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The Motivations of Missionary MartyrsThe Motivations of Missionary Martyrs

The Motivations of Missionary Martyrs

Reviewing Joan Thomas’ historical novel Five Wives, Natalie Morrill wonders what moral calculus contemporary readers can bring to evangelizing engagement with vulnerable populations.

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Topics: Literature, Faith, Christianity
The Motivations of Missionary Martyrs August 15, 2020  |  By Natalie Morrill
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Mincaye Enquedi died April 28 of this year. He was, as near as anyone could say, 85 years old, an elder among the Waorani people of Ecuador. 

I first heard about his death on Twitter. The post in question referred to Mincaye as the man who “helped lead his tribe to Christ, baptizing many and becoming an adopted grandfather to [martyred American missionary Nate] Saint’s grandchildren.” 

Included with that tweet was a link to an article about Kimo Yeti, another elder of Mancaye’s tribe, which had originally been published in the Christian publication World Magazine in 2008. “Kimo has ‘hard life’ written all over him,” the article read; but, “God tamed his soul,” according to Kimo. 

Around the time I found out about Mincaye’s death, a friend of mine shared a link to a review of Valerie Eliot Shepherd’s 2019 book, Devotedly: The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Eliot. The book, comprising the early correspondence between the author’s parents, promised a first hand glimpse into a relationship that Elisabeth Eliot, who survived her husband by several decades, had eulogized in her own 1984 book, Passion and Purity

I’m not sure either post would have caught my eye the way they did if I hadn’t recently finished reading Joan Thomas’s Governor General’s Award-winning 2019 novel, Five Wives. At the heart of Thomas’s novel is the real-life event that thrust both Eliot and Mincaye into the international spotlight. 

In 1956, five Christian missionaries attempting to evangelize the “uncontacted” Waorani people set up camp in Waorani territory in Ecuador. Within a week of the missionaries’ arrival, Waorani warriors speared them to death. 

Mincaye and Kimo were two of those warriors. Jim Eliot, Elisabeth Eliot’s husband, was one of the missionaries. 

That fateful mission had been dubbed “Operation Auca” by the missionaries – “Auca” being the name the neighbouring Quechua people had given the Waorani and other forest peoples. It meant “savages.” Among the colonists, as well as the Quechua, the Auca were infamous for their violence: Shell Oil had withdrawn their operations from that region of the rainforest after their surveyors were killed by the Waorani.

The missionaries who went to their deaths weren’t ignorant of the Waorani’s reputation. They by no means counted on survival. Rather, as Thomas’s fictional version of Jim Eliot announces, “If God asks the ultimate sacrifice of us, […] what greater glory could there be? Than to be ushered through the gates of splendour in our prime, obeying our Commander’s voice, giving all?”

Five martyrs, then. And given the subsequent evangelization of the Waorani, and the disintegration of their traditional and warlike way of life, the Evangelical narrative might seem to stand with a firmness and simplicity that defies contradiction.

I realize that for many Christians, this entire backstory is common knowledge. It wasn’t so for me, perhaps because I’m Catholic, or perhaps because it’s a story that was told more often in a previous generation. Instead, what it reminded me of most of all was the death in 2018 of the young American missionary John Chau when he attempted to reach the isolated people of North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean. 

Like the five missionaries of Operation Auca, John Chau knew he was facing possible death in approaching North Sentinel Island. Much like them, he considered his intended mission field “Satan’s last stronghold.” He too was killed by the people to whom he hoped to preach the Gospel. And, like the story of the missionaries behind the events in Five Wives, his story became the subject of sustained international interest, outrage and debate.

Five Wives doesn’t claim to present the points of view of the five martyred missionaries of Operation Auca. Instead, it follows their descendants, their siblings, their friends, and – as the title suggests – their wives.

Thomas’s book is a work of fiction, naturally. Some of its characters are imagined versions of real people; others are invented. Thomas is explicit about this fact in her author’s note:

As for “treating real people fictionally” -- what I mean is that I use actual names and biographical details, but that the interior lives of the characters and the dynamics of their relationships are entirely of my creation. …. In the missionaries’ memoirs, “God’s leading” explains almost every impulse. I set out to peer behind that, to explore in human terms actions that astonished me.

It’s to Thomas’s great credit that for the most part, she presents the episode’s moral and existential problems to the reader with as little editorializing as possible. It’s up to the reader to decide if these missionaries should be celebrated or, for that matter, forgiven for what they did.

