Social Issues, Theology

John Allen Chau and misplaced evangelical zeal

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I was sitting in a coffee shop a few months ago, working on a book review for a company I was freelancing for at the time. The book was about whether or not the Apostle Paul was bigoted, misogynistic, and homophobic, given what he wrote about slaves, women, and other groups.

The book was lying face-up next to me on the table, attracting the attention of a man near me. He looked about my age, maybe slightly older (I’m horrible at guessing people’s ages). He asked if he could take the seat across from me to ask me about the book, because it looked interesting. I explained that I agreed with the authors on some things, and disagreed with them on others (par for the course with me when it comes to theology books!).

The man asked what those points were that I agreed with, and which ones I didn’t. One of them was the authors’ take on homosexuality: I take the affirmative stance, and did not think the authors went deep enough into the historical and cultural context of the time in order to give the issue a more nuanced treatment.

The man proceeded to inform me that I had misunderstood the point of those verses, and from there assumed I was completely ignorant of the Gospel message at large — he went on a two-minute tirade about how we are broken and in need of forgiveness, Jesus died for our sins, and all that.

I tried to inform him that not only was I a Christian, but I had studied at a conservative seminary for a year and a half. Didn’t matter.

It became very clear that he wasn’t really interested in the book review at all — he just saw an opportunity for evangelism, and twisted the scenario to fit a narrative he already had written in his head, whether I was on board with it or not.

I couldn’t help recalling this incident when news broke of the American missionary, John Allen Chau, who was killed by the isolated Sentinelese people he had been trying to reach with the Gospel — despite several clear warnings that they were uninterested in interactions with outsiders.

Chau’s story reminded me of the man at the coffee shop: a well-intentioned, probably kind-hearted person who was motivated by a cause that matters so much, it’s worth violating others’ boundaries in order to communicate it.

That coffee shop conversation was hardly my only run-in like that. As a child, I’d had multiple arguments with classmates who tried to tell me that Hanukkah was the “Jewish Christmas” — and probably only asked me about Hanukkah so they could have a platform to tell me about Jesus (likely at their parents’ prompting).

Needless to say, that approach did not win me over to their cause. It pushed me away…for years.

This boundary-violating Christianity is connected to belief in a God who holds people accountable for information they did not know; who consigns people to eternal torture for not having the correct beliefs. This sort of Christianity gives not one thought to the condition of a person’s heart, and how closely they lived by the teachings of a Savior they might not have known personally, but nonetheless embodied him a lot more closely than others who proudly wear his name.

Instead, it focuses on whether they checked the correct theological boxes.

A quote from a book I’m reading, Seeking Peace by Johann Christoph Arnold, echoes a similar sentiment:

Jesus is a person, not a concept or an article of theology, and his truth embraces far more than our limited minds can comprehend. In any case, millions of Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, atheists, and agnostics practice the love Jesus commands us to live out with more conviction than many so-called Christians. And it is hardly our place to say whether or not they possess his peace.

I’m very familiar with the culture that shaped Chau’s theology — I was immersed in it for most of college, and a year and a half of grad school. I still vividly remember the guilt I felt when people weren’t interested in talking about theology, much less converting to my brand of it. I believed God would hold me accountable for those people’s souls, despite the verse from Matthew 10:14 that says, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.”

It didn’t matter if the targets of evangelism felt that their boundaries were being violated. The Gospel is offensive, I was told; if people got upset, it was because of the message, not me, personally.

The older I get, the deeper I go into my faith, the more convinced I am that one part of that is true: the Gospel is offensive. Not because of who it keeps out, but because of who it allows in.

Can you imagine what this world would look like if the same amount of passion and zeal for “the lost” was instead channeled into reducing our carbon footprint, advocating for refugee families, or holding other Christians accountable when they support the racist rhetoric of the Trump administration?

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons from Judaism that I carried with me into the Episcopal faith is this: even if this current life is temporary, it still matters. What we believe matters, but so is how we live.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
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