The Mission: Righteous or Reckless?

Directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, The Mission documents the life of John Chau, a young American missionary who tragically lost his life. Back in 2018, Chau had committed his life to reaching the indigineous population on a remote North Sentinel Island. But Chau’s evangelistic passion also became his own undoing as he ignored the warnings of others and pursued his personal mission anyways. Killed by arrows upon contact with the population, the film highlights the people who he left behind who are asking whether or not this Mission was worth the sacrifice.

In The Mission, McBaine and Moss find a fascinating case study that taps into church history, yet also questions its effectiveness. Despite opening with the realization of with Chau’s death, the film manages to create a mysterious edge. Because we know that his death stems from his interaction with the indigenous population who are (rightly) wary of outsiders, Chau’s passing weighs heavily upon the film. Every interview reminds us of the tragedy of his loss and every re-enaction almost feels like the next step of a man’s death march. However, the primary mystery within this Mission becomes the ‘why’ as opposed to the ‘how’. 

John shows gifts he brought as he approaches the natives. (National Geographic)

For his friends and loved ones, Chau’s loss is no doubt tragic. But the real mystery of the film is whether or not it was necessary.

Wisely, McBaine and Moss use every opportunity to share Chau’s passion and story through his own words. By animating his journals, Mission effectively re-creates the sort of passion that clearly ignited his soul. Through testimonials of his friends and relatives, Mission reveals a portrait of a young man who was passionate about his beliefs. Chau was deeply committed in his faith and yearned to share that same love with others who did not know the story that shaped his soul. 

Even so, in the best of ways, Mission gives equal voice to those who may not doubt Chau’s compassion but ultimately question his actions. For example, the film taps into the emotional heart of his father, a man whose son was taken from him as a result of his spiritual fervor. Through his father’s writing, we hear his concerns (and even pleading) with Chau to give up his personal mission to change the world and focus on his life at home.

John Chau’s father reads his ideas. (National Geographic)

Yes, Chau was a loving young man of good character, but was he also reckless?

What’s more, Mission also points out that there are many stories of other evangelists who have fallen out of love with the practice. By allowing former missionaries to express their own regrets, the film taps in to the dangerous colonial mindset that can be embedded within evangelical ministry. There’s a certain mythos that surrounds stories like Chau’s and Mission highlights the ways that arrogance can lead to an imperialist agenda. (After all, Chau was a man who sought out adventure. It’s entirely plausible that his passion for ministry may have stemmed from being the one to do ‘something that had never been done before’.)

Was Chau’s heart for sharing his faith due to his beliefs? Or was it a veiled attempt at colonization where he can enforce his own way of life upon another community, with no regard to their own cultural heritage? 

Dan Everett, a Professor of Linguistics and former missionary, has both a profound respect for John Chau, and a disdain for his actions. (National Geographic)

To its credit, The Mission takes an incredibly balanced approach to faith in this particular film. Although it celebrates Chau’s passion and character, it also holds the modern missionary movement accountable for its colonialist agenda. To those within the church, Chau seems like a martyr who should be celebrated. As such, The Mission believes that church history may, in fact, remember him, yet also isn’t convinced that his sacrifice is worth the cost.

The Mission is available in select theatres on Friday, October 13th, 2023 with a wider release on October 20th, 2023.

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