Jim Elliot and John Chau: Learning Lessons from Tragedy

I have a confession. In making this confession, I may be considered a pariah by some. Here it is: For quite some time, I have been critical of the missionary Jim Elliot.

For those that are perhaps unfamiliar with Jim Elliot, here is a brief summary: he and four others were martyred in Ecuador in January 1956 as they attempted to make contact with the Auca tribe in order to share the gospel with them. The five martyred missionaries were Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Edward McCully, and Peter Fleming. In my mind, their tragedy was as much due to impatience and foolhardiness as it was due to their efforts to reach an unreached people group. I have read the biographies and the journals of Jim Elliot. There is so much to admire, but I couldn’t shake this criticism from my mind.

Three months ago, I was able to read the original article that ran in the January 30, 1956 edition of Life Magazine. Reading again about the events surrounding that tragic day helped shed new light on the entire enterprise. For the first time, I felt like some of the dots connected in such a way that I was left with a newfound understanding for the strategy that Jim Elliott and the others employed in trying to reach this tribe of people.

After one of their prayer meetings in October 1955, they decided to try and make contact. Their strategy revolved around flying over the Auca compounds and dropping off gifts. They were going to fly over one time per week for 13 weeks.

During these weekly trips, they dropped 10 machetes, 8 kettles, 6 shirts, 3 pairs of pants, and countless buttons to the Auca Indians. It was not until their ninth flight, in December of 1955, that they got their first good look at an Auca Indian. They were faithful to continue to pray, make these trips, seek ways to make contact with the Auca Indians, all while learning words and phrases in the Auca language.

The group received some positive signs from their trips, including a gift given to them from the Auca Indians. Finally, on January 6, 1956, Peter Fleming writes of their first in-person encounter with the Aucas. After multiple flyovers, gift drops, over 3 months, they had finally made initial contact.

Unfortunately, two short days later on January 8, tragedy struck. The five missionaries were found dead at the end of Auca arrows and spears. When their bodies were recovered, Nate Saint’s watch reflected a time of 3:12 pm.

These 5 men left behind their wives and young children. Their wives, Betty Elliot, Marjorie Saint, Barbara Youderian, Marilou McCully, and Olive Fleming forgave the Auca Indians, continued to pray for them, and ultimately saw the gospel go forth and transform this previously unreached tribe.

Recently, the world became familiar with another tragedy, the death of John Chau at the hands of a tribe on India’s North Sentinel island. John was trying to reach an unreached microgroup, the Sentinelese.

This particular tribe is considered unreached with the gospel message. Evangelical Christians believe it is the privilege and responsibility of believers to make the gospel known where it is not. Another pertinent note is that the Sentinelese tribe is protected by Indian law to maintain their way of life and protect them from modern illnesses since they lack immunity.

John left behind 13 pages of his handwritten journal recounting his journey to reach this unreached tribe. While there are a lot of details that remain a mystery at this point, we do know that John originally tried to make contact with the Sentinelese on November 15 of this year. He approached the island in a kayak and hoped to offer gifts to the tribe. From reports, he sang worship songs and declared Jesus’ love for them in English as he approached the tribe.

This initial contact ended with John being shot at with arrows and leaving the island. The next day, November 16, John returned to the island, where he was again met with resistance and the tribespeople broke his canoe. His third and final day approaching the Sentinelese resulted in his death on November 17.

In both of these instances, one must acknowledge two tremendous tragedies–loss of human life is never to be lauded. I believe both Jim and John were motivated by a love for Jesus and a desire to take the life changing message of the gospel to those who have never heard. They both left behind families and questions.

There are clearly some similarities between these stories, both positive and negative. From what we know, I think the stories of Jim Elliot and John Chau converge and diverge at critical points. While my initial criticism of Jim Elliot is now softened, it is still there. I am also critical of this most recent tragedy involving John Chau. Instead of simply focusing on the shortcomings, I want to highlight six lessons to learn from these two tragedies:

  • Training and strategy are vital in the missionary endeavor. The role of the local church and seasoned missions organizations like the International Mission Board play a key role in preparing missionaries to minister for a lifetime and not only in the passion of the moment. Strategy does not make missions a less dangerous enterprise, and it does not prevent missionaries acting out of impatience or mixed motives, but it should help missionaries proceed with more wisdom.
  • It is always better to do missions as part of a team. Numbers do not prevent tragedies, but a healthy functioning team reflects the community of the Christian faith as well as allowing us to practice missions in a more balanced way.
  • Doing something in the name of Jesus doesn’t necessarily make it noble. Aristotle touted the Doctrine of the Mean in his Nicomachean Ethics. This doctrine highlights the characteristics of a virtuous person. For example, courage is the mean between cowardice and foolishness. Courage is the practical wisdom of knowing when it is good to run from something or to run toward something. There is a marked difference between foolishness and courage.
  • A renewed discussion on Christian martyrdom and missionary heroes is warranted. Related to the above point, the stories of Jim Elliot and John Chau raise questions of how and why we label some people as martyrs while not awarding it to others. Further, why are Christians, and evangelicals in particular, so enamored with risk and loss of life when it comes to missions? Has our hagiography of missionaries clouded our ability to critically assess the difference between sacrifice and rashness?
  • We must learn lessons from history. Retrospective and armchair analysis is always difficult and tinged with agendas, but we must be honest about shortcomings and have the humility to learn from mistakes. This is now at least three similar stories of missionary zeal and impulse that resulted in tragedy. Ruth Tucker clearly articulates this in her article.
  • Godly families are a blessing. The response of the earlier missionaries widows and, from what I have seen reported, the response of John Chau’s family is a stellar example of grace and forgiveness. What a fantastic tribute to the faith of all of these men who were killed.

Whether you are critical of Jim and John or you celebrate them, remember that the ongoing story of missions will always include death and tragedy. I am sure there are more lessons to glean from these two stories, but in the end, it is right to mourn for lost life. It is also right to learn lessons from tragedy.

Greg Mathias Contributor
Associate Director
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Posted in From the Center and tagged , , , , , .

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