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    Island Shore

    Witnesses of the Kingdom

    By Rachel Pieh Jones

    January 18, 2019
    • Mary Stone

      Thank you for this well thought-out piece based, at least in part, on your experience of living in another culture. We appreciate you and pray for you!

    • Lawrence

      Thank you for your thoughtful, kind, well-researched, loving consideration of Mr. Chau and everyone else connected with this unhappy situation.

    • Adam Shaw

      Thank you for your thoughts and wrestling ! I am a United Methodist missionary myself and I also have been wrestling with the method of John Allen Chau's witness. I very much appreciated your sharing and you have given voice and word what I have struggled to articulate myself, yet still resonates deeply in my own experience and that of the people I am in solidarity with.

    • Rev Jenni Ho-Huan

      The Gospel and being WItnesses are subjects I keep coming back to. Really appreciate how you put it across, especially about seeking to see what God is already doing. It makes for a case for mission agencies to do send missionaries who are information gatherers, or a witness of another kind! This is a thoughtful and needed piece. While everyone of us has to seek and live our convictions, we can certainly arrive at stronger ones if we also listened to each other more! I live among Muslims and they are friends too. Thank you.

    • Robert Di Grappa

      I feel for Mr. Chau, but he was another disillusioned child led to believe too many false teachings of the orthodox churches in regards to being a child of the Most High and what exactly that involves. I find it interesting that the Master remarked to the religious teachers of the day that they would encompass the world to make one convert and afterwards he would become worse than before! This is an interesting subject, one that can't be covered in a short paragraph so I will sign off thinking about what is written, "by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God not of works, lest any man boast."

    John Allen Chau had a message to deliver, which he shouted: “My name is John Chau. I love you and Jesus loves you.”

    The islanders killed him on November 17, 2018.

    Chau aimed to be an evangelizing witness to an isolated group on an island off the Indian coast. His goal, actions, and death have stirred an intense debate online, in newspapers, and in churches. What is the role of a missionary religion? What are the ethics of breaking laws in order to be a witness?

    As a Christian who has lived in Muslim majority countries since 2003 (Somalia and Djibouti), I’ve been wrestling with Chau’s story. It would be easy to choose one of two polarized ideas about Chau’s actions and then apply them to people of faith everywhere. One, he was a raging colonialist and egomaniac promoting an unloving, triumphalist Christianity. Or two, he is a spiritual hero, a martyr; he inspires faith, courage, and taking risks in the name of God. Unfortunately, I fall in the middle and nuance, gray, and paradox are not popular in today’s culture. It’s not easy to unpack and I’m not sure I grasp all the complexities myself. Let me try.

    My husband and I are open about being Christians, loving Jesus, and reading the Bible, and are respectful of Islam. This is not difficult. One of our deep joys has been learning from Muslims over these sixteen years abroad. From prayer to fasting, community, generosity, and hospitality, my personal faith has been transformed as I’ve witnessed God at work all over the globe, particularly in the lives of my Muslim community, people who love Allah and who structure their lives around authentic worship and the outward expression of their conviction.

    I haven’t asked pointed questions about what it means to be an American Christian abroad.

    But, while the experience of a cross-cultural faith has influenced me, I haven’t interrogated it – and the assumptions I’ve held – deeply enough. I have been changed by these years but haven’t articulated those changes. I haven’t asked pointed questions about what it means to be an American Christian abroad.

    Chau’s life and death and the American response have forced a personal reckoning with three specific questions. What is the gospel? What does it mean to be a gospel witness? How are Christians to live in the world?

    Gospel Good News

    Jesus spoke clearly about the good news, the gospel. He came to “preach good news to the poor, proclaim deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18). As Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection unfolded, it became evident that he wasn’t only preaching good news, he was the good news. Jesus, flesh and blood and divinity, dwelled among humans. As N.T. Wright puts it, Jesus “tabernacled among us.” In the Old Testament, the tabernacle was the meeting place for God and humans, the place of forgiveness and redemption, of spiritual gathering and community. Jesus himself became that space of wholeness, inaugurating the reign of God on earth. When he conquered death, he guaranteed that this kingdom would extend beyond our fleeting lives.

    When Jesus sent out his followers, he told them to preach the good news of the kingdom and to act in ways that demonstrated it. Heal the sick and demon-possessed, care for the poor, love your neighbor, welcome the outsider, learn from the foreigner, promote dignity for women, and work for peace in places of injustice and brokenness.

