John Chau and the Moral Obligation to be Intelligent

John Chau died last week, on the shores of the Sentinel Island and at the hands of its inhabitants. Long and notoriously reclusive, the island’s people are protected by law, both out of a desire to preserve their way of life, but also to protect them from Western illnesses which threaten genocide. Chau, determined to reach them for Jesus, died there, studded with arrows, shortly after arriving on the shore and ‘hollering’ that “Jesus loves you!” His story has been awash in the news, and the details have been intensely galvanizing. Was Chau, like Jim Elliot, a martyr for a lost people group? Or was he just another colonizing Westerner, intent on destroying indigenous populations in the name of a dangerously inflated religious ego? The jury remains out.

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There are things I want to say about Chau, and about how we Christians respond to him, but first I want to pause to consider more deeply these two competing narratives. On the one hand stands the Jim Elliot narrative. Elliot, passionate, moody, introspective, and compelling, felt a call to reach an Ecuadorean group called the Quechua in 1956. He, several friends, and their wives made their way down to Ecuador, fully knowing the dangers that might lie ahead. They made early contact with the group by means of flyovers. They reached out gently to meet the tribe and had initial success. Optimistic, they returned to continue their efforts. But something happened—we don’t know what—and there was a sudden change in the tribesmen. Instead of fellowship, without warning they began to cast spears. Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Peter Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully all died there. But such was not the end of their story. Covered by Life magazine, their example galvanized missions work in America. Not only that, but Elliot’s widow, Elisabeth, returned with the other widows to continue to reach out to the tribe, who eventually came to faith. Almost as a perfect statement on the whole story, Elliot had written in his diary, some time before, these compelling words, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” The story of Jim Elliot remains one of the most tragic, heroic, and compelling in the history of modern missions.

Through gates of splendor

Elisabeth Elliot tells the story of Jim and the other missionaries in this iconic book. Well worth a read, if you haven’t heard of it.

Was John Chau another Jim Elliot? In the minds of many, the answer is a self-evident “Yes.” He is called, knows the risks, takes them anyway, and out of obedience and a radical love for Jesus lays his life on the line to share the gospel. He, a fool for Christ, clearly gives what cannot be kept (his life) to gain what cannot be lost. In the minds of many Christians, Chau’s heavenly rewards are certain and secure.

But there is another narrative, one that tells us how much the world has changed since 1956. In this narrative, Chau is an egotistical colonist, who cannot bear to leave an indigenous people alone, even if his presence means potentially wiping them out completely. He is a foolhardy maniac, openly defying the laws of India to take a gospel the Sentinelese haven’t asked for, and potentially don’t need, and force them into the 21st century by means of it. The discomfort may run even deeper—in an age of consent, Chau’s insistence on advancing into a people group without their consent may come to look even like a kind of cultural rape. Behold, in Chau’s smiling face is embedded the insane Christian ego, violating the culture and conscience of a people, all the while telling them that “it’s for your own good.” It’s a disturbing picture.

At this point, given the material I’ve read about Chau, and given my current understanding of the picture, I must confess I am more inclined to see his death more as a tragic misstep than a heroic martyrdom. This is a situation that both could, and should have, been avoided. Irrespective, however, of the merits or demerits of Chau’s actions, I want in these brief comments to focus attention on the responses of many everyday Christians. Over the past week I’ve encountered their thoughts both in published articles and comments in response to those articles, and among my Christian peers there is a common, if not unanimous, move to praise Chau’s obedience. In their responses it is his very folly that is the central node of praise—he did what others wouldn’t do, he was obedient where others were afraid to be obedient, and his body now lies as a testimony to the future Sentinelese. Who knows, after all, whether or not this action might be the very beginning of their coming to faith?! What these sentiments exhibit, and what I want to focus on today, is our general Christian confusion between the fool and the foolhardy. More explicitly, what I detect in us is a deep suspicion of intelligence.

Moral obligation CoverRecently I read a fascinating essay by American educator John Erskine, “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent.” Writing in 1915, Erskine presents, appealing to various literary sources, a crisis in the Western mind. He writes,

Here is the casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the mind and the hart are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced—full mind, starved heart—stout heart, weak head.” (5-6)

Our habit, ingrained on his account from the time of the Saxons till now, is to distrust the crafty, and to trust the simpleminded; that somehow simplemindedness is in itself a virtue, while intelligence is always mere shades away from vice. We are programmed now to be suspicious of scientists, of experts, of people with letters after their names, and to prize (at least sentimentally) homegrown wisdom and certain varieties of ‘common sense.’

