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Stop mourning John Chau! All missionary zeal is not religious in nature

Unfamiliar with the diverse cultures in the continent of Africa, European explorers viewed practices unfamiliar to them as lesser and savage.

 |  16-minute read |   05-12-2018
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In HG Wells’1897 novel, War of the Worlds, the indomitable aliens were finally brought down, not by the military might or ingenuity of humans but by the common cold. It was probably the first time that a writer explored the consequences of the meeting of widely disparate cultures from a very practical and biological point of view.

We forget that we are not just individuals but complete biosystems, representative units of a whole — the entire ecosystems we belong to — and that we carry a responsibility to other ecosystems that we visit. We are carriers of germs, viruses and bacteria that have made comfortable homes in us that we have grown immune to. What does not kill us makes us stronger but can wipe out an entire community that is not exposed to these microbes.

sen-690_120518052244.jpgEfforts to establish contact with the Sentinelese people caused John Chau his life. (Source: Twitter)

The history of Christian missionaries killing isolated tribes with European microbes they had no immunity to is long and documented. The Mayflower did not only carry pilgrims. During the 17th century, missionaries decimated US South Western Native Americans by introducing common European diseases the natives were not immune to. In the 18th century, possibly up to 30 per cent of New Zealand’s Maori were killed by diseases brought by missionaries and colonialists.

Dozens of tribes on isolated Pacific islands went extinct — wiped out by missionaries who brought disease alongside the gospel. In the late 1800s, the British made first contact with the Sentinelese people, at which time they captured six members of the tribe. Two of the adults died from illness while in British custody, and the four children they captured were returned. It’s possible that the children were infected with the same illness that killed the two adults, but there are no records as such.

It has been over a fortnight since the misguided and unfortunate John Allen Chau died a tragic death at the hands of the Sentinelese, and the post-mortem of a slew of articles worldwide has ranged from calling him arrogant and wilfully ignorant to a well-intentioned messenger of God’s word. Chau was a bit of an anachronism in the 21st century, a throwback to an earlier age when concepts like the White Man’s Burden were accepted truisms, and pagans had to be ‘saved’ lest they went to purgatory for eternity. Zealous Christians have begun calling him a martyr.

chou-690_120518051604.jpgJohn Allen Chau was a 27-year-old American who had expressed a desire to meet the protected Sentinelese tribe and preach Christianity. (Source: Twitter)

CNN reported: Chau’s zeal to spread the Christian gospel took him back to the remote island, where he apparently was killed by tribespeople after trespassing, authorities said. Contact with the isolated tribe is prohibited. But those who knew the American missionary are calling him a martyr for the Christian faith.

One person said in an interview from Cologne, Germany. “He was someone who died out of love for these people to bring the good news of Jesus Christ.”

Chau was also a loose cannon and a free agent. The various cartoon depictions of Bible toting white missionaries saving souls of cannibalistic heathens and ending up in the cooking pot portray days long gone.

In this day and age, it is hard to think of any religious individual or organisation that would willingly use the language of proselytism to describe their own activity – Muslims would refer to Da’wah, Christians to mission, evangelism and witness.

Even within these, one could explore various different modes and models, which are often held in tension with one another having evolved depending on the theological starting place and the social and political context. Not all forms of public witness or action are intended solely to bring about individual conversions. Largely, however, proselytism is a term used by religious commentators to describe corrupted forms of religious witness. Consider the following quote from the 2005 Papal Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.

“Charity, furthermore, cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free; it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God. Those who practise charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others…”

The proselytisation project

Similarly, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium argues that “it is not by proselytism that the church grows, but by attraction”, distinguishing between “the imposition of obligations” and “to invite others to a delicious banquet”. The extended processes of ecumenical dialogue led by bodies like the World Council of Churches have reached similar conclusions to the Roman Catholic Church – proselytism is usually taken to describe distorted and unworthy approaches to religious conversion.

