Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of discussion around here about John Allen Chau. He’s the self-styled missionary who recently forced himself upon some islanders–and met an early end doing it. Already, Christians herald John Allen Chau as a martyr to their holy cause. And he is, just not quite in the way they believe. His story drives home exactly why his religion is declining–and why it deserves to decline.
The Creepy “Nice Guys” of Christianity.
Not long ago, we covered Ed Stetzer’s super-creepy post about “reaching out to non-believers this holiday season.” Like many of his Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) pals, Stetzer stresses hard about his denomination’s decline. As a solution to that decline, he offers a number of strategies to his followers.
Most of those strategies involve imposing on people without permission. Stetzer’s central illustration for his post, after all, is an encounter he claims he had with his Uber driver. Nowhere in that post does he describe asking the driver for permission to talk about his religion. In fact, he presents himself pushing his suggestions onto her:
As we spoke, she shared that at one point she had been attending [church] pretty frequently but has since found herself less engaged. During the course of our time together, as a pastor of course, I couldn’t help but suggest that she might reconsider her decision.
Aww, he “couldn’t help” pushing his opinion at her! He just had to push his blathering opinion on someone who clearly had not asked for it! Ain’t we all been there, you guys?
The Ladder of Power in Toxic Christian Culture.
Who here even feels surprised by Ed Stetzer’s proud display of boorishness? I’ll go you one further: Who even feels surprised that Ed Stetzer is not only proud of being so boorish, but is urging his followers to be similarly boorish–if not more so?
Such zealots are a dime a dozen. Most of us encounter someone like him every single day, and often many more times than that. Even the Christians who think of themselves as way nicer than evangelicals often swim and breathe in that same noxious atmosphere to the point where they don’t quite understand what the problem is with unwanted evangelism–as we saw in the comments when a Christian showed up to defend Stetzer’s behavior.
The would-be soulwinners who seem to vaguely understand the principles of consent despise the notion of it. Their culture revolves completely around power–the gaining of it, the guarding of it, and the growing of it. Christians render obedience to those above them on the ladder of power. In turn, they expect that same obedience from those below them. Those above them do not gain permission to wield that unilateral power, and so they do not ask permission from those below them.
Christians in such a system spend their lives jockeying to climb up that ladder. They seek to minimize the unilateral amount of control exerted upon themselves while maximizing their own unilateral control over the largest number of people they can.
The system absolutely depends on nobody ever being allowed to refuse the control of those above them on the ladder.
Why Toxic Christians Demonize Consent.
This system collapses when consent enters the picture.
The system’s members are well aware that nobody happily and freely chooses to be controlled by toxic Christians. They absolutely do not want to put themselves into a position where their power-grabs can be refused. Thus, they will always resist the idea that they should gain permission of those they seek to control. They know that if asked, the answer will be absolutely not–go away!
That’s why so much of their rhetoric demonizes the very idea of gaining consent–and downplays the deep, thrilling pleasure they feel at wielding unilateral control over others.
These toxic Christians characterize their intended victims as petulant little children who don’t recognize the wisdom of their parents. They think of women’s rights as “the curse of independence” and sanctimoniously declare that literal demons came up with the idea. They pretend to elevate their victims on pedestals, as if being ruthlessly controlled is actually the bonus plan and gosh, controlling people’s lives is jusssst sooo harrrd. Most grotesquely of all, they viciously retaliate against those who have the incredible gall to resist their control-grabs.
The truth is, toxic Christians live for controlling others. Controlling others isn’t some onerous burden they shoulder only because someone’s gotta, and what’re the odds, Jesus picked them to do it. No, they put up with the extreme authoritarian control exerted over themselves because it, in turn, gives them implicit permission to wield the same authoritarian control over others.
They will not willingly give up a system that lets them wield that control.
The Illusion of Control.
Now, here’s the funny part. Especially at the lower levels of the ladder, that control isn’t quite unilateral. Much of it, in fact, is illusory.
For example, take a deacon’s wife. As a woman, she occupies the lower levels of the ladder of power. But she derives much authority from her husband’s much-higher level on the ladder. As such, she wields a decent amount of power in her church community. However, any man in that church can still override her at will. Among other deacons’ wives, she still must jockey for allies. If she gets caught committing some egregious misstep, her power level will tumble. Most tellingly of all, all of her efforts to consolidate and wield power stop mattering the moment she steps away from her church community. She might wield a certain amount of power in the outside world, but the further she gets away from her local stomping-grounds, the less of it she holds.
Nonetheless, Christians like her cling hard to even that illusory power. If you’ve ever been confused by why low-ranking Christians resist and demonize consent, that’s why.
Even if they accept consent, they know those above them on the ladder will not. They can be as consent-oriented as they like. Their culture still demands that they obey the people above them on the ladder. Moreover, those below them will see their sudden acceptance of consent as weakness–and use it to climb past and over them.
