Earlier this month, American John Allen Chau was apparently killed by Sentinelese tribespeople on a remote island in the Bay of Bengal where they have lived relatively undisturbed for tens of thousands of years. Chau was motivated by a singular missionary zeal, writing in his diary, "Lord, is this Satan's last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?" It seems he was willing to break the laws protecting the islanders against encroachment and modern disease (against which they have no immunity) in order to "save" them.
Chau was no doubt energized by the belief many evangelicals hold that a second coming of Christ will take place only when every land in the world has heard the gospel. They are seen as lost and evil in the meantime. Other Christians emphasize the more generous view put forth by the Apostle Paul in Romans 2, that people are measured by the light they are given. And, I might add, that the Spirit of Christ is alive in the world now - not only in some cataclysmic future.
It might be easy to condemn the Sentinelese for their hostility to strangers from our well-inoculated easy chairs. However, the threat posed to them is real. Consider this - the National Geographic organization estimates that half of the Native American population died shortly after European contact about 500 years ago. Smallpox and other diseases wiped out far more people in North and South America than invading Conquistadors. By the time the Pilgrims got here over a century later, it was indeed a sparsely populated land. They just didn't realize why.
This is a cautionary tale. Our best intentions may actually do harm to others, or at least be perceived as intrusion and arrogance. Some of us still chuckle at the suspicion in which we were held on our Habitat trips to Pike County. One church member, trying to get a cell phone signal, was shooed away from the road in from of a house with the snarled command "Git!" like he was dog. We laughed, but that Habitat chapter sadly closed a few years later due to these persistent insider-outsider suspicions. So, we could be the invaders.
Fortunately, Christian history yields a really good example of how to best treat other cultures and religions. Matteo Ricci was an Italian Jesuit priest, born in 1552, who figured prominently in the Jesuit China missions of that era. He learned to write and speak fluent Chinese and aligned himself with the Confucian scholars of the day, even adopting their mode of dress. He did not present Christianity as a new or foreign concept, but as a completion of what they already practiced. He borrowed a Chinese term "Lord of Heaven" to describe God. Now canonized as a saint, he is still honored throughout Asia. His practices of respect, dialogue and immersion serve as enduring examples of how to reach out to others in Christian love. Good guidance for us on the streets of Butchertown, even now.