In Focus

'Christian missions used to neutralise opposition to Imperial penetration'

Yogesh Pawar* | Mumbai

“The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it. Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve. This is true even of the pious brethren who carry the gospel to foreign parts.”
― HL Mencken, Minority Report

Indian officials have “put on hold” efforts to retrieve the body of the American proselytiser John Allen Chau who reportedly fell to Sentinelese arrows on the Andaman islands on November 17th. While the government says this is being done to protect the endangered tribe which shuns outside contact, this whole episode has brought sharply into focus how white Christian supremacism continues to make inroads into India and other developing countries piggybacking on the Gospel.

The Sentinelese are known to be very protective of their land

While lamenting Chau's “unfortunate death,” chairperson at the Centre for Exclusion Studies at Mumbai's Tata Institute of Social Sciences Professor Avatthi Ramaiah says majoritarian religions have always tried to ensnare marginalised communities like Adivasis and Dalits with false pretences. “Their real purpose is never religion but lulling people into piety and keeping them diverted whatever little land and resources they have are taken away.”

He reminisces theologian and civil rights champion Bishop Desmond Tutu who often quotes Chinua Achebe (from the 1958 novel Things Fall Apart) on this. “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

According to Ramaiah the assumption that the proselytiser knows best is deeply problematic. “Who gives him the right to think of locals as poor souls waiting to be saved from their own gods and beliefs and herded to the ones he chooses?” Across India, Ramaiah points out Adivasis, Dalits and even several OBC communities pray to spirits and local deities. “Why should they trade a familiar belief system for one which they have no connection with just because some outsider says it is wrong?”

But that's not how some Western media and Christian rights groups/websites have reported the issue. Look at Christianity Today International's report: “John Allen Chau was killed by the tribesmen of the remote North Sentinel Island while attempting to share Christ with them,” offers an Ed Stetzer (Nov 28) report which almost gives the late proselytising supremacist a hagiographic halo.

It says: “Chau was not a rogue individual, cavalierly traveling to a protected island as an adventure stunt... he was an intelligent, educated, humble, and gentle man who intensely focused over years on one, singular goal: to reach the North Sentinelese with the message of the gospel.”

Similarly a Jane Fryer report (Daily Mail, Nov 22nd) stands out for its OTT racist hysteria. Wordaciously headlined: “World's last Stone Age tribe: What life is REALLY like on the island cut off from everyone for 30,000 years where locals repel all visitors with poison arrows - and killed a young missionary,” it says, “for thousands of years the sex-starved tribe have feasted on wild pig, clams, berries and honey, engaged in energetic communal sex sessions on the beach and repelled pretty much every visitor (well-meaning or threatening) with a flurry of poison arrows and razor sharp machetes.”

Speaking for the Archdioceses of Bombay, spokesperson Fr. Nigel Barrett said: “The international press who use words like ‘Stone Age tribals’ and 'while doing God's work,' are misinformed and catering to their audience. All faith traditions foster goodwill and peace.” The archdiocese says what Chau did was personal choice, the possible consequences were public knowledge. It however insists, “It is unfair to target the Christian community with the bogey of conversion. The Catholic Church in India - as a whole – has held fast to the principle that all people should practice their faith in peace, and has contributed selflessly and tirelessly in the service of our nation, showcasing to the world how diversity lives in unity.”

While highlighting the contribution of the community in the field of education and healthcare he underlined how statistical data from the Government census indicates that the Christian population has declined, not increased. “If we were aggressively pursuing a doctrine of conversion our numbers would increase and not the reverse.”

The archdiocese also feels too much should not be read into the silence from the community on the episode. “In general, we as a community do not raise our voice on most issues, preferring to concentrate on working for the common good rather than making statements. In this particular case, here was an individual who chose to take a risk that cost him his life. His actions and his approach do not reflect the understanding of the Church which respects the wish of the Sentinelese to be left undisturbed. There are laws for this in place and we respect the law.”

Dolphy Dsouza, a respected name in the community who has been both Bombay Catholic Sabha president and the vice-president of the All India Catholic Union echoes the archdiocese. “Over the last three decades, the Catholic church has shown a marked emphasis on ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue world over. This has got further buttressed under Pope Francis,” he says.

Iain Buchanan who has authored The Armies of God: A Study in Militant Christianity scoffs at how the whole North Sentinel Island affair has been presented as another tragic case of missionary martyrdom at the hands of violent non-believers just like it is done in China, Ecuador, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, and the Cameroons. “The martyred like Chau are not hapless do-gooders caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are knowing, wilful, well-funded, and well-tutored agents one of the biggest, richest, and most successful global industries to spring out of the Western world – the modern evangelical movement,” he says.