Critics, however, might argue justifiably that by disavowing proselytism whilst simultaneously insisting that charity can’t “leave God and Christ aside”, the religious are deliberately creating grey areas and attempting to dodge secular bullets. Both the encyclical and the exhortation identify the need to be concerned with the ‘whole man’, and are clear that “Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone” – Wouldn’t that count as proselytism for most people?

Even well-disposed commentators have argued that the definitions between, for example, ‘evangelism’ and ‘mission’ and ‘proselytism’ are either too subtle or too arbitrary for a broad audience. And the broader the audience, the more the diversity. Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “We appear to be scared of diversity in ethnicities, in religious faiths, in political and ideological points of view. We have an impatience with anything and anyone that suggests there might just be another perspective, another way of looking at the same thing, another answer worth exploring.”

The missionary project has historically been the spearhead of colonial interests. As the imperial powers of Europe set their sights on new geographic regions to expand their spheres of influence in the 19th century, Africa emerged as a prime location for colonisation due to its wealth of natural resources and purportedly undeveloped economies ripe for exploitation.

In reality, European colonisation devastated traditional African societies and economies. However, the leaders spearheading the movement cited the ‘white man’s burden,’ a term popularised in Rudyard Kipling’s poem to morally justify imperialist expansion. The philosophy underpinning the “White man’s burden” consisted of the “Three C’s of colonialism: civilisation, Christianity, and commerce.” 

One of the justifying principles behind colonialism was the need to civilise the purportedly backward peoples of Africa. Fifteen years following the Berlin Conference, the supposed imperative of civilising non-whites was expressed in Rudyard Kipling’s poem published in 1899 in McClure’s Magazine titled White Man’s Burden:

  • To seek another’s profit
  • And work another’s gain
  • Take up the White Man’s burden—
  • And reap his old reward:
  • The blame of those ye better
  • The hate of those ye guard—
  • The cry of hosts ye humour
  • (Ah slowly) to the light:
  • “Why brought ye us from bondage,
  • “Our loved Egyptian night?”

Kipling bemoans that the African people will come “slowly to the light” and would lament their release from “bondage”. In essence, Kipling believed that these non-white racial groups were so backward that they would be unable to comprehend the benefits of Europeanisation. It was Kipling’s belief that Africans must be pulled toward the “light” in order to see the error of their, in his view, savage nature.

Africans were considered culturally inferior, an idea that was supported by scientific racism. Christianity was one justification that European powers used to colonise and exploit Africa. Through the dissemination of Christian doctrine, European nations such as Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands sought to educate and reform African culture. In his book A History of Africa, scholar JD Fage describes the racially based logic of European intellectuals and missionaries saying: “Mid-and late-nineteenth-century Europeans were generally convinced that their Christian, scientific and industrial society was intrinsically far superior to anything that Africa had produced.”

Unfamiliar with the diverse cultures in the continent of Africa, European explorers viewed practices unfamiliar to them as lesser and savage.

To many European nations, Christianity represented western civilisation and the basis for Anglo-Saxon morality. Christianity served as a major force in the partition and eventual colonisation of Africa. During the late 19th century, European nations increasingly vied for global power. In an attempt to augment political and regional influence, nations like Great Britain and France needed a justification for expansion.

Essentially, Christianity was a guise under which Western governments justified the exploitation and conquest of African nations. Denouncing the religious practices of Africans as witchcraft and heathenism, European nations sought to convert, and then exploit the indigenous peoples of Africa.

In addition, the Christian missionaries signed treaties which were used by colonialists to take over colonies. For example Tucker, a British Missionary interpreted the 1900 Buganda Agreement to the regents of Kabaka Daudi Chwa II. This led to the ceding of political, economic and social powers to the British protectorate government. Sir Harry John Stone, who signed on behalf of the British government, confessed, “I John stone shall be bound to acknowledge the assistance offered to me by the missionaries especially the CMS. Without their assistance on my side, I do not think Uganda’s chiefs would agree to the treaty which practically places their country and land in the British hands.”

