Hardly anyone thought much about the mysterious inhabitants of North Sentinel Island, whom we call the Sentinelese (because we have no idea what else to call them), until the close of November in the Year of Our Lord 2018. But following a report of the untimely and violent death of 26-year-old missionary John Allen Chau at their hands, the Sentinelese were beheld with visionary wonderment by the Western world.
Disdainfully in most accounts, the press reported on this American “adventurer’s” breach of the sacred beach of a forbidden forested island one-third the size of Rockford, Illinois, and located in the Bay of Bengal on the way to nowhere. There he was met predictably with a shower of wooden arrows tipped with thin, sharp metal salvaged from an abandoned ship and fired by dark, naked pagans. His body, dragged lifeless across the sand, was viewed off-shore by the fishermen ferrymen who had smuggled him to North Sentinel.
Mr. Chau had intended to reach these heathens with the Gospel and convert them to evangelical Christianity. Unintentionally, he revealed in the West a heart of darkness.
There is no denying that Mr. Chau acted heedlessly, even when one grants that the young man had prepared for this missionary expedition for some time and with some effort—contrary to initial reports and Twitter hot takes. But it was foolish of him to arrive assuming that he was Paul of Tarsus, impervious as it were to the venom of the asp. All Nations, the Kansas City-based foreign missions group that trained him and in some sense or another sent him, mentions in its statement of faith that it confesses the supernatural spiritual gifts of the Apostolic Era as fully operational today and useful for producing signs to unbelievers. Presumably they are not resurrecting any cold-dead Tabithas but are hearing directly from God and speaking in the tongues of men and of angels.
On his first of three contacts with the savages, Chau, canoeing over shallow water that thinly conceals a coral reef, cried out in English, “My name is John. I love you, and Jesus loves you.” Armed warriors, shouting and making high-pitched noises to one another, advanced on him, and as he paddled furiously back to the fishing boat, an arrow fired by a Sentinelese youth pierced Chau’s waterproof Bible. Hand-scrawled journal pages left on the vessel reveal these details and his impressions of the encounter, and of himself—confident in his divine mission, filled with dread and wonder.
I, too, marvel at the admixture of ideations conveyed by his final words, which represent our present cultural moment—the daring and earnest and impetuous combination of sociologically informed cultural sensitivity and ahistorical American evangelicalism, incarnate in an Asian-American Millennial. “I felt some fear but mainly was disappointed,” Chau wrote. “They did not accept me right away.”
The Anglo-Saxon St. Boniface, Apostle to the Germans, famously and courageously cut down the Donar Oak at Fritz lar, held sacred by the Hessian devotees of Thor, nearly 1,300 years ago. It was a gesture aimed at validating his claims that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, and that Thor is a product of human imagination and sinful idolatry. “At this sight,” wrote St. Willibald, “the pagans who before had cursed now, on the contrary, believed, and blessed the Lord, and put away their former reviling.” Boniface loved the barbarian pagan Germans, and his work among them altered the course of European history. But Boniface did not travel alone; he had an armed entourage and benefitted from the threat of a violent reprisal by the Frankish warlord Charles Martel, should any harm befall him.
The Germans were transformed from a polytheistic tree-, ancestor-, and anthropomorphic-god-worshiping people to the builders of exquisite churches, monasteries, and kingdoms. In the early tenth century, Henry the Fowler, King of East Francia, laid the foundations of the Christian German Empire and the Ottonian dynasty at Fritzlar, where Boniface had established St. Peter’s Church, built from the Donar Oak. His son Otto the Great marked the transition from the Franks to the Germans as imperial ruler of the Christian West, Catholic Europe.
