See also today's opposing view, "'I Feel Betrayed' | A son-in-law of one of the murdered missionaries says the casting was a mistake."
Last week I skipped out on work a bit to have an extended lunch with my friend Ron. He and his family got the boot by the Venezuelan government for being New Tribes missionaries. Apparently the Venezuelan government has a hard time telling the difference between missionaries and CIA agents, but that's another story. We chatted about the recently released movie End of the Spear, which tells the story of a group of missionaries who were murdered by Waodoni tribesman, the same tribesmen who later became Christians as a result of evangelistic efforts by the murdered men's families.
I was reminded of my buddy Mike, a slightly crazy guy who also happens to be a missionary with New Tribes. Once, when he was home trying to get over his latest battle with the malaria mosquitoes he patiently walked me through the process the mission uses to reach those who have not heard the gospel. Ron and I reviewed how it works over lunch.
Assuming they survive the initial contact (which no one takes for granted anymore) the missionaries spend a great deal of effort to learn the tribal language and culture. They work at building relationships so that when it comes time to share the Good News, people listen instead of chasing after them with machetes. Apparently food and medicine help a lot with this, at least according to the movie.
Okay, so once they understand the language and culture and have built relational bridges with the people, they begin to share the message of salvation. Now comes the interesting partduring this process, behavioral issues are very low in priority. Rather than being "sin police" the missionaries view themselves as ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). If they focus on behavioral problems, such as idolatry or sexual sin, it can be very counterproductive.
Ron recounted instances where the missionaries got the tribal people to do all the right things. You know, little things like wearing clothes, not murdering their neighbor, stuff like that. But for all their success in making the natives civilized, the gospel never took hold. The people did what the missionaries wanted, because they saw the benefits of cooperating. Frankly, it really amazes me what a well-timed gift of a cast-iron pot can do. But the people they were trying to reach never internalized the gospel and the result was tragic. Why did these efforts at evangelism fail? Because instead of looking with compassion on tribal people those particular missionaries viewed them as inferior or even "evil" and needing to be "fixed."
After telling me all this Ron reminded me that we are in a war for men's souls, so our response needs to be appropriate to the situation. That's when the light came on. You know, that little yellow bulb you see in the cartoons above someone's head when they finally recognize the obvious We'd just been talking about the controversy over Chad Allen who plays both the part of Nate Saint and Steve Saint (as an adult) in the movie. He is openly homosexual, and a number of Christians are upset that Chad has "ruined" the story simply because he is gay. The ugly comments from so many evangelicals prompted me to think about how the church in America relates to homosexuals, as compared to tribal people.
Christians are willing to go to tribal people, and seek to understand their culture. At the same time, our general approach to homosexuals is to avoid them at all costs. When we do interact, it's to tell them how wrong they are, rather than trying to understand what has brought them to the place they are in this life. Instead of building relationships and sharing the gospel, we shout rude slogans, and tell them they are all going to hell because they are gay. Instead of realizing we are in a war for men's souls, we say we are in a culture war, and treat homosexuals like the enemy.
The Waodoni tribesmen murdered those original missionaries with simple spears. The missionaries, who had guns, did not shoot back. They were ready to meet the Lord while they knew the Waodoni were not. After the killings, family members of the murdered missionaries went back to the Waodoni to bring them the Good News, offering their own forgiveness along with God's. The result? Many tribesmen were saved, and yes, their murderous behavior did change, but as a result of the Gospel, not as a pre-condition to receiving it. My New Tribes friends have told me that paradigm has not changed in the fifty years since the original story unfolded.
Meanwhile, in our current culture war we skewer homosexuals and drive them away from the Lord, all in the name of protecting ourselves and society. We insist that they agree with us, and change their behavior before we are willing to discuss Christ. How odd that Christians are able to forgive the murderers of their own brothers and sisters, dedicating themselves to save the souls of the killers, yet at the same time, those guilty of the supposedly greater sin of homosexuality are shunned by believers and left unevangelized.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today's full coverage of End of the Spear includes:
Readers Affirm Decision to Hire Gay Actor | Most Christianity Today Movies readers say End of the Spear's filmmakers were right to honor their commitment once they had offered the lead role to Chad Allen, a homosexual. (Feb. 1, 2006)
Christian Studio Explains Hiring of Gay Actor | The makers of End of the Spear didn't find out about co-star Chad Allen's homosexuality until after they offered him the job, and then they felt obliged to honor the contract. (Jan. 26, 2006)
Reviews: End of the Spear The story has been told in Christian circles for 50 years. In 1956, five missionaries were brutally murdered in the Ecuadorian jungle by members of the Waodani tribe they went to serve. And then something amazing happened; the killers became Christians. (Jan. 20, 2006)
Death Worked Backwards | End of the Spear, a new film about the 1956 missionary martyrs in Ecuador, is similar to the Narnia story in some ways, says Steve Saint, son of one of the murdered men. (Jan. 18, 2006)
The Rest of the Story | Half a century after killing five missionaries, the 'Auca' find themselves on the cutting edge of modern missions. (Jan. 18, 2006)
End of the Spear Big Winner at Heartland | Film about 1956 missionary martyrs in Ecuador wins Film Festival's $50,000 Grand Prize; others also lauded at Crystal Heart Awards Ceremony. (Oct. 17, 2005)