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What I Actually Told “The Walrus” about John Allen Chau

Updated: Jun 24, 2022

Canada’s aspiring magazine of ideas, The Walrus, recently printed a bowdlerized version of a letter I sent to them. To clip letters is their prerogative, of course, but I thought some readers might like to read (all of) what I originally wrote. So here it is:

Kate Harris’s indictment of American missionary John Allen Chau (“The End of Exploration,” March 2019) isn’t extraordinarily bad. In fact, it’s completely typical of the way the post-Christian socially progressive tranche of Canadian society reacts to anything approaching traditional Christianity. As such, it’s typical of The Walrus. And if The Walrus truly wants to host a national conversation, this clueless self-indulgence has to stop.

Harris recounts the story of Chau’s fatal attempt to reach the inhabitants of North Sentinel island with the gospel—or, at least, she presents a cartoon version of it. In her telling, Chau is a bubbling nitwit “fresh out of missionary boot camp” who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the biological threat he poses to these isolated people by the germs he carries. No, he just wants to convert them to his religion—a motive that, she later darkly reveals in an apparent feat of mind-reading, as “self-gratification.”

In her judgment of Chau—and the piece is nothing but relentless condemnation—Harris deploys the usual stock of PC invective: “colonialism,” “imperialism,” “genocide,”—now, where was that…ah, yes, here it is—“fundamentalism,” “corruption” and “terrorist.” Whew.

What she doesn’t trouble herself to do, however, is to understand Chau. She writes as if his venture is no more or less than eco-tourism, on-the-edge adventurism pursued at the cost of violating the privacy of people who have made it clear that they want to be left alone.

The record shows, however, that Chau had made a long study of the islanders. He had trained to encounter them as kindly as possible. That’s why he went alone, why he went almost naked (he stripped down to black underwear for the appoach), why he studied “first contact” linguistics, and why he underwent a regimen of inoculations and quarantine.

And for what? Because he was a zealous nut addled by religion or—worse—a selfish punk on a lark?

Or because he believed that the spiritual equivalent of a tsunami was bearing down on these people and the only humane thing to do was to break their self-imposed isolation and warn them?

His motive matters absolutely as justifying his transgressive mission, but Harris dismisses it superciliously as “too easy a target,” as if the driving force of the world’s most popular religion is beneath a journalist’s imperative to understand—and to help her readers understand—her subject.

Such condescending crap keeps showing up in polite Canadian media. The Walrus doesn’t have to like Christianity, still by far the most widely held philosophical/religious orientation in the country, but it should at least trouble itself to comprehend it.

Otherwise, the magazine will remain just one more echo chamber of right-thinking people, and not a real conversation at all.

Prof. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. Crandall University Moncton, New Brunswick


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