In this undated photo released by the Anthropological Survey of India, a Sentinelese tribe man rows his canoe in Indias Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. (AP Photo/Anthropological Survey of India, HO)
John Allen Chau’s life could be summed up in two sentences, according to his family.
He loved God.
And he had “nothing but love for the Sentinelese people.”
Chau, a young missionary from the United States, was killed on Nov. 17 while illegally attempting to invade the land of the North Sentinel Islanders, an indigenous group protected from all outsiders by the Indian government.
When he landed on the island, he was shot and killed by arrows fired by the Sentinelese.
After his death, people — including indigenous Christians — flocked to social media to consider what our attitudes toward this situation should be. Were the indigenous peoples protecting themselves or attacking? Was Chau a missionary or a colonizer?
For a young Christian man who “had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people,” where was the line between love and colonization?
Perhaps it was the line of law drawn around a protected indigenous group that risks being wiped out by outsiders. Outsiders, including missionaries like Chau, whose presence threatened their culture and their well-being, bringing the risk of outside influences and disease.
For many Christians, the need to protect indigenous groups conflicts with their mission.
Clouds hang over the North Sentinel Island, in India’s southeastern Andaman and Nicobar Islands, on Nov. 14, 2005. Christian missionary John Allen Chau was killed by inhabitants of the island on Nov. 17, 2018. Indian law forbids outsiders from approaching the island. (AP Photo/Gautam Singh)
Growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, I was taught that there were two types of people in the world: saved and unsaved, reached and unreached. According to the Joshua Project, there are 7,076 people groups in the world that are “unreached,” meaning that “few identify as Christians or have knowledge of Christianity.”
Missionaries, therefore, must take Jesus to the lost of the world, to share his love with those who have no knowledge of the infallible Holy Bible.
This missionary mindset was one I carried throughout much of my early life. Even though I was born in Indian territory and grew up on Native land, in our home we practiced evangelical Christianity more than our traditional Potawatomi ways. Even as an enrolled citizen of my tribe, I did not understand that the Christian faith I practiced was the same kind of faith that colonized my own ancestors. As an adult, I’m decolonizing, asking if it’s possible to practice Christianity and follow Jesus in a different way. That means I must question the mission of the church to convert the “unreached.”
In the process, I’m learning that even people with good intentions can become tools of oppression within evangelical institutions and still call it love.
Chau was a product of this kind of Christianity, and the problem with this kind of “love” is that often under its veil there lies deceit, assimilation and colonization. The incident with Chau is a case in which a people group stood up against this kind of message, and it’s important that we understand why.
We can take a quick look at the history of America and see why a people group would oppose outsiders who come in the name of Jesus. Missionaries and colonizers often worked hand in hand, leading to genocide, colonization and assimilation done in the name of Jesus.
One instance was Indian boarding schools, designed to “kill the Indian, save the man,” which stripped Native children of culture in order to make them into civilized, white Christians. The Doctrine of Discovery gave European Christian explorers and missionaries the right to dominate the people of any land they deemed “undiscovered,” all in the name of God.
A lithograph print of the missionary ship “Duff” arriving at Tahiti circa 1797. Print by Kronheim and Co. London/Creative Commons
Ironically, missions work, which sometimes ends in the total annihilation of a people group either literally or culturally, is simply seen as doing the good work of Jesus.
So, pastors stand at the pulpit on Sunday mornings, quoting Romans to their congregations: “And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
Churches see missionaries as heroes who bring salvation. Congregations throw parties to send out those who are called, they lay hands and pray, they ask for the lost to have eyes that are open to the work of their gospel. Yet, they seem unaware that indigenous peoples see them as invaders who bring destruction, or are indifferent to their point of view, because as Christians, they are the ones whom God has called, so they must be on the right and honorable side of history.
And there’s a whole industry that promotes the heroic nature of mission work.
According to the International Journal of Frontier Missiology, money that goes toward unreached peoples (unlike reached people groups who are already Christians) is estimated at $450 million per year. The Traveling Team, which calls itself a missions conference on wheels, uses language to romanticize the work of reaching those who are deemed unreached throughout the world, as if a mighty, holy adventure awaits.
It is no surprise that Chau’s death is seen as martyrdom or godly sacrifice in many churches.