If toxic Christians ever accept the necessity of consent, they will face all of the onerous burdens of toxic Christian culture without enjoying a single one of its benefits–even the illusory ones.
So they do their best not to accept that necessity.
Evangelism as a Power Grab.
Remember that Christian I mentioned a minute ago who showed up in comments to defend Ed Stetzer’s behavior? Though he seems to identify as a progressive Christian, he nonetheless wondered if we should perhaps be more “generous” to Stetzer because of Stetzer’s deep sincerity:
I certainly don’t want to trample over people’s consent etc. I’m more just trying to suggest a more generous hearing of Stetzer et al. One may reject their beliefs, but we should try to understand why sharing those beliefs are important to them. It may be simpler than power motifs – they may simply believe what they’re saying (however insanely). I can understand that.
The commentariat rightly pushed back hard on this suggestion. Many of us explained that however sincere Stetzer and his pals might seem, their methods of evangelism are, at heart, a power grab at others’ expense.
For many years, scholars have examined the idea of Christian missionary efforts as a colonial power-grab. By this term, we mean that Christians seek to colonize other communities–to bring them under heel as a new downline, similar to how a multi-level marketing (MLM) shill seeks to sign more people to their “team” as a downline to sell MLM products. In MLMs, everything those new “teammates” sell rakes in a commission for all the people above them in the pyramid. In similar fashion, Christian evangelists who successfully convert new people create new targets for their own control.
No matter how sincere a would-be soulwinner might be, that person cannot escape these implications for power. If the soulwinner really felt that sincere, then surely they wouldn’t mind asking permission before pushing themselves on others. That would certainly improve the receptiveness of their audience!
But they recoil from the very suggestion–because a stronger force compels them: their own desire to flex power at others’ expense.
The Pickup Artist Christian.
Adding consent to the list of requirements for evangelism destroys the whole point to evangelizing. If a Christian evangelist successfully manages to recruit someone using consent-based evangelism, then all that happens is they add someone to the ladder of power who does not feel compelled to obey unquestioningly those higher up on the ladder. And that situation would be intolerable to the people doing the evangelism. They don’t want non-authoritarian people to join up–unless, of course, their new sheep can be persuaded to abandon that dangerous mindset.
No, toxic Christians want to reach and convert people who respond to pure authoritarianism. And that means they need to reach a lot of people very quickly with a purely authoritarian strategy.
And that means they must behave in frankly-outrageously-authoritarian ways. They must go over-the-top in pushing themselves on others and trampling their boundaries.
The problem here isn’t one of sincerity. These Christians are quite, quite sincere! The problem is what they’re sincere about.
The Priorities of a Soulwinner.
Now, I’ve used the term soulwinner a few times in this post. It’s not only Christianese–it’s peak Christianese.
A soulwinner is a Christian who tries hard to recruit new people to their group. The term implies success, but its definition doesn’t necessarily include success as a component. The definition only requires constant attempts to score sales. And make no mistakes here. Toxic Christians live in awe of the soulwinners in their culture. These folks enjoy rock star status in the tribe–and soulwinners enjoy that status precisely because they bring together qualities that very few people in the tribe can cultivate.
Just as master salespeople in our culture share certain traits, soulwinners share traits. They exhibit qualities like quick thinking, excellent marshaling of apologetics arguments and resources, and a certain inability to accept rejection and defeat. If you ever read Eric Scheibeler’s Merchants of Deception, and I hope you do, don’t miss page 138 where the onetime Amway salesbot talks about how he “literally would not hear the word no” from a prospect.
After a sales call, Eric Scheibeler explains to a junior Ambot that he had to learn to be like that. It didn’t come naturally to him to trample over his prospects’ objections–just as it doesn’t to Christian missionaries.
But that’s what it takes to get that authoritarian message in front of people. Any Christian can explain the basic extortionist message of the “good news.” Missionaries, however, sell more than the basic Christian message. They also sell their worldview of toxic Christianity. It does no good at all to sign people up who won’t join the ladder. Similarly, it does the Ambot no good to sign up a new salesperson who won’t become an active new downline.
So Let’s Look Again at John Allen Chau.
John Allen Chau hails from (mostly) Alabama–a state dominated by the worst kind of Christianity. He had attended a Christian private school and then Oral Roberts University, we learn from news reports. So virtually nothing in his background taught him to care about consent.
Instead, Chau learned to ignore rejection. He learned that his feelings of urgency overrode others’ desire to be left alone. He learned to see other human beings as simply props in the movie he played in his head. And he learned that if he could characterize his behavior as “loving” or “nice,” he could get away with literally anything.
Indeed, that’s what we see in his story. Acquaintances described his “love for these people.” One described at length the high hopes Chau had for this journey of his. He actually thought that his deep sincerity and weird, one-sided “love” would win over the Sentinelese. He had this fantasy that they’d welcome him with open arms, let him live with them, teach him their ways and language, and–yes–eventually convert to his religion.
