Last week, the world was introduced to John Allen Chau, the U.S. American “adventurer” and missionary who was killed by an indigenous group on North Sentinel Island. According to a statement from missionary organization All Nations, Chau was a “seasoned traveler who was well-versed in cross-cultural issues” and had “previously taken part in missions projects in Iraq, Kurdistan and South Africa.” Now, Indian police have begun the dangerous mission of trying to recover the body even though a tribal rights group has urged officials to call off the search, claiming it puts them and the indigenous group in danger.
Images of asylum seekers, including children, getting teargassed at the U.S.-Mexico border began circulating widely as the story of Chau’s killing was going viral. These two events are related. The people seeking asylum are trying to escape violence only to experience it again at our borders. But missionaries who don’t think twice about crossing others’ borders will be valorized for their bravery. These are two different kinds of borders, but they show how U.S. national identity is built through both stories. Our borders have to be protected. And ours have to be expanded.
The extension of these borders has colonial roots in the American evangelicalism that formed Chau’s missionary work. Central to American evangelicalism is the belief in conversion and assimilation. In other words, conversion has always been a program of assimilation that has accompanied missionary work. Ideas of exceptionalism are also perpetuated by American evangelicalism, which we see in another journal entry where Chau writes about his elected position: “God, I thank you for choosing me before I was even yet formed in my mother’s womb to be your messenger, of your good news to the people North Sentinel Island.”
I can’t ignore that Chau partly identified as a diasporic Asian — after all, his last name is Chau. In one journal entry he reveals his mixed ethnicity as “an American citizen, part Irish, part Native American and part African and part Chinese and South East Asian.” According to Asian American theorist Lisa Lowe, Asian immigrant bodies can function as screens through which the nation projects its own anxieties regarding internal and external threats. These “threats” are at our borders, but also sometimes in other locations. As Chau wrote in one of his last diary entries: “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” This perspective is rooted in a logic of both preservation and extension of whiteness.
No doubt, Chau is culpable for his actions. He had agency, made choices, and benefited from his proximity to whiteness as an American and Christian. Still, I can’t help but mourn his death, even as I am frustrated and angry at him, and at the Christianity that makes certain bodies martyrable and certain bodies disposable.
What can we do? Asian American theologian Kwok Pui Lan has written about “diasporic consciousness” — the need to divest our identities from the narratives of the nation-state.
How might the church not merely gesture toward but participate in a different kind of belonging? Can we undo notions of a citizenship that rely on the violence of borders, whether religious or national, and embody the kind of kinship that welcomes, but also seeks consent?