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.”