North Sentinel Island is in the Bay of Bengal, among India’s southeastern Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Image courtesy of Google Maps
To indigenous peoples, it is no surprise that Christians believe they have the sacred right to go into places inhabited by indigenous peoples like the North Sentinel Islanders. We know what it means to have our lands invaded and our people killed off by disease brought by those who purported that they were simply bringing the love and power of Jesus with them.
So, in light of John Allen Chau, the North Sentinel Islanders, and the gospel according to the American church, we need to have a conversation about what love is, and what colonization is, and the fact that they are not one and the same.
(Kaitlin Curtice is a Potawatomi author and speaker. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service or Urban Faith.)
Mahershala Ali’s life changed in more ways than one the week of the 2017 Oscars. Four days before he won best supporting actor for his performance in “Moonlight,” his wife, Amatus-Sami Karim, gave birth to their first child.
“When I won, all I could think about was: I just want to get home,” Ali says, grinning.
It wasn’t just Ali’s soulful, tender performance as a drug dealer in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” that illuminated Ali to audiences. It was his incredible poise through awards season, where he became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. At the Screen Actors Guild Awards, during the outcry over Donald Trump’s ban on travel from several mostly Muslim countries, he eloquently spoke about “Moonlight” and acceptance: “We see what happens when you persecute people. They fold into themselves.”
It was clear enough: Here was no flash-in-the-pan. Here was a journeyman actor of uncommon grace and dignity. And Ali’s phone started ringing.
“It changed the trajectory of my career,” Ali, 44, said in a recent interview over tea in midtown Manhattan. “It gives you permission in some way to not dream bigger but dream deeper. Like: What type of work do you really want to do?”
Ali still harbors larger aspirations, like playing boxer Jack Johnson, but this fall has provided some of the answer. Ali stars in Peter Farrelly’s road-trip drama “Green Book” and headlines the upcoming third season of HBO’s “True Detective.” And “Green Book,” now in theaters, has again catapulted Ali to the top of the supporting-actor contenders. Many believe he’s in line for another Oscar.
But this time, the road has been rockier. “Green Book,” brisk and modest, has won raves from some critics and many audiences as a feel-good story about the real-life friendship that developed when the refined concert pianist Don Shirley (Ali) hired a racist Bronx bouncer, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), to drive him on a 1962 tour of the Deep South. But the film has been criticized by some as an outdated, sentimentalized kind of movie, one that trades on racial tropes , perpetuates the “white savior” cliche and isn’t deserving of its namesake (a travel-survival guide for African-Americans in the Jim Crow South).
Ali grants “Green Book” is a portrait of race in America unlike one by Jenkins or Amma Asante or Ava DuVernay. But he believes the film’s uplifting approach has value.
“It’s approached in a way that’s perhaps more palatable than some of those other projects. But I think it’s a legitimate offering. Don Shirley is really complex considering it’s 1962. He’s the one in power in that car. He doesn’t have to go on that trip. I think embodied in him is somebody that we haven’t seen. That alone makes the story worthy of being told,” says Ali. “Anytime, whether it’s white writers or black writers, I can play a character with dimensionality, that’s attractive to me.”
“Green Book” was hailed as an irresistible crowd-pleaser and a major Oscar contender after its September premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the festival’s audience award . (And every film in the last decade to win that prize has ended up a best picture nominee.) But the $23 million-film has struggled to take off at the box office, earning $8.3 million in two weeks. Universal Pictures still has high hopes. Audiences gave it an A-plus CinemaScore and the National Board of Review on Tuesday named it the year’s best film .
Still, along the way, Ali has heard the complaints about “Green Book.” He disagrees.
“A couple of times I’ve seen ‘white savior’ comments and I don’t think that’s true. Or the ‘reverse “Driving Miss Daisy'” thing, I don’t agree with,” he says. “If you were to call this film a ‘reverse “Driving Miss Daisy,'” then you would have to reverse the history of slavery and colonialism. It would have to be all black presidents and all white slaves.”
Yet the debates over “Green Book” have put Ali in a plainly awkward position, particularly when Mortensen used the n-word at a Q&A for the film while discussing the slur’s prevalence in 1962. Mortensen quickly apologized , saying he had no right, in any context to use the word. Ali issued a statement, too, in support of Mortensen while firmly noting the word’s wrongness.
“It was challenging, especially being the lone black presence in the film and feeling responsible to address that publicly,” says Ali. “There’s a difference between racist and lacking awareness. And I think he lacked awareness in that moment of the inappropriateness of the word, even within an intellectual context like that. There’s a mini explosion that happens whenever a non-black person says that in a public setting.”