Erskine takes issue with the prevalence of these sentiments, and perhaps the centre of his argument is as follows:

But as a race we seem as far as possible from realising that an action can intelligently be called good only if it contributes to a good end; that it is the moral obligation of an intelligent creature to find out as far as possible whether a given action leads to a good or a bad end; and that any system of ethics that excuses him from that obligation is vicious. (17-18)

ErskineGoodness, he argues, is not an innate property of the simple. Nor is vice an innate property of the intelligent. Instead, a given action is good or bad if it leads to (and is connected with) good or bad ends, and only the virtue of intelligence can calculate the metrics of those goods and bads. There is no value in foolhardy stupidity, or in a gung-ho bulldozing through barriers and walls, or in blind obedience to a simplistic understanding. In fact, Erskine argues, “any system of ethics that excuses [us] from that obligation is vicious.” In other words, any system that allows us to ignore the obligation to be intelligent, to think through causes and effects, to know and love the good in our circumstances, is a system which allows us to justify our actions based on factors that aren’t good. If we refuse to be guided by intelligence, in other words, we will be guided by our desires (such as our desire to be well thought of), or our fears (such as our fear of missing out), or our false conclusions (such as our bullheaded refusal to admit fault and make things right).

To some, I imagine this may sound like a kind of grand casuistry—an excuse mongering which dodges the pure call to obedience. Chau was obedient, God will provide, case closed. And yet we do have a direct command in scripture regarding our intelligence—to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Pause and think about that first clause for a moment. Wise as serpents. The serpent was the most crafty animal God had made. So crafty, in fact, that it becomes nearly synonymous with the Devil himself. And we are to be like him in that way. Crafty. Devious. Plotting. Intelligent. All while remaining innocent and pure. Reading the ardent supporters of Chau, it is not hard to imagine that we’ve read the passage in reverse, and in obedience to our misunderstanding we are now wise as doves and harmless as serpents. Constitutionally stupid (doves), we commit harms on others (snakebites).

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sometimes we forget that the snake is itself a creation of God, and that this suggests it is part of the ‘good’ of the whole creation… !

Curiously, this very morning I read another scripture that seems to apply the same lessons—this time, from the mouth of that cranky prophet, Amos:

14Seek good and not evil, that you may live;
And thus may the Lord God of hosts be with you,
Just as you have said!
15 Hate evil, love good,
And establish justice in the gate!
Perhaps the Lord God of hosts
May be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5:14-15)

The warning, in other words, is to utilize our intelligence for the execution of just judgment—to evaluate our circumstances and make a choice based on our comprehension of good and evil. The danger of ignoring the good, and of neglecting the knowledge of evil as a possibility, is to fall to judgment. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

What judgment we make about Chau, and whether or not he is a martyr for the Christian faith, may have to wait on the perspective of eternity. What cannot wait for that eternal perspective, is our duty and mandate to access and exercise our moral intelligence. There is no value in the foolhardy per se, there is great harm to be done by being wilfully simpleminded. And those who urge obedience at the expense of careful, wise reflection, potentially urge us onto courses of destruction.

Toyohiko Kagawa, and Why You’ve (Probably) Never Heard of Him: A Warning for the (American) Church

When Toyohiko Kagawa visited America for a preaching tour in the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of people went to hear him speak. He would speak in multiple venues each day, while newspapers covered his travels extensively. For a time, he was a household name—a Japanese Christian of impeccable character and real, lived-out faith, who came to America to preach the gospel and share his passion for social change on the basis of that gospel. He was friends with E. Stanley Jones, and he met Gandhi, and he was regarded as one of the greatest Christians of his time. Why is it, then, that we’ve never heard of him?

Kagawa

Christianity and World Order

A short, fascinating little book.

I came across Kagawa when reading Bishop George Bell’s Christianity and World Order, a book published just before WWII that looked forward to the reconstruction of the world after another global conflict. Bell, well connected in the ecumenical movement, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s contact in England, and friends to other German luminaries such as Martin Niemöller, and it was clear in his little book that he also thought very highly of this figure, Kagawa, of whom I’d never before heard. Especially since I’ve got an interest in non-Western Christianities, I decided to check him out.