Space does not permit a detailed accounting of the intervening years, but this much must be said: The evangelical Christianity to which John Chau subscribed and for which he recklessly but nobly gave his life traces its lineage back to the Reformation, which was itself a product of complex circumstances, human and divine, in 16th-century Saxony. And the reason Saxony was not filled with pagans lighting the fires of human sacrifice in sacred groves was owing to missions work that was backed by the force of arms. Martin Luther never wavered from preaching to his princes that it was their duty to protect the churches and the Faith, and he prayed to that effect, “Defend Thy Christendom that we / may evermore sing praise to Thee.”
Boniface did not exhibit cultural sensitivity when he approached the German pagans. He did not view them as a remote people possessing a rich cultural heritage that ought to be preserved at all costs, carefully and appreciatively. He was there both to convert them and to transform their society by bringing Christian culture—that is, the cultivation of Christianity.
That is not to say that Boniface obliterated every aspect of Germanic civilization—far from it. But a people devoted to the Gospel of Christ, the teachings of Scripture and the Church, and the weekly and festal worship of the Holy Trinity and reception of the Sacraments will adapt the traditions of Christians who have handed the Faith to them and grind every custom and folkway of their own into submission to the Faith—or otherwise eliminate it. Agriculture and viticulture and the societal institutions vital to sustain them are necessary: Apart from these, there is no bread and wine for Holy Communion. Literacy is important: Without an educated class, there is no one to read and copy sacred texts, let alone preach them. Music must be taught and appreciated, so that the faithful might teach and admonish one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Marriage—present from the beginning—must be made to conform to the revelation of Scripture. Order must be preserved, lawlessness punished, and rulers built up (not torn down in the name of, say, equality or democracy) so that the faithful may live, rear children in the Faith, and be at peace as much as possible, protected from threats from within and without, the borders of their land and their property secure.
If the society of an “uncontacted people” confronted by Christianity is cultivating these civil disciplines already, the culture may be elevated and sanctified, and the people taught to see these institutions as the fruit of natural law. If they do not exist—if cannibalism, say, or polyandry is customary, or if the people are “hunter-gatherers” bereft of agriculture and clothing to cover their genitals, or are illiterate, or do not respect the property of others, or make towers of their enemies’ skulls—the culture must be reordered according to universal standards of right and wrong, and of decency. For such standards actually exist. Idols must be abolished; sacred groves must be hewn down and their trees made to serve the King of Kings.
It was Hessian soldiers who introduced the Christmas tree to the New World, in the winter of 1781. Truly, the benefits of Christian society and culture are lasting and far-reaching.
It is quite unfashionable these days to think, let alone say, that any culture could be judged inferior, for such a judgment requires a standard by which it can be made. Of course, this innocence of judgment is both hypocritical and duplicitous: Today, Christian cultures and societies, past and present, are routinely subjected to the judgment and condemnation of the liberal elites of the West, who owe their immense cultural wealth and civilization to the dominant influence of centuries of Christianity.
But the hearts of our elites belong not to Christ or St. Boniface but to Rousseau, who is the standard bearer of the post-Christian West, and for whom the savages of North Sentinel island, had he known of them, would have served as the very model of a wholesome society. Indeed, he invented the Sentinelese in his imagination and wrote fictionally of them in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Frozen in time, they occupy “the happiest and most durable epoch.” Devoid of any civil institutions, they are immune to “the petulant activity of our egocentrism.” Naked, unashamed, and deliriously happy to be hunting and gathering and even killing—for “vengeance” only—they are beyond good and evil, for in their glorious state of nature, they do not have ringing in their ears the “deterrent character of laws.” Which, for the antinomian Rousseau, is the death-knell of natural equality.
Media accounts of the Sentinelese, following the reported death of Mr. Chau, simmered with rage at the idea of their pristine, primitive paradise being despoiled by a vainglorious American missionary. It all seemed to come straight out of Rousseau. “The more one reflects on it,” wrote the philosopher of revolution,
the more one finds that this state was the least subject to upheavals and the best for man, and that he must have left it only by virtue of some fatal chance happening that, for the common good, ought never have happened.
“Ignoble Savages, Part 2,” will appear in this space in a subsequent issue.