He further explains: “The modern evangelical movement has about half-a-million full-time workers, and every year sends out around three million short-term workers; it has over 4,000 subsidiary agencies, an elaborate, highly developed, and tightly-integrated global management structure, a close partnership with the West’s most powerful governments, and the backing of the world’s largest corporations; and it has at its disposal at least $400 billion in liquid assets, a fleet of 200 aircraft, and over 300 million computers worldwide with an intelligence system that has data-banked information on every community on earth down to the smallest village.”

He underlines how this information – and associated resources – are used to target every culture and cultural sub-group on earth for conversion. “Much of its work is camouflaged, and to enable work within non-Western cultures most of its mission workers are now non-white.”

Even a cursory look at the 26-year-old Chau's diary indicates his delusion, hallucinations, disorganized thinking, bizarre and inappropriate behavior and a loss of contact with reality. Describing his journey to the North Senitnel Island in the early hours of November 15 he says: “All along the way, our boat was highlighted by bioluminescent planktons – and as fish jumped nearby, we could see their line darting mermaids shimmering along. The Milky Way was above and god himself was shielding us from the coast guard and navy patrols.”

Later Chau describes his hostile first contact and mentions a Sentinelese man “well built with a round face one fly on right face cheek and yellowish pigment in circles on his cheeks and about 5ft 5” He mentions how the tribals took both his gifts and his kayak. “And the little kid shot me with an arrow – directly into my Bible which I was holding in front of my chest. I grabbed the arrow shaft as it broke in my bible and felt its arrow head. It was metal, thin, but very sharp. I stumbled back and recall yelling at the kid for shooting me – now as I look back at it, my Bible cover looks like bark – like tree bark, so maybe he was just curious but yikes, it sure gave me a fright.” Chau mentions shouting to them: “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you!” But when the Sentinelese began shooting arrows and Chau swam back to the fishermen's boat.

In his diary entry on November 16, Chau seems to sense danger. Yet he makes another attempt at an interface with the Sentinelese after writing to his parents back in the US, asking them to forgive the Sentinelese and not be angry with god if he dies. “This is not a pointless thing – the eternal lives of this tribe are at hand and I can't wait to see them around the throne of god worshiping in their own language as Revelations 7:9-10 states,” he says and adds: “I love you all and I pray none of you love anything in this world more than Jesus Christ,” with the same sign off as before.

Strangely the same Chau believed that the North Sentinel Island was a demonic bastion. “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” he reportedly wrote in one of his last diary entries, shared by his mother.

What drives the missionary zeal? Buchanan says the reasons are political, cultural and religious. “Politically, many marginal communities (especially remote tribal communities) live in strategically important areas – border regions, mineral-rich areas, timber lands, militarily significant zones etc. Historically, Christian missions have been used to neutralize local opposition to imperial penetration,” he says and adds, “Culturally, 'civilization' abhors survival of the 'pre-civilized'– nomadic, pastoral, Neolithic small tribe, etc. The civilized man is also imperial – subsistence alternatives must be co-opted, incorporated, controlled, and at the very least patronised.”

He further indicates how a part of the problem with complex industrial societies is the intolerance of self-sufficient simplicity and says: “Religiously, the animism of such marginal communities poses a threat to theistic beliefs of evangelical Christianity, which has evolved a determined and doctrinaire response to 'the other' – whether animist, secular, Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist. This 'other' must be converted. It is a tenet of evangelicalism that the Christian must spread the word: modern evangelicals have taken this a step furtherby creating a vast purpose-built industry for evangelising each and every “unreached people group” on earth.

And history shows how illegal, immoral and wholly unwelcome missionary interventions like Chau's are neither isolated nor rare. The Indian subcontinent has seen proselytisers arriving in swathes with traders who came to plunder and colonise from the early 16th Century. The Goa Inquisition, a colonial-era Portuguese institution created by the Roman Catholic Holy Office (16th-19th century), may be recalled, where Portuguese Jesuit clergy indulged in the most horrific human rights excesses and persecution not only against natives who did not convert or but also against those who did, but did not do so to the exclusion of their forefathers' religious and sociocultural traditions. Apart from prolonged prison terms, public floggings, beheadings and burnings at the stake, the missionaries also confiscated any books written in Sanskrit, Marathi, or Konkani found in Goa which they said helped perpetrate heresy.

Buchanan says Sentinelese are a particularly resistant example of people challenging the certainty and righteousness of the proselytisers. “There are many other resistant communities, large and small – from the major non-Christian religions to small tribes in the Amazon, the New Guinea uplands or various Asian borderlands. The evangelical movement identifies over 3,000 cultural groups to be targeted for proselytization. Eventually, most of these will be penetrated and undermined – by a multitude of tactics, both overt and covert.” And why is this being done? “Because the dominant global imperialism is still white and Christian – and religious imperialism is always the handmaiden of secular imperialism,” says the writer.

