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.

Orientalism—A Third Set of Thoughts (Fetishization)

orientalism_cover3I’ve finished reading Said’s Orientalism now, but I’ve still got a small backlog of thoughts to process from the book. Today I’d like to give some attention to the process of fetishization.

Briefly to review, Said’s argument opens with a description of othering, which in Orientalism is a term used to describe the difficult relationship between the Orient and the Occident. When I ‘other’ someone it means that I am perceiving them as different in such a way that the difference reinforces my own sense of identity. I am not examining an ‘other’ to find out more about the other, to discover his or her history, family relationships, culture, sense of self-identity, values, teleology, and so forth. Instead, I view the other through a more rigid lens of my own perception. I identify a ‘them’ so that I can better reinforce my sense of ‘us.’

In the history of Orientalism (as a discipline and mindset) this othering process has resulted in a flattening of “Oriental” culture (a very diverse and large set of data is made to fit within artificial and procrustean structures—I wrote about this last time), and also in a fetishization. Now, there is an obvious sexual component to this term that will factor in shortly, but beneath and behind that I want to highlight something more nuanced. By fetishization, I want to suggest a form of love for the other that is fundamentally self-referential. Fetishized love is a love which is based on what the other is perceived to be able to do for me. With this in mind, it is not hard to see how the Orient has been loved by the West in a way that is self-referential to the West. The Orient is loved on the basis of the West’s idea of the Orient (whether or not the Orient matches that idea), and the Orient is loved for the way that the West’s perception of its differences reinforces Western senses of self, and the Orient is loved because in its plasticity the West can project its desires upon it. Each of these is a fetishizing love. Each of these warps the Orient to Western tastes and perceptions.

Much of this, on the Western side of the scale, can be arguably laid at the feet of what Charles Taylor labelled as the West’s identity crisis. In Sources of the Self he explicitly claims that the West has lost its moorings—a new sense of autonomous self-governed authority dominates the western self and leaves it with few external reference points. Consequently, it is only natural that the West would look outside of itself in the hope of finding out who it really is. One of the richest mines for this outside look has been the Orient, and this connects directly to our fascination with so-called eastern mysticism. Not long ago I re-watched the 1984 film The Karate Kid, and couldn’t help but think about this process. A young, fatherless, displaced boy, finds himself bullied at school (he is a prototype for Taylor’s disorientated Western self). He is taken under wing by an older, Japanese man who coaches him through his bullying problem by providing him with a sense of deeper identity through Karate, bonsai trees, and Japanese culture. And while I loved (and still love!) the movie, I can’t help but reflect on the caricature of the East that it portrays (however lovingly). The east, I am tacitly told, is a place to be consumed, to be borrowed from, to be utilized for my own personal needs. It is a place (extending from this) from which I can collect souvenirs and artefacts, the foreign writing of which I can paint on my body, whose women will provide satisfaction for my carnal desires, and which will ultimately provide me with my much longed-for meaning in life. It is a place I can love selfishly.

Karate Kid_1984_Miyagi and Daniel

Within this dynamic, fetishizing love depends upon a perceived plasticity in the object of love. In other words, it is a suitable object for love precisely because upon it I can project my own desires. It is here that I think the sexualization of Asian women finds its roots. Said, writing about the history of Western pilgrimages to the east, records the following about Flaubert’s experiences with an “Oriental” woman: “…he is entranced by her self-sufficiency, by her emotional carelessness, and also by what, lying next to him, she allows him to think. Less a woman than a display of impressive but verbally inexpressive femininity…” (Orientalism, 187, emphasis added). Because she is different, and exotic, and not like Western women, and because she doesn’t speak English, she becomes a vaguely feminine vessel for Flaubert’s sexual desire. That sexual desire, in turn, and under the influence of fetishizing love, can manifest itself imaginatively. The Oriental woman, under the same flattening process of othering, is thus stripped of her individuality, personality, narrative, and will, and serves as an ideal vessel for Western sexual desire. Said writes elsewhere that “women are usually the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.” (207) In this, she has been fetishized. (It is worth considering—does this process of female fetishization partly explain the emasculated characterization of Asian males? Are they diminished because they stand in the way of a Western sexualized power fantasy?)

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It is difficult here to separate the immense danger of fetishizing love from the genuine allure of love for the other. There is, of course, a natural fascination with things that are different, the refreshing appeal of a system and world in which a different set of rules operate, the genuine pleasure of standing ‘outside’ one’s own culture and seeing the world in a fresh way. But this is a natural love that must be carefully cultivated and pruned. Love, to be love, must possess a disinterested quality, and however much I may love the other, no other (whether culture or person!) ever exists purely for the sake of my needs and desires.

The dangers of fetishizing love seem strikingly present when we think of the missionary efforts of the church. When a missionary approaches a non-western culture, does he or she love the people as they are, or are they loved for what they might become? Am I loving my Western idea of the foreign convert, or am I loving the foreign other in all his strange, foreign otherness, so that Christ might be formed in him or her? All too often, is it not the case that short-term missions trips are crafted more for the benefit of the sending nationals than for the people whom they are supposed to benefit? Are we there to save the others, or to make ourselves feel better? It’s a challenging prospect, and discerning between a love that is selfish and one that is godly will require careful and constant diagnoses of our loves.