Christian mission movement. Likewise, may we not uncritically and paternalistically adopt a romanticized view of uncontacted people’s daily lives. I bet if one were to get beyond the men’s initial bows and arrows there are a number of women eager to know they have a voice, agency, healthier options for their children, and even more good news to learn about Jesus.

Dr. Case Thorp is senior associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, and moderator-elect of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

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