Worth noting as well is the distance the novel creates between the reader and the Indigenous peoples at the heart of this drama. It’s a distance, I’d suggest, meant to be comparable to that between the missionaries and the people they intended to evangelize, but did not understand. Thomas comments on this as well, pointing it out as a deliberate omission: “An intentional silence is at [this novel’s] core: I do not presume to give voices to Waorani people.”

As one might expect, Five Wives is not an easy novel to read. It offers no great comfort. There are many deaths. There is a rainforest changed forever, and perhaps more to the liking of massive corporations than to the souls of the people these missionaries claimed to love: along with a new religion and more peaceable way of life, addiction, illness and suicide among the Waorani followed the exploitation of the rainforest for its natural resources, itself an unintended result of the missionaries’ “success.” 

Even the missionaries’ motivations come into question. The narrative offers the reader their conflict, their doubt, their less-than-pure intentions. In a letter from Olive Fleming, one of the widowed missionary wives, to Elisabeth (Betty) Saint, we read: 

You wrote, “the fellows did everything right, and this gives me great comfort. If their plan was perfect, then what happened at the end was also perfect and in the divine plan.”

I must tell you that this is not an assurance I share. In fact, Operation Auca has left me with a heavy burden of regret...

Besides all this, there is conflict among the characters and within each of them. Other Christians, too -- notably, a (totally fictional) friar, Fray Alfredo -- oppose their mission, pointing out the devastation caused by disease and exploitation in previous attempts to approach uncontacted peoples.

Some of these issues are matters of historical record. Among these is the evidence, omitted from many Evangelical accounts of these events, that one of the missionaries shot and killed a Waorani man during the confrontation in which they were ostensibly martyred. The fracturing of the traditional Waorani way of life is likewise beyond dispute, though whether that is worthy of celebration or mourning is perhaps left to the reader to decide. 

But the interior lives of these characters, their conflicts and their flaws, is Thomas’s imaginative territory. It’s also where her novel is at its most brilliant. Rachel Saint’s character is especially compelling: she, Nate Saint’s sister, is easily the hardest of the women to love, but her jealous, blindered, almost childish outlook is the messy kind of stuff a reader can really sink her teeth into. 

Betty Eliot’s character as well, with her apparent ironclad immunity to doubt, is a mystery and a marvel as a woman rendered simultaneously unsympathetic and fascinating: “It was like a drug, this radical obedience to the God of the universe,” she reflects. “Once you had a taste of it, you had to ask: why would any Christian choose to live any other way?”

Yet, as if stubbornly determined not to be satisfied with such hefty subject matter and good writing, I found myself dwelling on a question as I read Thomas’s novel: What is a book like this for? My instinctive answer, as a reader, is that at its best, such a book promises to “un-strange” a stranger -- to give us intimate access to the thoughts, emotions, experiences and inner conflicts of someone whose life and experience are very different from our own. If a book does that well, it widens a reader’s imaginative and moral world.

Does Five Wives deliver on that promise? In several ways, yes. Rachel Saint’s delusional imaginings (Jim Eliot holding out to her “like a chalice” a vision of a weirdly erotic celibacy), Olive Fleming’s confusion and heartbreak, Marj Saint’s moral reckonings and Betty Eliot’s secret, agonizing doubts are triumphs of interior worldbuilding. I can sink into these characters and believe in them. Doing so is a real pleasure. 

At the same time, the bulk of this story feels, to a certain extent, like an alienist study. These characters are ones whose worldviews and motivations risk seeming so strange to a contemporary Canadian reader that the idea of their dilemmas having genuine spiritual stakes risks seeming laughable. 

To put it simply: How many readers, in 2020, are really inclined to enter into the missionary’s dilemma: to weigh the eternal fate of non-Christian souls against the temporal fallout of hostile engagement with a vulnerable population?

Admittedly, the book itself seems to acknowledge this problem. At one point in the novel, Betty Eliot reflects that the Life magazine account of her husband’s death “dutifully reported things that [the reporter] did not in the least understand. How little sense the operation makes if you ignore the spiritual element.”

Frankly, though, I have trouble imagining many of my college students reading this and having much, if any, patience with the missionary characters. At their most charitable, my hypothetical college readers might let the missionaries and their families off as well-intentioned but bumbling idealists. More likely, they’d term them deluded, self-centred fanatics. 

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But perhaps that’s the point. 