    In this current age, in the absence of Jesus but filled with the Spirit, Christians have become the meeting place where kingdom work happens, of reconciling broken humans with restorative divinity, finding forgiveness, healing, and freedom. This is the gospel good news. God is Immanuel, actively involved with humanity in order to bring us into relationship.

    How that good news is communicated matters because the messenger and method are representative. We are ambassadors.

    Is it good news to invade people’s land and shout at them in words they can’t understand? To criminalize fishermen, who now sit in jail for breaking Indian law? To turn a person or an entire tribe into murderers? Is that the kind of imposing, aggressive God and faith Christians believe in? Is that the good news?


    Christians talk about being a witness but what does that mean? In an evangelical context, the word is pulled from Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I’ve most often heard the word used to mean a preaching, evangelizing style of witness. But maybe that is too limited.

    A witness is someone who has seen something happen. I have witnessed a whale shark feeding on plankton in the Gulf of Tadjoura. I have witnessed a homeless Muslim woman give her last twenty francs to a blind beggar.

    A witness is also someone who tells people about what they have seen. “I saw the whale shark! I swam around its fins and watched water filter through its gills.” “I saw my Muslim neighbor’s instinctive generosity.”

    What if Christians turned around this concept of witness?

    In the Christianity Chau espoused, a witness is someone who has an encounter with God, develops theological beliefs about God, and then takes that message to people who don’t share those beliefs, aiming to convince them. This is an evangelist, a witness who goes out carrying a message.

    What if Christians turned around this concept of witness? Churches could send people to other countries to see what God is already doing there and to bring back a testimony. Go and see, then come back and tell. Christians could, in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, “hunt for the Divine Presence.” What if we spoke with neighbors and coworkers and sought to discover what God was doing in their lives?

    Jesus sent seventy-two of his followers to towns he intended to visit. Why? He sent them to prepare the way for his presence, to see where he would be welcome and what the response to him might be. They were to look for people of peace and stay with them, eat in their homes, build community and relationships with them.

    They were to talk about the presence of Jesus, the embodiment of the kingdom of God on earth. They observed and participated in what God was doing and brought back a message to Jesus.

    They told him about healings, restorations, darkness nudged back. They described the generosity, hospitality, community they had witnessed. They returned with joy and Jesus said, “Blessed are eyes that see what you have seen.” Blessed are those who look at the world, go to other towns and lands, see where the kingdom of God is at work. Blessed are those who participate in, and bear witness to, that activity.

    I once attended a prayer meeting in which a presenter asked for prayer for a nomadic people group struggling to find food, medicine, and education.

    “Pray they would turn from their false beliefs and accept Jesus as their Savior and believe that he died on the cross to save them from their sins,” the presenter said.

    There is deep spiritual value in living cross-culturally and across religious divides.

    I don’t know anyone from this particular people, so I’m speculating. But I don’t imagine them thinking, “I feel so guilty, I am such a sinner.” I imagine them thinking about empty stomachs, feeling unwanted and isolated.

    If the Christians longing to “be a witness” to this nomadic group truly witnessed them, truly saw them, they may have recognized a deep longing for home, comfort, and peace. They could have witnessed the physical needs of this people and worked to meet them through justice-seeking, medical care, or food provision. They could then be witnesses of how the people responded as they experienced God seeing and loving them.

    That is what I prayed for: “May this people know they are seen and loved by the good, Creator God.”

    I don’t imagine the islanders John Allen Chau shouted at cared much about his words. What if, instead of initiating contact with the people by speaking his own witness, Chau had waited, patiently observed, and witnessed what God was already doing on the island?

    I don’t believe Christian witness should be limited to a “go and tell” definition or to a “go and see, come back and tell” definition. But I do think Christians must first be learners, observers, and seekers of how the Divine Presence is already at work, whether in Jerusalem, Samaria, the United States, Kenya, or on North Sentinel Island. We can observe the kingdom at work, we can participate in it, we can witness to the unique and powerful reality of that good.

    How, then, do Christians live?

    If the good news is God with us and Christians are to be witnesses both to and of God’s kingdom, how do we practically live in the world? Is it enough to preach, to stand on beaches and sing hymns, to pass out tracts, to pursue kingdom living in silence?