In Zimbabwe, John Smith Moffat was an active participant and he persuaded Lobengula to agree to the terms of what is generally known as the Moffat Treaty of February1888. This treaty was a foundation for the Rudd concession that finally led to the colonisation of Zimbabwe by the British. Thus the active role of the Christian missionaries in the signing of the imperialist treaties gives ample testimony that Christianity was an arm with imperialism.

missionary-690_120518053155.jpgWestern governments justified the exploitation and conquest of African nations under the guise of Christianity. (Source: Reuters)

This is an excerpt from a letter from King Leopold II of Belgium to his colonial missionaries in 1883:

“Reverends, Fathers and Dear Compatriots: The task that is given to fulfil is very delicate and requires much tact. You will go certainly to evangelise, but your evangelisation must inspire above all Belgium interests. Your principal objective in our mission in the Congo is never to teach the niggers to know God, this they know already. They speak and submit to a Mungu, one Nzambi, one Nzakomba, and what else I don't know. They know that to kill, to sleep with someone else's wife, to lie and to insult is bad. Have courage to admit it; you are not going to teach them what they know already. Your essential role is to facilitate the task of administrators and industrials, which means you will go to interpret the gospel in the way it will be the best to protect your interests in that part of the world. For these things, you have to keep watch on disinteresting our savages from the richness that is plenty [in their underground. To avoid that, they get interested in it, and make you murderous] competition and dream one day to overthrow you. Your knowledge of the gospel will allow you to find texts ordering, and encouraging your followers to love poverty, like “Happier are the poor because they will inherit the heaven” and, “It's very difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” You have to detach from them and make them disrespect everything which gives courage to affront us. I make reference to their Mystic System and their war fetish – warfare protection – which they pretend not to want to abandon, and you must do everything in your power to make it disappear. (sic)”

Bishop Desmond Tutu has put it succinctly. “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.”

Many of the missionaries who came to India in the 18th century took a genuine interest in the country’s culture, some of them adopting Indian clothes and habits and acquiring an Indian wife or ‘bibi’ (mistress). However, the arrival of the British memsahib and changing attitudes at home marked the end of this enlightened period, and all references to bibis in The East India Vade Mecum (1810) were expunged from the second edition (1825).

The East India Company had refused to allow British missionaries in their territories on the pragmatic grounds that Indians were easier to govern and do business with if they were allowed ‘the undisturbed enjoyment of their respective opinions and usages’.

Under pressure from the evangelical movement, however, the British government made it a condition of renewing the company’s charter in 1813 that missionaries should be granted access to the subcontinent.

Even William Wilberforce, English politician, philanthropist, and a leader of the movement to stop the slave trade asserted that, ‘the foulest blot on the moral character’ of Britain was that it allowed its Indian (by which he meant Hindu) subjects to remain ‘under the grossest, the darkest and most degrading system of idolatrous superstition that almost ever existed upon earth’. This attitude was widespread among those who saw it as their religious duty to wean benighted ‘natives’ from their ‘disgusting and bestial rites’. Although the numbers of actual conversions to Christianity were negligible, missionaries did much to alienate the indigenous population from its rulers and to foment grotesque notions of racial superiority that became a genuine stain on later British-Indian relations. In 2013, it was estimated that there were more than 100 uncontacted tribes around the world, mostly in the densely forested areas of South America, Papua and New Guinea. To understand the grim future that lies ahead of the Sentinelese people or these isolated tribes one has only to look at our indigenous populations in India.

Because, even many among the more educated among us who are staunch supporters of the hands off policy as regards the Sentinelese and the Jarewas ,cannot connect the missionary zeal that we find so irritating, to the invasive political, cultural influences and practices that have disastrous consequences for our mainland  tribals.

