The Last Days of John Allen Chau
July 29, 2019 9:58 AM   Subscribe

In the fall of 2018, 26-year-old American missionary John Allen Chau traveled to a remote speck of sand and jungle in the Indian Ocean, attempting to convert one of the planet's last uncontacted tribes to Christianity. The islanders killed him, and Chau was pilloried around the world as a deluded Christian supremacist who deserved to die. Alex Perry of Outside Magazine pieces together the life and death of a young adventurer driven to extremes by unshakable faith.

Previously, from a few days after Chau's death.
posted by showbiz_liz (17 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
From his journal entries, it sounds like Chau would have been the type, were he not as religious as he was, to go on dangerous adventures of one sort or another, all on his own, for the glory of it. It does seem that there is a real type of obsession with being a savior of some sort, but he also writes in his journal like he's saving his grand adventure for little kids to read about with awe, and I think that's a driving force, as well. I don't think he's someone who, short of incredibly lucky circumstances, would have lived long, given how the danger and excitement of being in very bad circumstance seemed to power him.
posted by xingcat at 10:31 AM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]


What a horror story for Patrick Chau in particular as a parent. He may actually be the person I feel worst for in all of this, I think, except possibly the Sentinelese people.

He proposed that the tribes’ hunter-gatherer lifestyle was best explained not by backwardness but by superior adaptation to their environment. Such ideas spelled the end of a consensus that racism had scientific justification, and the emergence of the notion that all human beings are of equal worth.

Oh, hell. Yeah, no, although I see why a journalist who doesn't make a habit of reading this history might think so. But no, these ideas aren't remotely the beginning of the end of that consensus, and thinking they are is a pretty good way to get caught into modern incarnations of scientific racism (see previously).

This, I began to think, was the essence of the kala pani curse: obsession, arrogance, self-deception, even moral rot, all of it buttressed by an almost inhuman absence of doubt. At the time I was going after the tribes, I never questioned myself.

This is a really good piece.
posted by sciatrix at 10:43 AM on July 29, 2019 [3 favorites]


The exotic Stone Age warrior and rainforest romantic I had pursued was a phantom. En-mei was a 21st-century husband and father making his way in the same world, and in the same messy human manner, as the rest of us.

The moral of the story, in a nutshell. People are people are people. We probably always have been, we probably always will be. Some of us have more capacity for the spillovers of our messy human manner to spread far beyond where they would otherwise.
posted by ChuraChura at 10:54 AM on July 29, 2019 [10 favorites]


It's hard to comment productively on an article about missionaries that contains references to an alleged "end of colonialism" as if it's not an ongoing existential horror. But I do agree that Patrick's situation in all this feels exceptionally frustrating and tragic; like watching an elderly family member lose themselves to dementia or a similar ailment, except it's your child, and billions of people on earth think this disease is totally fine and good actually and has no widescale capacity for harm or danger.

It feels sad and wasteful to think about the kind of interesting and adventurous life John could have had without his messianic delusions. If he'd been able to relate to other humans on a human level, considering what he could have learned from THEM instead of focusing on how only his gifts could possibly be of any worth.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:07 AM on July 29, 2019 [19 favorites]


Good article; lots to think about.

I was struck by the tone of Chau's journal entries. With the caveat that I've only read the entries excepted in this particular article: there's a certain cinematic artificiality to them, a sense that he's writing them with a posthumous readership in mind. They reveal little about him beyond an almost bland commitment to his quest. While they mention the fear of dying and the possibility of giving up his quest and going back home, these bits of introspection feel staged for a future readership--it's clear that he's set on his course.

In one of his final entries, he pleads with his family "Please do not be angry at them or God if I get killed." It doesn't cross his mind that his loved ones might be angry not at God, not at the islanders, but at HIM, John Allen Chau.

All in all, a complicated person and situation. Thanks for posting this.
posted by Byzantine at 11:08 AM on July 29, 2019 [9 favorites]


a sense that he's writing them with a posthumous readership in mind

Suicide by Imperial Misadventure
posted by CynicalKnight at 11:19 AM on July 29, 2019 [11 favorites]


I was struck by the tone of Chau's journal entries. With the caveat that I've only read the entries excepted in this particular article: there's a certain cinematic artificiality to them, a sense that he's writing them with a posthumous readership in mind. They reveal little about him beyond an almost bland commitment to his quest. While they mention the fear of dying and the possibility of giving up his quest and going back home, these bits of introspection feel staged for a future readership--it's clear that he's set on his course.

I thought this too, especially given how much he was influenced by other missionaries' writings. He was writing himself into that same narrative.

But there was another element that jumped out to me - it felt like he absolutely knew what was going to happen, felt guilty or unChristian for knowing it, and was talking himself into doing it anyway:

It’s weird—actually no, it’s natural: I’m scared. There, I said it. Also frustrated and uncertain—is it worth me going on foot to meet them? Lord, let Your Will be done. If you want me to get actually shot or even killed with an arrow, then so be it. To You, God, I give all the glory of whatever happens. I DON’T WANT TO DIE! Would it be wiser to leave and let someone else continue? No, I don’t think so—I’m stuck here anyway without a passport.

