Maurice Earls writes: John Allen Chau, a US Christian missionary, was recently killed by Sentinelese tribesmen who live on a small and heavily forested island in the Bay of Bengal. Warriors were seen dragging his body across the sand, where he was buried. In the extensive media coverage of the incident, pretty much everyone sided with the Sentinelese.
The tribe, it seems, have lived on the island for 30,000 years or more, which is quite amazing. They have been described as the world’s last known pre-Neolithic tribal group. No one knows what language they speak or anything about their culture other than that they attack anyone who lands on or comes near their island. In short they are a marvellous survival, an ancient people who have managed to avoid the miserable fate of “primitive” tribes “integrated” into the modern world.
In his diary, which, in a nice New Testament touch, he gave to fishermen before departing for the island, the young American missionary said he wanted to “declare Jesus” to the Sentinelese and asked: “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”
Most will regard this as very extreme thinking. Actually, American evangelical missionaries have long struck us as odd. One appears in Ulysses, Alexander J. Christ Dowie.
Come on, you winefizzling, ginsizzling, booseguzzling existences! Come on, you dog-gone, bullnecked, beetlebrowed, hogjowled, peanutbrained, weaseleyed fourflushers, false alarms and excess baggage! Come on, you triple extract of infamy! Alexander J. Christ Dowie, that’s yanked to glory most half this planet from ’Frisco Beach to Vladivostok. The Deity ain’t no nickel dime bumshow. I put it to you that he’s on the square and a corking fine business proposition. He’s the grandest thing yet and don’t you forget it. Shout salvation in king Jesus. You’ll need to rise precious early, you sinner there, if you want to diddle the Almighty God. Pflaaaap! Not half. He’’s got a coughmixture with a punch in it for you, my friend, in his backpocket. Just you try it on.
Old Dowie, a real person, was quite a guy, a sparkling embodiment of militant reformationism in all its pottiness. His declaration in Ulysses is that of a man who desires to “break things” for Jesus, a cultural tradition which, unbeknownst to them, influences the Silicon Valley disrupters and many others. For Dowie, vast swathes of humanity – the parts that haven’t found Jesus ‑ are leading worthless lives and are in need of serious Jesus-bombing. The young cadres from the Soviet League of Militant Atheists could hardly have been more destructive in aspiration when they descended on the peasant villages of post-revolutionary Russia.
The late Mr Chau, who died at the young age of twenty-six, was in the Dowie tradition, albeit representing a somewhat smilier version. But many who disapprove of him and who do not hesitate to side with the Sentinelese may be overlooking the pervasive and destructive presence of the missionary impulse throughout Christian and post-Christian culture, past and present.
Rousseau saw the problem over two hundred years ago. He understood two important things relevant to the militant spirit of missionary activity. The problem with Christianity, he said, was the problem of monotheism. Once you believe there is only one God and all others are false it becomes incumbent on you to spread the news, which in practice has involved invading, disrupting and even making war on unbelievers, who are an offence to the one and only God. This also offered a great cover story for acquisitive greed and thus encouraged it over the centuries.
Rousseau believed that, in comparison, polytheistic paganism had much to recommend it. For pagans, it was no big deal if your neighbours had different gods; after all hadn’t you loads of gods yourself? Polytheism, therefore, was a creed conducive to tolerance and peace, unlike Christianity, which was the opposite. His other great insight in this area was that the secular Enlightenment was really Christianity wearing a different coat. When we look at European imperialism spreading the blessings of civilisation, or communists spreading the blessings of working class power, or Nazis spreading the blessings of racial purity, or western globalists reducing countries to ruins in order to export the blessings of liberal democracy, it is difficult not to admit that Rousseau had a point.