Still, I was honestly a little surprised the book had won the Governor General’s Award last year. To be clear, this is by no means meant as a judgment on the quality of the writing: Thomas writes with a keenness and clarity that lets you forget her hand is at work behind the text. Her characters are marvellously lifelike. And if the rainforests of Ecuador are at times something less than vivid to me as I read, I’m grateful that the descriptive language at least avoids ever slipping, Conrad-like, into some version of the jungle is dark and unknowable -- like the hearts of men, get it? 

The issue is simply that I doubted that the central dilemmas the characters faced in this book would seem justified to most secular contemporary readers.

Again, I find myself imagining my students’ responses to the book. Of course, this is unfair; they’d have all kinds of responses, and I won’t be reaching out to any of them for comment, after all. Better, then, to leave such defenseless parties out of it and instead say: The quotes I do have access to are the thousands of online reactions to John Chau’s death in 2018. J. Oliver Conroy recorded a few of these for his 2019 piece in The Guardian: “John Allen Chau is not a martyr,” wrote one Twitter user, “just a dumb American who thought the tribals needed ‘Jesus’ when the tribals already lived in harmony with God and nature for years without outside interference. Stupidity cannot be considered to be martyrdom.”

I can easily see this being most readers’ take-away from Five Wives. It’s not unlikely a person could close the book with righteous indignation and a reflection something along the lines of, “Some people do horrible, irrational things (but they are not like me).” 

And to be clear, my objection to this has nothing to do with whether that is or isn’t the correct take on the question of Operation Auca specifically. It’s that such a take demands nothing of us. Unless we’re Evangelical Christians, we’re barely implicated in any of the story’s central conflicts. 

There’s a further dimension to this. As Thomas observes in her author’s note, there’s a sacredness to another person’s story -- particularly if that person has barely been allowed to tell their own story (as is the case with the Waorani people). Arguably, the Christians involved in Operation Auca have had their chance (and then some) to tell their version of events, and this material is fair game for imaginative reconstruction. 

But part of this type of historical fiction project, I would argue, is to make us recall that behind the measurable and verifiable events of history is the inscrutable mystery of another human being. It’s a matter of both suggesting that I don’t already understand that person through and through, and that it is very much worth wondering what makes that person tick. 

Here’s where it strikes me that there might have been a missed opportunity in the story Five Wives recounts. Besides three of the eponymous “five wives,” several other characters’ points of view drive the story: there’s Rachel Saint, Nate Saint’s sister; David, the (fictionalized) son of one of the missionaries; his own daughter, Abby, the granddaughter of two of the missionaries; and Cornell Capa, the real-life Jewish photographer who flew to Ecuador to photograph the Life article that made the martyred missionaries famous. 

It’s this last character, Cornell, whom I wish had been given a more central role. He’s a character for whom the Christian missionaries are as alien as the Waorani warriors who killed them: “He had no idea how to talk to these people,” he realizes, after making a failed joke about the Bible to Betty Eliot. 

But in his striving to put together a story, in his struggling with and puzzling over these missionaries and the drama they’re a part of, his example implies to the reader that these are people worth wondering about, however unfamiliar -- or even deluded, if you prefer -- their worldview might be. Cornell knows that he doesn’t fully understand their story, and that he probably never will. He still sees something in it worth trying to know better. 

I’d even argue that it could be his non-understanding that draws him in: here, in these incomprehensible fellow human beings, is the mystery of the Other, something holy and terrible in a sense so plain that even a self-styled “secular Jewish” man is inclined to acknowledge it. 

In another part of the novel, in a letter he sends before Operation Auca takes place, the Catholic friar Fray Alfredo writes to missionary wife Marj Saint: “You say you love the indigeni, but all you really want are their souls. How can you hope to minister to a people you despise?” 

Surely it’s exactly such a failure to love -- which is also a failure of humility, and a failure of imagination -- that underlies the tragedies depicted in Five Wives. The missionaries assume they already understand everything they need to understand about the Waorani. They know how their story goes. And what they think they understand tells them the Waorani are distinctive primarily in their fixedly evil natures. As one Christian character in the book states: “… the Auca are outside human ken… They know what it is to have devils inside them.” 

That’s that, such a man can say, as he lays the question of the Waorani to rest just as neatly as so many online commentators laid to rest the question of John Chau’s fate.

It’s likely my own biases and preoccupations speaking, but I maintain that behind the stories that haunt us most are questions we don’t have clear answers to. I wish such questions were given a little more space in a book as thoughtful and well-written as Joan Thomas’s most recent novel. I wish that we Christians from evangelizing traditions spent more time in awe and reverence of the mystery of the Other, and I wish all readers had more opportunity to find in great fiction an invitation into that contemplation alongside us.

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