When self-righteousness becomes dangerous: religious missionaries are omens of death for isolated tribes

Violet Van Fleet ‘21, Feature Editor


In modern times, it is difficult to navigate daily life without running into the topic of disease and isolation. However, for many tribes across the world, isolation is the norm, and disease is always a threat. All across the planet, indigenous groups of people live completely independently from the rest of the world, many of which keep to the ancient ways of hunting and gathering. They reside in-between mountains, within rainforests, and other places that are difficult to access. Whether it be the Amazon or an Indian island, they navigate the treacherous terrain and the predators that prowl it with all the grace of someone born and bred in the wild. 

While most would assume that an isolated tribe’s biggest threat is unsanitary conditions or local wildlife, their greatest adversary comes in the form of religious missionaries. The very topic of religious missionary ‘work’ is controversial at best. Everyone makes jokes about Jehovah’s Witness missionaries who are known for going door-to-door trying to convert people to their faith, but when it comes to isolated tribes, it becomes a question of ethics, law, and murder.

Those who support religious missionaries say that these isolated tribes are “uncivilized” and “savages”, despite the fact that those who try to convert these people are blatantly disregarding the very health of the people they deem to be “saving.” This is not an act of spreading the word of the gospel but of pushing one’s own agenda on people who want nothing but to be left alone without any regard for their safety. 

People who call these tribes “uncivilized” and “savage” have no right to say such things. Within every religion, there are those who kill in the name of their god, those who abuse with a god’s name on their lips, those who tear apart innocent lives in order to carry out a twisted version of their god’s guidelines. As anyone who has read Lord of the Flies can tell you, mankind as a whole is, or at the very least, has the potential to be savage and uncivilized, and to pin those words on a group of people who choose to stick to the old ways is sickening. The Amish live without technology, zippers, or even nails, yet they are not constantly harassed by disease-ridden outsiders like isolated tribes are. Is it because they already live under a god? Or is it simply because they mirror us in some modern aspects? Exactly as it implies, religious missionaries who contact isolated tribes are afraid of diversity and, instead of training themselves to be more accepting, weaponize their prejudice in a way that boosts their ego and supposedly scores them points for the afterlife, all while butchering the people they are supposedly helping. 

Ethics is not the only matter of concern when it comes to contacting those who do not want to be bothered. Disease is a prominent factor in religious missionaries trying to contact isolated tribes. Throughout history, there have been multiple examples of how exposure to new pathogens can lead to devastation. PBS.org stated that when the European settlers first began to colonize the Americas “[the Native Americans] had never experienced smallpox, measles or flu before, and the viruses tore through the continent, killing an estimated 90% of Native Americans.” Exposing isolated tribes to new viruses could essentially mean their extinction, especially if their sanitation is subpar. In this way, religious missionaries are less that and more mercenaries. Even if they convert or not, the “word of God” cannot save them from foreign diseases and their devastating effects. 

The dangers do not extend to merely the people within these isolated tribes. Often religious missionaries are putting themselves at risk. This includes the risk of being brutally murdered. For the most part, these people living outside of what we would define as “normal” experience everything nature has to offer with no desire for anything different, and they have proven to be hostile to foreigners who do not respect their wishes to remain in seclusion. For this reason, many governments have even outlawed citizens from going anywhere near these native tribes, i.e., the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) stated, amongst other things, that groups of isolated peoples, including the Sentinelese, have the right to be left alone. 

Yet there are always those who refuse to listen, instead opting to put their own self-importance before the law. John Allen Chau made worldwide headlines when he demonstrated the perils that come with sticking your nose where it does not belong. Chau was a 26-year-old adventurer blogger/evangelical missionary who had made it his sole mission to bring Christianity to the Sentinelese tribe, an isolated tribe on North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean despite the fact that the Indian government has declared it illegal to initiate contact with them. He had previously tried to contact the Sentinelese tribe who had made it clear that they did not want any outsiders coming near them. Chau persisted even when a boy of the tribe tried to shoot him with an arrow on his second visit. In November of 2018, he illegally traveled to North Sentinel Island, which he believed to be “Satan’s last stronghold.” On Nov. 17, 2018, when he landed on the island and attempted to convert them once again, he was killed. His body remains there to this day, as to remove it would only agitate the Sentinelese tribe further. 

Chau was not alone in his ideology. He had been specifically trained by missionaries who make it their goal to convert anyone they can, which unfortunately includes those who prefer seclusion above all else. All Nations is an organization that strives to spread Christianity to all corners of the Earth. According to their website, they “train leaders to ignite church planting movements among the neglected peoples of the earth.” They also state that their “vision is to see Jesus worshiped by all the peoples of the earth.” To do this, they have training camps in which they have volunteers waving fake spears and pretending to be angry members of an uncontacted tribe. They run their trainees through the steps in which to handle this situation, all while preaching the benefits of subscribing to the Jesus Christ magazine, despite the fact that the bible is against forcing Christianity on other people.

This is not the only incident of a tribe protecting their own. Another such Christian missionary, Philip James Elliot, was one of five killed during Operation Auca, an attempt to evangelize the Huaorani people of Ecuador in 1956. Intruding on people who prefer to be left alone requires a person to think about what their life is worth, which is nearly impossible to gauge, let alone act on. Is a life worth unsuccessfully trying to force a culture completely independent of the rest of the world to follow a specific religious text in the name of one’s own ego? Claiming to “help” these isolated tribes by spreading a religion foreign to others is modern-day colonialism and serves no purpose other than to fuel one’s own self-righteousness.

Religion can be positive in someone’s life by serving as a model for how to treat others with kindness and love as well as offering reassurance that comes with faith in someone other than oneself, but if anyone is to go about spreading it, they must do so in a manner that is not dangerous or intrusive. Following a church or not, we can all work towards protecting these indigenous tribes who did nothing wrong other than refusing to integrate into a religion they do not believe in. Start a petition, spread awareness, or open a dialogue to maintain the rights of isolated tribes. 

These next few months are about fighting for basic human rights that extend to everyone, not just to those who can afford it. This includes our neighbors who dwell in the depths of nature and know isolation as well as their own names. At the end of the day, it is not about preserving God, but preserving lives and the right for people to live in their own way without being threatened. 


Photo courtesy of gq.com

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