Chau: failure, martyr, or what?

The news of John Chau’s death while attempting to bring the Gospel to a very remote, hostile, restricted-access region hit the mainstream news some days ago. Since then, there’s been quite a lot of chatter about it, with lots of people trying to make sense of it.

I am trying to hold myself back. My natural inclination is to write and tweet and talk, but I am reminding myself of this: we don’t know the whole story. And we may never know it.

We, as people, want to “judge”: either in the best or worst sense of the word. Our brains want to categorize, we want to put things in boxes, because that’s how we make sense of it, how we understand it.

We could classify Chau as a martyr – a person who died, almost gloriously, for the sake of the cause. Similarities to Elliot are obvious.

We could classify Chau as a failure – a person who rushed headstrong into the situation without adequate training or preparation or effective strategy.

It would be easy to do either. But we don’t know, and we don’t have enough data to know.

Let’s take a different example. What if someone trained and planned to be a Bible translator in, say, Africa. They prepared for years. They were expecting to spend decades on the field, working on learning language, translating Scriptures, etc. They arrive on the field, excited–and were killed two days later in a freak accident.

Knowing these additional details – the length of preparation, the length of time they planned to stay there, the scope of the work they envisioned, the nature of their death – how does this change our opinion of what happened? Were they martyrs? Were they failures? Or is this just a tragedy – a life cut short?

What if they were killed in a robbery gone wrong? Are they martyrs? What if you knew that in the midst of the robbery they were witnessing as best they could to the robbers? Would they then be martyrs, because they died in a situation of witness?

What if they were assassinated by radicals bent on killing Christian translators in the area? What if they knew the danger and yet went there any way, and were killed? Were they foolish?

There are many details we don’t know, and likely never will this side of heaven. This much we can know:

  1. I think, hard as it is, that many times we have to give people the benefit of the doubt, and not assume personal failure. Many of the articles about the incident tend to color Chau’s effort as a personal failure. Yes, Chau’s first efforts to communicate weren’t successful: one could say they “failed.” I have failed many, many times. Chau just had the unfortunate situation of not being able to learn further (in this world, anyway) from the failures, while I’ve learned a lot. If Chau had had more time, what might he have done? He might have gone on to build relationships, share the Gospel, make disciples, and end up with an “Eetaow” story rather than an “Elliot” story. The failure of individual efforts is not the same as the failure of the overall project, and certainly not the same as a personal failure of character. I have failed, I am not a failure.
  2. We may need to forcibly remind ourselves that here was a man who earnestly believed in God’s calling and to the best of his ability followed it, regardless of the cost. That willingness to obey is something that should be applauded.
  3. I think we need to be careful about establishing overall mission policy and strategy around a single event that is clearly an outlier. Several have used Chau’s “example” (with what little is known) to articulate what they believe to be “good” or “bad” mission strategy. But few people go to these very very hard places, and it looks to me like most “good” mission strategies wouldn’t send to them either. This is not the norm of mission experience, and I don’t think we should judge policies or strategies based on “way-outside-the-normative-curve” events.

(For more, I recommend Ed Stetzer’s excellent article posted yesterday after I drafted this. Link.)

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