Kagawa, illegitimate son of a samurai family in Japan, converted to Christianity at a young age under the influence of a few Western missionaries. An avid, prolific, and wide reader he dug into advanced books of Western philosophy and theology, even translating some of them into Japanese as a young man. Convicted by the Sermon on the Mount, he decides to go and live in the slums of Kobe in order to live a practical Christianity among the poor. His experiences there change him for life—not only does he maintain and carry a sincere concern for the state of the poor, but he contracts trachoma and is affected by spells of blindness for the remainder of his life. At this time Kagawa came to realize that many people, because of their social condition of extreme poverty, would not be able to accept the gospel as good news until there was a change in their economics. This conviction motivated much of what followed in his life. In the midst of his astonishingly busy schedule working in the slums, Kagawa begins to write books, and from this time on he publishes several books each year of his life. Extremely successful as an author, he donates all the money from the sale of his books to his projects to assist the poor in Japan. After several years he travels to America to attend seminary at Princeton, where he meets and befriends E. Stanley Jones. He returns to Japan, and becomes a strong labor advocate. This, of course, is the early genesis of the labor movement, when strains of it are threatening to move into communism or socialism, but Kagawa’s focus is on a deeply Christian call for fair wages, healthy working conditions, and reasonable hours and pay. In the midst of this, Kagawa becomes enamored of co-ops as a model for bringing economic social change to what is still a feudalistically minded economic world in Japan. He advocates for better farming practices, teaching poor farmers about crop rotation and the planting of trees to protect against erosion. It is around this time that Kagawa comes to America for his national tour, and where he is so widely accepted and revered. In the following years, as the world began to gear itself up for another war, Kagawa advocates for demilitarization and peace. But this sets him against his own government quite starkly, and Kagawa’s calls for peace fall on increasingly deaf ears.

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The biography I found was written by Robert Schildgen, a figure in the co-operative movement in America, who has written a somewhat hagiographical (with reference to early 20th century socialism) account of Kagawa’s life.

It is here that something startling happens. During the war, Kagawa was strongly censored by the Japanese government. Then, from within Japan, his tone began to change. He wrote, and spoke on radio, in defense of the Japanese empire. He began to speak about the war being rooted in “racial aggression,” by which he didn’t mean Japanese racial aggression against China, Korea, and the Philippines, but Western racial aggression against Japan. He became (and remained throughout the rest of his life) a strong supporter of Emperor Hirohito. The grim result of this period, of course, is the colossal loss of Japan and the unveiling of Japanese atrocities throughout East Asia.

After the war Kagawa became an advisor for Japan’s reconstruction, and he played an important role in advocating for the development of Japanese democracy. However, his name had been tarnished by his association with Japanese propaganda during the war, and at one point he was even considered by the American occupying forces for “purge”—that is, for the isolation and removal of those ultra-nationalists who had instigated the war in the first place. He avoided that purge on the merits of his pre-war work, but a shadow now hung over his name. In part because of this, a post-war American tour had little of the thrill of his pre-war efforts. For the remainder of his life Kagawa would advocate for world peace and nuclear disarmament. He died in 1960.

Kagawa_Getty

The most fascinating moment in Kagawa’s life is his meeting with Mahatma Gandhi. War is on the horizon, and Kagawa has explained to Gandhi that his opinions are not terribly popular in Japan—in fact, that he is a “bit of a heretic.” He petitioned Gandhi’s advice—what would he do? Gandhi’s answer is pithy and to the point: “I would declare my heresies and be shot.” This is an astonishing moment if only because this is precisely what Kagawa failed to do. When the crucial moment came, he capitulated.

Why don’t we know about Toyohiko Kagawa? I think there are two reasons. First, we don’t hear much about Kagawa because his version of Christianity is uncomfortably intermixed with early 20th century socialist politics. Now, from my (limited) read of Kagawa’s life and work, I think that those things for which he advocated are wholesome and good. He was possessed of a sincere desire to see the situation of the poor changed, and he saw in Christianity a model for that change which might give life to the world. He felt that a Christianity which didn’t address the practical needs of real people wasn’t much of a Christianity at all. To this, I give my full assent. However, the swing of labor movements away from Christianity in the intervening years makes it difficult to hear and accept his concerns today. Additionally, his presentation of Christianity becomes uncomfortably close to a political platform. The platform hasn’t succeeded, and unfortunately the Christianity has fallen alongside it.

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Second, I think we don’t hear much about Kagawa because of his capitulation during the war. Before the war, he had stood for Christianity, the gospel, and for peace. During the war, he stood for the political ends of his government—for Japan, for their advances into East Asia, and for military aggression. What is worse, Kagawa used (or allowed) his platform as a minister of the gospel to advance the political aims of the day. That intermingling is simply corrosive to gospel witness. It is difficult to recover one’s authority when it has been abused in that way.

So, what’s the warning for the (American) Church? It should be obvious. When Christianity is intermingled with a political platform, the end result, if the platform fails, is the discrediting of the Christianity. Irrespective of the truth of the Christianity itself, defeat of the platform brings about the dismissal of the faith that infused it. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. Second, when Christians capitulate with the propaganda and rhetoric of their nation it does irreparable damage to their witness to the world. Christianity does not and cannot stand in support of political aims. It is corrosive to our gospel witness.

Toyohiko Kagawa was a fascinating, influential, but flawed follower of Jesus. I think it would be wise to learn from both his successes, and his failures.