He had spent so much of his life planning this, with the possibility of death as an abstraction, and then when he was actually faced with death as a real likelihood, he had to come up with all kinds of justifications for going forward with something his rational mind was begging him not to do.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:28 AM on July 29, 2019 [4 favorites]


there's a certain cinematic artificiality to them, a sense that he's writing them with a posthumous readership in mind.

They remind me of Renee Bach, the woman whose white savior complex runs so deep that she killed many children - possibly hundreds - at an unlicensed medical facility in Uganda.

In particular, they remind me of this image (third one down in the first article), where Bach strikes a dramatic, messianic pose in front of the light from a window, giving herself a "holy" glow. She is caught up in a self-aggrandizing narrative that positions herself as an agent of God. It's not about the children; it's about Renee. That is why she was able to ignore basic safety and medical protocol, ignore the fact that she was killing children, because that would require her to step back and no longer be a central figure.

Likewise for Chau. If he truly believed just in saving souls, there are more effective and less dangerous ways to do it, such as ministering in his own community. But they are not as glamorous or romantic bringing the word of god to an uncontacted tribe. He put both himself and the Sentinelese at risk so he could chase this self-aggrandizing narrative.

So, like, it is an interesting piece but it does not make me any more sympathetic to Chau - mostly for his father, I think.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:35 AM on July 29, 2019 [23 favorites]


There's a particular canned rhetoric among evangelicals, an expected narrative of thoughts and emotions in connection with...well, almost everything, but especially dumb horrible high-risk actions like this. It shouldn't be surprising that his diary reads that way; he's been trained in the way a martyr should talk his whole time in his church.
posted by praemunire at 11:55 AM on July 29, 2019 [6 favorites]


I didn't see it mentioned, but I wonder if part of his drive was a sort of apocalyptic one. There's this idea that Jesus can't come back till everyone has had a chance to hear the Word.

So if you want the Rapture to happen, you have to tell everyone, including these folks.

(note: I ain't saying it's logical, just that I've definitely heard people talk that way).
posted by emjaybee at 12:24 PM on July 29, 2019 [5 favorites]


emjaybee, see this: "Chau was affiliated with a Kansas City-based group called All Nations Family, which believes that missionary work is part of a 2,000-year-old game, the final element necessary to herald the Great Tribulation, the return of the Messiah and, at long last, the Final Judgment."
posted by jocelmeow at 1:54 PM on July 29, 2019 [5 favorites]


I've never understood people who simultaneously believe in 2000 year old prophecies and also that they can do something to propitiate them by enacting whatever the prophecy says will happen. Either prophecy works and it's gonna work no matter what you do, or it doesn't. I might lack some subtlety, but I don't really see a third option.
posted by signal at 2:56 PM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]


"...but I don't really see a third option."
If you operate on other than rationality => *lots* of other options.
Good luck figuring them out.
(I do see this as some kind of attempt at doing that. Among other things mostly just having to do with him being him.)
posted by aleph at 4:26 PM on July 29, 2019


I really liked the little sidebar interview with En-mei and the anthropologist going I need to reexamine my entire professional career!
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 1:02 AM on July 30, 2019 [3 favorites]


I made an unkind remark in the thread that was posted after it happened. I shouldn't have done that. His family did not want this for him, except possibly for his mother, and even she suffered over it. I was angry because he might have made enough contact to have brought sickness to the Sentinelese, but my being clever on the internet did not affect that situation in one way or another.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:01 AM on July 30, 2019 [3 favorites]


I wish the article had said more about Linda, both her views on John's actions and how faith shaped her adulthood, and how her adulthood developed over time. As readers we learn quite a bit about Patrick's upbringing, professional trajectory, hobby interest overlaps he shares with John, views on (and attempted mitigations into) John's missionary pursuits. But never about Linda's. Not even a "Linda declined to comment on this story," or, "objectively speaking in my research I found ____ about her," etc. It's written as though Patrick's is the only family narrative that shaped John.
posted by yunhua at 12:01 PM on August 2, 2019


Finally read this article and feel ill at its attempt to lionize and rehabilitate John Chau. The whole article dances around the fundamental arrogance of him, the idea that he's going to bring his particular brand of magic book to some place it's not wanted, he's not wanted, and save their eternal souls.
In a missionary context, however, Ramsey insists that John’s plans were more rad than crazy. He describes a subculture among young American missionary men that combines piety, celibacy, and Indiana Jones.
I don't shed a single tear if these people die young.

The article gets a bit into Maurice Vidal Portman, one of the more colonial colonialists to ever colonize. But managed to skip over the crucial basic facts; there was a good Twitter thread about this monster back when Chau first got himself killed. The Sentinelese are not "uncontacted". They were contacted by Portman. Who kidnapped several of their children and adults, only a few of whom survived the experience. That's when Portman wasn't obsessing with photographing their naked bodies.
posted by Nelson at 6:14 PM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


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