“But I love him,” Ali adds. “And we’ve talked about it more. He’s a great dude and he’s going to continue to be a great dude.”
Ali first got to know Mortensen on the awards circuit two years ago, when Mortensen was nominated for “Captain Fantastic.” The film rests on their relationship; that it works so well is a testament to their chemistry together. When cast, Mortensen’s first question to Farrelly was who was going to play Shirley.
“When Pete said Mahershala Ali, I said, ‘Well you can’t do better than that,'” Mortensen said by phone. “He’s very sensitive and extremely intelligent and thoughtful and has a real awareness of himself in any space. He’s at ease with himself. My sense of him is that he’s meticulous as an artist. There was a dynamic there based on each of us trying to help the other guy doing the best possible job that he could. It was beautiful.”
Ali grants he shares Shirley’s own fastidious nature (“I would say within reason,” he says, smiling). Farrelly adds that Ali’s precision had a hugely positive effect on “Green Book,” especially in shaping the portrayal of Shirley. “I wanted to make sure Don Shirley was equally if not more empowered,” Ali says. The actor suggested tweaks and changes to deepen the pianist’s pain at, like Nina Simone, being denied a career in classical music.
“And he did a bunch of those. He was very hands on in a good way,” Farrelly said by phone. “He and Viggo are a great balance. They’re such perfectionists in their work.”
Farrelly, best known for his broader comedies with his brother Bobby (“There’s Something About Mary”), also defended his film.
“I’m getting some crap from people saying it’s a rosy picture of race, but, you know, it’s just a rosy picture of that relationship, not all race relationships,” said Farrelly. “And it’s the truth of what happened to these two men. And that is the thing that really drew me to the project. I’m a hopeful guy. I know we’re in a dark period right now in race relations but I am hopeful.”
Ali has his own kind of optimism for “Green Book” and its place in a larger conversation.
“The disease of racism and bigotry and discrimination — there are a myriad of ways to tackle that,” Ali says. “And you need all of them.”
Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith’s victory in Mississippi’s Senate election runoff was closer than usual in the GOP-dominated Deep South state. But she still was never really threatened by Democrat Mike Espy in Tuesday’s contest, which brought the state’s long history of racial politics into sharp relief.
Some takeaways as Hyde-Smith, who was initially appointed to succeed former Sen. Thad Cochran, returns to Washington as the first woman elected to represent Mississippi on Capitol Hill:
RACIAL POLITICS STILL DOMINANT
In the end, Hyde-Smith defeated Espy by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent — much closer than the cakewalk many predicted in a reliably red state that President Donald Trump won by 17 points in 2016. The contest was the latest reminder that race remains a potent factor in the region’s polarized partisan politics. Espy was seeking to become Mississippi’s first black senator since Reconstruction.
Ahead of the runoff, a video surfaced of Hyde-Smith praising a supporter by saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” For many black voters, the comment harkened back to the state’s dark past of lynchings during the Jim Crow era. They were galvanized by her remarks and saw their votes as a rejection of racism. Many whites dismissed accusations that Hyde-Smith’s comments were racist.
Her statement was widely seen as a dogwhistle, similar to comments made in Florida by then-Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis, who warned voters not to “monkey up” the election by voting for Andrew Gillum, who lost his bid to become the state’s first black governor. It also echoed comments by President Donald Trump, who cast Gillum as incompetent and Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams as unqualified.
STRONG BLACK TURNOUT NOT ENOUGH
Black voters came out for Espy, but it wasn’t enough, given the overall makeup of Mississippi’s electorate and white voters’ overwhelming loyalty to Republicans, even among suburban whites who elsewhere nationally trended toward Democrats in the 2018 midterms.
Espy’s biggest challenge was simply that Mississippi doesn’t have a metro area comparable to Atlanta or Nashville, Tennessee, or Charlotte, North Carolina — growing population centers where white voters are considerably more likely to support Democrats than their counterparts in small towns.
Yet even in Mississippi counties that fit the suburban model — better educated, more affluent — voters stuck with Hyde-Smith. Her 71 percent in Rankin County and 54 percent in Madison County (both outside the Democratic stronghold of Jackson) put her just a few percentage points behind Trump’s 2016 marks in those counties.
That’s a contrast even to other recent Deep South elections.