We have inherited the colonial mentality and carried it well forward into the 21st century, making our tribal populations and their environments collateral to our “progress,” the western model of economic development.

Economist Martin Khor, from Cambridge University, defines globalisation as “what we in the Third World have for several centuries called colonisation”.

The word ‘tribal’ or adivasi brings to our mind a picture of half-naked men and women, with arrows and spears in their hands, feathers on their heads, and speaking an unintelligible language, their lives often combined with myths of savagery and cannibalism. Even when majority of the communities in the world kept changing their lifestyles, competed with each other and developed materialistic instincts to keep pace with the ‘progress’ of the world, there were communities living in accordance with their traditional values, customs and beliefs.

The exploitative mindset of the mainstream society made these communities recede often into forests and high-altitude mountains where they could continue to live in peace with nature and their unpolluted surroundings. As the so-called civilised communities of the mainstream society neither could comprehend the values and ideals of these communities nor had the patience to understand their lifestyles, the mainstream world branded them variously as natives, uncivilised people, and ‘junglis’.

Tribals are among the most deprived and oppressed sections of India. Gender bias and gender oppression has meant that adivasi women are worst affected.

Half of the adivasi people do not have land. Even when they own some land, in most cases they may be only marginal holdings. Poverty, deprivation and now the reduction of government expenditure on basic medical health facilities is reflected in the absolutely poor health condition of adivasi women and children. India has several laws and constitutional provisions which recognise indigenous peoples’ rights to land and self-governance.

The laws aimed at protecting indigenous peoples have, however, numerous shortcomings and their implementation is far from satisfactory. Data put forth by the minister of state for tribal affairs, Jasvantsinh Sumanbhai Bhabhor, in Parliament shows that the country recorded 314 cases of atrocities against those belonging to the scheduled tribes in 2016.

The number in 2015 was 283, while in 2014 it was 258. There was an increase of 9.68 per cent in the number of atrocities from 2014 to 2015, and 10.95 per cent from 2015 to 2016. Rajasthan recorded 43 such cases in 2014, which rose to 49 the year after. In 2016, the state recorded 40 SUCH cases.

Following close was Madhya Pradesh, which recorded 36 cases in 2014. The number rose to 28 in 2015 and to 47 in 2016. Uttar Pradesh recorded 25 cases in 2014, which fell to 13 in 2015, but further went up to 34 in 2016.

Maharashtra recorded 10 cases in 2014 and 2015, which rose to 15 in 2016. There were 30 such cases of atrocities recorded in Jharkhand in 2014, which fell to 25 in 2015. In 2016, the state saw 35 cases being recorded. The national capital recorded 13 cases in 2014, 12 in 2015 and 14 in 2016. The state of Chhattisgarh recorded 12 cases of atrocities in 2014, which went up to 16 in 2015 and further rose to 22 in 2016.

Indigenous women and children continue to suffer from various forms of violence, including killing, rape and torture by non-tribals, security forces and members of the armed opposition groups in armed conflict situations. In 2015, the National Human Rights Commission had said that at least 16 tribal women were allegedly raped and physically abused by policemen in Bastar. The Chhattisgarh government repeatedly violates the human rights of adivasis.

The Sentinelese have so far been protected by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) regulation act of 1956.

But for how long?

As veteran journalist Sidharth Bhatia says, “The Sentinelese are as much 'Indian', as the smug middle classes, the slick techies of our brave new digital world and the young demographic. Today the Sentinelese are a symbol and metaphor for the poor, the marginalised and the forgotten.”

The all devouring consumer-driven economy that we have embraced and which rides roughshod over the rights of our indigenous peoples, will not rest until we see the members of this isolated prehistoric community subsumed into our blissful veil of progress.

All missionary zeal is not religious in nature.

Also read: John Chau was not a criminal, he believed in Bible, unlike you half-believers

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Gautam Benegal Gautam Benegal @gautambenegal

Award winning animation filmmaker, artist, author, and social commentator.

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