Taking away agency
Given the considerable distance the human rights narrative has marched since, one would think the idea of one man's God being superior than the other's was over and done with. Many like Meena Seshu of the National Network of Sex Workers are amazed it is still going strong. She spoke of how evangelical groups in their bid to push their proselytisation agenda do not realise the extreme dehumanization they subject the marginalised communities to. “Often this robs them of all agency over their lives, belief systems and even resources/income generation avenues. What's this is often achieved with enticement or coercion.”

She expressed her ire at the missionaries' moral lens which goes beyond the purview of Indian law “to save women in sex work.” In fact such overzealous foreign-funded interventions led to women in the sex work network coining the slogan 'Save Us From The Saviours!' “Worldover sex worker’s rights' movements fight to claim dignity for consensual sex work by adults for money but this kind of intervention keeps pushing the clock back,” protests Seshu. Worryingly, she highlighted how an organisation with evangelical links - Freedom First - was currently organising raids on sex workers in cahoots with local police in Nagpur. “They organised such 'rescue missions' in 2006 in Western Maharashtra's Sangli belt too with an American missionary Greg Malstead but faced massive collective resistance from the women's groups. That they've shifted operations to Central India where the RSS is headquartered and in a state where the BJP rules indicates the brazennessimpunity with which they function,” she told this writer.

Repeated attempts to reach Malstead for reaction directly and his organisation's Ooty headquarters drew a blank.

Folly in God's name
Many like author and distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, Thomas S Kidd have correctly nuanced the criticism of Chau's folly. “The core convictions of evangelical Christians, like slain missionary John Chau, to spread the Gospel are becoming increasingly incomprehensible to a post-Christian America,” he said in an article for The Gospel Coalition. “No better illustration of that incomprehensibility came in the media reaction to the tragic death of John Allen Chau while he was trying to reach the isolated hunter-gatherer society of North Sentinel Island, far off the coast of India,” he wrote and insisted, “If there is no afterlife (or if we can’t know anything about the afterlife) then what Chau was doing was the height of foolishness.”

Despite changes in American culture over the past few decades, he laments how evangelical conviction “about the transcendent truth of the Gospel for all people endures,” and says: “That conviction drives many to do seemingly reckless things in order to share the gospel, even with those who don’t want to hear it. We can expect some in the watching world to denounce such evangelists as fools and meddlers.”

But why are human rights/minority rights groups not as vocal in protesting proselytisation? Buchanan says this happens because 'human rights industry' is by and large, in incahoots with the proselytisers. “Of course, there are local independent activists fighting injustice in every country, but their voices are not widely broadcast/amplified. The loudest voice is the West’s 'human rights industry', which is closely embraced by a vast and complex machinery for shaping global and local activism to the West’s secular and religious agenda.”

He points out how the two largest cogs in this machinery are WorldVision and Youth With A Mission: both deeply entrenched in the highest echelons of US politics (both groups are close to the Washington power-broking clique known as “The Family”). “Together, the two agencies have almost 20,000 full-time workers working in over 170 countries with over 1,000 bases. Both are extremely well funded (for years, WV’s budget exceeded the routine budget of the United Nations!) and both have complex, diverse, and tightly-integrated structures more powerful and successful than many large global corporations.”

In the North Sentinel Islands episode, these two agencies are organically linked to the main culprits in the field. The All Nations International ministry (of which Chau was an agent) was founded by Floyd Mcclung, one-time international director of Youth With A Mission, and is now run by Mary Ho, who for many years was a World Vision manager in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Like the Huaorani (Ecuador), the Yanomami (Brazil), the Hewa (New Guinea), the Akha (Thailand) or the Pashto (Afghanistan), one can only fear for the Sentinelese who are now in the front line of a war for the last few remnant souls of the unreached – and the 'uncivilised.'

And they are up against the most powerful force on earth. God knows!

Live And Let Live
* The 50-odd km sq North Sentinel island is home to an estimated 80 to 150 people, according to last census figures
* Currently, six tribes—the Great Andamanese, Onges, Jarawas and Sentinelese on Andaman, and Shompen and Nicobarese on Nicobar live on reserved land
* No one can visit them without permission from government authorities
American proselytiser John Allen Chau reportedly fell to Sentinelese arrows on the Andaman islands on November 17

Modern evangelical movement
Five lakh Full-time workers
30 lakh Short-term workers
4,000 Subsidiary agencies
$400 billion Liquid assets
200 Size of their aircraft fleet
300 m Computers worldwide with an intelligence system

* The writer of this article works with DNA. A version of this article first appeared here.

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