Clearly, people had tried to warn him–repeatedly–about the Sentinelese people’s desire to be left alone. Their hostility toward outsiders is notorious. For a while the country of India, which governs their island, had criminalized even the act of approaching it.
But like a typical toxic Christian, Chau saw all of these facts and ignored them. Like the ex-Ambot Eric Scheibeler, he couldn’t hear the word “no.”
But He Was So NICE!
Toxic Christians are creepy, creepy people. A big part of that creepiness is their firm conviction that their niceness is a permission slip they can use to prey upon others and get their way. They can violate other people’s boundaries at will–as long as they do it with a Jesus Smile on their lips.
We see that attitude in Chau. He tried to contact the Sentinelese, bringing gifts he thought they’d like–scissors, safety pins, and a football. In turn, they fired arrows at him. One struck a book he held (which multiple news sources identified as a waterproof Bible).
He whined about how they’d been so meeeeeeeeeeean to him. The source who saw his last letter said Chau said, “I have been so nice to them, why are they so angry and so aggressive?”
Anybody who has ever tangled with toxic Christians could have answered that question.
BECAUSE THEY DON’T WANT TO TALK TO YOU. EVER. LEAVE THEM ALONE.
But that answer conflicted with his own desires, so he conveniently didn’t think of it–or take their clearly-worded rejection. They simply hadn’t met the right Nice Christian. They hadn’t met him.
So he returned to their island, skirting the Indian Coast Guard the whole way.
The Magic Christian Meets Reality.
Whatever weird fantasy he had going on in his head, Chau thought it would play out in reality. The Sentinelese had shot at him, but he would make them see that he was a loving, sweet, kind guy who’d totally help them. They lived in what he called potentially “Satan’s last stronghold,” but he’d rescue them.
As he’d approached their island that first time, the New York Times tells us, he’d shouted to them in English, proclaiming his love for them. And he’d added some snippets of Xhosa, a South African language–because of course people on a remote, untouched island in the waters off India would totally understand that.
Rebuffed, Chau had retreated, feeling whiny and, in his own words, “frustrated and uncertain.” His extras weren’t reacting the way he’d expected–or wanted. He told the fishermen who’d illegally ferried him there to go home that night. He’d spend the night in his kayak, and try to make friends with them again in the morning.
We don’t know what he shouted to them the second time.
Maybe the Oral Roberts University fight song? Golden Eagles, ORU! None defeats the gold and blue!
Or maybe nothing at all.
The next morning, the fishermen went back to the island–again, illegally. This time, they saw that the Sentinelese islanders had attached a rope to Chau’s body. They were dragging it around the beach. Nobody knows how he died, or if he actually set foot on the island while alive. The fishermen just knew that he was, indeed, dead.
The Damage Isn’t Over Yet.
John Allen Chau hasn’t even finished causing his damage. He’s almost certainly frightened and spooked the Sentinelese. They’re probably more determined than ever to remain uncontacted. But even worse than that, he might have brought some kind of disease to the Sentinelese that could kill every one of them. They lack any natural immunity to those diseases that Chau, having grown up in our culture, naturally defeated or fended off. So he might have genocided their entire island.
The fishermen he bribed to ferry him around have already been caught and charged for helping him. Their impoverished families will likely be stuck footing some fines or bills as a result.
And then there’s the matter of retrieving Chau’s body.
Nobody’s yet been able to set foot on the island to do it.
Lesson: Not Learned.
If you’re expecting his tribe to say WELP, we can see they just don’t want to talk to us, so we’ll just leave them alone, then be prepared for disappointment.
Toxic Christians understand only one language: power. The Sentinelese represent an area that these Christians do not control–not even a tiny little bit! That’s why they must keep trying to control it. Every day that the Sentinelese remain unmolested by toxic Christians is another raised middle finger to toxic Christians’ dream of dominion over the whole world. In fact, they have, for years, recognized this community as a special target for recruitment.
That’s why, out of a world full of billions of people, John Allen Chau couldn’t go find some people who actually wanted to talk to him. That is why he instead singled out the Sentinelese for his last great attempt at soulwinning. And that’s why his own tribe of toxic Christians immediately decided he was a bona fide martyr to the faith, a symbol of a world so lost it killed a guy who was “so nice to them.”
Gosh, how mean of us all to refuse these creepy people who so nicely and lovingly seek to destroy our lives and control us!
But we will continue to condemn these would-be soulwinners for forcing their sales pitches upon people without consent, and for caring more about their own desires and fantasies than about what their intended victims think. Their behavior tells us everything we need to know about Christianity.
NEXT UP: Some absolutely ridiculous miracles. See you soon!
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I thought I’d leave out all the tasteless “what we do to missionaries around here” memes sprouting up, but don’t think I haven’t seen ’em.