WASHINGTON -- In these days before Christmas, one story keeps haunting me. It is a tale that seems so odd -- in today's world of young people glued to iPhones, a leader stuck in a deep moral quagmire, and a national "conversation" filled with shouting and rage -- that one could be forgiven for questioning my focus. Or perhaps even my sanity.
Every time I think of John Allen Chau, the 26-year-old evangelical Protestant missionary from Washington state, very deliberately steering a kayak onto the beaches of the forbidden North Sentinel Island 1,000 miles southeast of India, to teach Christianity to one of the world's most isolated and hostile tribes, I find myself filled with a kind of confused wonder.
Of course, the young man was killed by the tribesmen and buried in the beach. And depending upon a lot of things that go on in your mind and soul, you are free to see him as an utter idiot, as a tormented kid infected with Jesus, or as a Christian hero of a style we have not seen for a very long time.
Young Chau, photographed before his "adventure" as a smiling and confident fellow, soberly and seriously prepared for this chapter in his life. He had studiously immersed himself in this isolated people living on such a different level of light and darkness.
Doubtless, most Americans, if they think at all of John's story, will be of the "he's a fool" conviction. The Boston Globe wrote he was "killed by his own arrogance." Even evangelical pastors questioned his "extreme missionary work."
And yet, as 440,000 Christian missionaries work abroad and millions of Christians again celebrate the birth of Jesus, one might pause to recognize (and I say this hesitantly) some comparison between John Chau's lone journey and Jesus' in what was named the "Holy Land" after him. We know, from the Bible and from many sources, how very strange Christ seemed to his own era.
The Jesus Christ of history was not the handsome, composed man-at-peace we see in many paintings. Rather, he was a teacher and rabbi many thought quite mad in his day.
And this image was carried on by certain groups of Christians down though history. In my 10 trips to Russia, I often heard people speak of the "holy fools" who roved across Russia, men seeking Christ through wanderings not unlike those of this American. Similar pilgrimages are also common in Islam, especially among the Sufis.
So what does this history mean to Christians today? Does John Chau's haunting quest have ANYTHING to say to us this Christmas?
We are a nation that seems to be bursting with anger and resentment against whatever we might come up against on any particular day. We are a people, I believe, given to coddling those unpalatable emotions because too often they give us foundation in our undisciplined public sphere. Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten what it is like for a quietly obsessed young man like John Chau to set off to "save" the other.
You may not like missionaries. Fine. You may not like Christians. But the fact is, in 50 years of working virtually everywhere in the world, I have found the finest schools, the best hospitals and the greatest hope to be among Christians, whether in Nigeria, South Africa or even China. And some of the finest leaders, too, including, above all others, Nelson Mandela, to his death a Methodist.
As it happens, many years ago, in the early 1970s when I was covering Latin America for the Chicago Daily News, I spent a week out in the Ecuadorean jungle at the camp of the Wycliffe Bible Translators. These Americans constitute a remarkable group of highly trained missionaries who have translated the Bible into hundreds of native, mostly Indian languages in South America and saved many of the natives from the ravages of everything from oil companies to corrupt government wanting their lands.
From the camp, the missionaries had ventured out to the then-forbidden territories of the wild Auca Indians. In a story of great international interest in 1956, five of the missionary men had been speared to death by the Aucas. But instead of withdrawing, the Wycliffe women went in and lived and worked with great success among the Aucas, a tribe that had been so troubled they would spear their own parents to death. These brave women were impressive people.
As we consider the work of such modern missionaries, one recalls Jesus' efforts in his own time. Christmas is a time to celebrate the spreading of good will to all. I wish all of you a joyous and merry Christmas.