In Georgia, Abrams lost the governor’s race by just 1.4 percentage points in no small part because she won large suburban counties like Cobb and Gwinnett in metro Atlanta. In Alabama’s 2017 Senate special election, Democratic Sen. Doug Jones capitalized on Republican Roy Moore’s weaknesses not by winning large suburban counties, but by vastly outperforming Democrats’ usual marks.
Espy’s almost 409,000 votes statewide was 84 percent of Hillary Clinton’s vote count against Trump in 2016. By comparison, Jones managed 92 percent of presidential turnout in his Alabama victory. In Georgia, Abrams actually exceeded Clinton’s 2016 mark. If Espy had managed that on Tuesday, he’d have won: Clinton got 485,131 votes. Unofficial returns show Hyde-Smith at 479,365.
SOME AFRICAN-AMERICAN GAINS
Despite the Democratic loss in the state’s marquee race, civil rights groups and grassroots organizers point to down-ballot gains, particularly in judicial contests. High black voter turnout elected two black women to the circuit court in Hinds County, giving the county an all-black bench for the first time ever, including three black women.
The wins mirror gains in Texas, where 19 black women were elected to judgeships earlier this month, and Alabama, where a record nine black women judges were elected in last year’s special election.
Down-ballot candidates and issues also benefitted from high black turnout this midterm cycle in Georgia — where Lucy McBath, a black woman, unseated incumbent Republican Rep. Karen Handel, flipping a seat once held by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — and in Florida, where voters supported restoring voting rights to tens of thousands of former felons.
With an increased focus on issues of criminal justice and voting rights, such victories could have more of an impact on voters’ daily lives.
Mississippi isn’t used to having backbencher senators. From 1947 to 2007, the state sent just four senators to Washington. It wasn’t long ago that Mississippi’s Senate team consisted of Cochran as chairman of the Appropriations Committee and Trent Lott as majority leader, both of them specializing in fast-tracking federal money back to their home state.
Now, the senior senator is Roger Wicker, who has been in office since Dec. 31, 2007, but will find himself behind more than a dozen Republican colleagues on the seniority list when Congress convenes in January. Hyde-Smith won’t be at the back of the line — her months as an appointed senator put her ahead of the GOP freshmen just elected in November — but she’s close.
Certainly, Washington is different than in Cochran’s prime, with budget earmarks no longer at the center of every negotiation. But for a small, economically disadvantaged state that’s long depended on federal influence, the 116th Congress will be new territory.
NO PERFECT FORMULA FOR SOUTHERN DEMOCRATS
Democrats have made key gains in recent elections in the South, but there’s no perfect formula for winning statewide.
Espy, a former Cabinet official under President Bill Clinton, ran as a moderate with experience reaching across the aisle. Georgia’s Abrams and Florida’s Gillum ran as unabashed liberals and nearly pulled out wins in governor’s races that would have been historic. Democrats in Alabama and South Carolina nominated white men — relatively young, relatively moderate — for governor.
All of them lost: Abrams and Gillum had narrow margins; Espy ran strong but wasn’t close; Alabama and South Carolina were the usual Republican routs.
The lesson: Candidates matter, but so does the electorate. The three closest races made the case that Democrats shoudn’t cede the South, and that tests of electability shouldn’t be limited to white men.
The next test comes in Georgia, where a Dec. 4 runoff for secretary of state pits Democrat John Barrow, a 63-year-old moderate former congressman, against a little-known Republican state lawmaker. After that, the focus shifts to Louisiana, where Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards will seek re-election in 2019 four years after upsetting his Republican rival, then-Sen. David Vitter.
When I was 15 years old I found out I was adopted by accident. I was flipping through the pages of my family’s gigantic keepsake Bible and I happened upon the family milestones section. In those pages documenting weddings and births was my own entrance into the family and it read as follows,
“Nicole was born to adopted by _________ and ________ born on December 26, 1980.”
I almost dropped the five-pound Bible when I read those words. “Adopted?” I ran into the kitchen and interrupted my mom who was in the midst of cooking breakfast. With tears in my eyes, I said, “Why didn’t you tell me I was adopted? How could you just let me read it in a book without telling me yourself?” With tears in her eyes, she said, “I was going to tell you, but I wanted to wait for the right time.” That moment became the time—right or not. She told me my biological mother, a teenager about the age of 16, gave me up for adoption on the day of my birth. I would go from this young woman’s arms to the foster care system for about six months until I was adopted at eight months old.