    God’s global purpose is made clear in Genesis 12:1-3, “The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

    “I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
    I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
    I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
    and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”

    A. A. Anderson writes that, “In a sense God’s blessing was not an independent force, but rather the active help of God himself, so that one could not have the blessing without the giver.” As Christians, we must align our purposes with those of God, and being a blessing among the nations is a powerful mandate. The presence of God comes with his blessing and this blessing is fulfilled in Jesus. His life was the perfect demonstration of what God’s favor means: healing, relationship, forgiveness.

    There is deep spiritual value in living cross-culturally and across religious divides. It calls for ferocious peace-making, for wrestling internally with our biases and broken histories, for facing the pain and injustice we encounter. It calls us to celebrate the goodness, creativity, and beauty we encounter. It is to participate in the redemptive work of God: calling all things good, declaring the inherent dignity of every human being, and bringing hope, forgiveness, and healing. This is what it can mean to be a blessing among the nations.

    Back to the North Sentinelese

    The tribe on North Sentinel Island know full well that “we” are here. They saw (and shot at) helicopters. They engaged with anthropologists over the course of years, who visited the island every few months. Several members of their tribe were kidnapped over one hundred years ago, and died in captivity. They killed two fishermen who drifted onto the island. They nearly slaughtered a shipwrecked crew. Though they resisted encroachment by outsiders, they rarely killed intruders immediately. Sometimes they waited days, sometimes they gave warnings. This leaves the impression that they would rather not commit murder, until they feel they have no other option.

    If they want to make contact, they can. It’s not hard to hear and respect what they have clearly expressed: “Leave us alone.” If Christians claim to take the Bible seriously, we can’t pick and choose which verses to act upon. Yes, the Great Commission – “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – is in the Bible. Yes, “You will be my witnesses,” is in the Bible. So are the words, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet” (Matthew 10:14).

    The argument can be made that it is being a blessing to bring this message of Immanuel to a people who most likely have not heard it before, no matter the personal consequences, no matter the legal stipulations, and no matter the potential consequences to that people – exposure to disease, exposure to a greedy, insensitive, and intrusive world now primed to ogle and abuse. Hell, the argument goes, is far worse than any suffering endured on this earth. God can use anything, even our foolish and misguided efforts, for his glory.

    I’m dissatisfied with these arguments. They preclude any comment on Chau’s specific methods, any concern that he acted out of hubris, racism, or a colonialist faith. But we must examine those methods. As an American, I know my culture. I know our propensity to demand results, our sense of urgency, our preference for the quick fix rather than the long slog, and our ignorance about the complexity of cross-cultural interactions.

    Many have said that Chau spent eight years preparing to reach this people group. He didn’t. He trained for potential medical emergencies, he became an adept hiker and wilderness explorer, he completed in-depth Bible training. But he did not spend eight years preparing, specifically, to engage with the Sentinelese people.

    He could have lived nearby, occasionally moving close and then backing away. He could have joined the Anthropological Survey of India work. He could have partnered with local women who would be far less threatening, encouraging the Indian church to step toward their neighbors.

    I do not intend to disparage a man who had deep faith and a courageous spirit, willing to sacrifice his own life.

    Chau visited the region in 2015 and in 2016, and then on October 16, 2018 came for his final attempt to reach the islanders. It isn’t clear how long he stayed on his previous visits. But this means he was in the area for one month. After being shot at during his first landing on the island, he insisted on returning the very next day. He did not allow the people to become familiar with him or develop any kind of trust of him.

    What if Chau waited and patiently reached out, slowly moving toward the people? Maybe they would still have killed him. We will never know, but that would have been a different story.

    As I wrestle with these issues, I have a strong check in my spirit. I do not intend to disparage a man who had deep faith and a courageous spirit, willing to sacrifice his own life. Another aspect of being a blessing is to take great risks in the name of faith. I don’t want to live in a world where people of faith sit on couches in our temperature-controlled living rooms, fully-stocked kitchens behind us, television entertainment in front of us, and condemn those who spend their time and their literal lives on behalf of others.

    And yet, I keep coming back to the importance of how those in service actually spend our lives. Method matters. Humility, patience, and partnership matter. As we ready our vision to witness the Divine Presence, the goodness and beauty of God moving and acting in the world, our work becomes to call it out.

    aerial view of a rocky beach
    Contributed By RachelPiehJones Rachel Pieh Jones

    Rachel Pieh Jones is author of Stronger than Death and Pillars. She has written for the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, Runners World, and Christianity Today.

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