Finding out about my adoption brought many questions. “Why didn’t my biological mother want me? How could she give a child up and never come back for it? Should I look for her?” It wreaked havoc on my self-confidence, my friendships, and on any relationships that were in formation because I was always afraid of people letting me go and never turning back. It was both the gift and the curse. The gift being that it gave me the wonderful parents I have who have loved me, and the curse being that I existed in a tension of that love and wondering about my other mother.
In my late 20s, during a Christmas vacation at home, my mother presented me with all of the paperwork from my adoption and she told me that if I wanted to I could look for my birth mother. At that point I never really thought about looking for her but I was thankful for my mother’s clearance all the same. Periodically I look at that paperwork, read about my biological mother, and then I put it all back in the age-worn manila envelope it was given to me in. Every few years I do a Google search using my mother’s name but I either don’t come up with anything or come up with too much. I also have my moments when I’m sitting in a room and I look at a woman whom I think looks like me and I wonder, “That could be my birth mother.” As quickly as the thought arrives is as quickly as it leaves and I come back to reality. That is the extent of search-like behavior and I have no plans to launch a full-on search for her. I’m not going to plan a stakeout in front of her home or meet her in a coffee shop—both scenarios I’ve seen on TV and in the movies. I may never meet my biological mother, and that’s fine, but there is always the chance that someone will remind me of what I may be missing.
This is what a close friend asked me when we were talking about my being adopted. His question gave me pause not because I never thought I didn’t know who I was without my birth mother, but because it showed me some of the misguided perceptions about adopted persons. There are some misconceptions about the lives of people who are adopted: that we don’t have a true sense of identity or that being adopted is a painful story for us. I’ve learned that more of that is imposed on us by a culture that has a skewed understanding of adopted people. As an adopted person I can say that I do have a sense of identity, one that was cultivated by my parents, and I’ve become increasingly thankful that adoption is part of my history. Sure it makes me wonder sometimes, but in the grand scheme of things, I’m happy with my life and my parents as they are. What is integral to this understanding is that at no time did I feel like a child who wasn’t my parents’ own because they raised me with the same love as their own flesh and blood. This helped ground me in something larger than an adoption narrative. I never felt like an “other” in my immediate or extended family’s presence, but I know that a sense of “otherness” pervades the spaces of an adopted person’s life. Recently an article captured this issue and that of other people’s perceptions of adopted persons.
In “Teach Your Children About Adoption Before Releasing Them on the Playground” Rachel Quinn Egan, a white woman who adopted a black child, shared her daughter’s adoption story and the issues that arose when other children realized that she was adopted. This amplified the displacement, pain, and confusion the child already felt and, Egan points out, identified that a key problem is parents not speaking to their children about adoption as another way of creating a family. Adoption is sometimes relegated to the periphery of our understanding of family creation which has resulted in many treating adopted children as if they are abnormal. But adopted children are just like any other child who was birthed from their mother’s womb–they just happen to have a mother who can’t take care of them for one reason or another. Parents should teach their children about the many ways families come into being and people must remember that persons who were adopted do a great deal of processing on their own and in therapy–11% of all adolescents in referred to therapy have been adopted. Our arrival in this world had a different structure but we seek the same type of love and acceptance as anyone else.
The Well-Being of All Children & Adoption’s Spiritual Precedent
Being adopted and being able to adopt a child is a gift. I will forever be indebted to my parents–both sets–for giving me a life that almost never was. I’m also thankful for the spiritual precedent on adoption that God established and it is with that precedent that I conclude this piece:
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Friday night young adult Bible study and I was sitting on the right side of the chapel being attentive to the minister’s teaching about spiritual adoption. In the midst of his lesson he told us to turn to Ephesians 1:3-6 and he read the scripture aloud,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will,to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
As he read this, tears welled up in my eyes at the thought that not only had God planned my earthly adoption, He adopted me into the family of Christ and secured my place with Him for eternity before I was even knitted in my biological mother’s womb. It was preordained for me to be adopted so that I could eventually understand the significance of my spiritual adoption and the fact that I was always kept. I came to see my physical adoption as a small part of a bigger portrait that God was painting of me.
And so I hope and pray that many adopted people would come to see their adoption as a small part in a bigger portrait that God is painting of their lives, that people will learn how to embrace adopted persons as they would their own, and that more children will be placed in loving homes and be afforded the opportunity for new life.