Trevor Johnson (Photo: Facebook, used by permission)


Jan 11, 2019 by Alyssa Duvall

Are Missionaries Wiping Out The Closer-To-Nature Ways Of Life In Remote Tribes?

In the wake of the death of John Chau by the hands of the remote tribe he sought to reach with the Gospel, the internet is alight with criticism that Christian missions are more akin to colonialism, wiping out pristine, innocent societies who are living in perfect harmony with nature.

Trevor Johnson, who serves alongside his wife as a nurse and missionary to remote tribes in Papua, Indonesia, adamantly disagrees. Informed by his firsthand work with HeartCry Missionary Society and experience serving the Korowai people, Johnson asserts that remote tribespeople neither live a blissfully simple life, nor are they exempt from mankind's desperate need for the Gospel.

Far from being a colonist as many may accuse, Johnson says the Korowai actually invited him to live and serve in their land: "They want change. They want people to come and help them. They invited me in and even gave me a little land I used for our house, the clinic and the school. These tribes want to change."

Furthermore, Johnson rejects the "derogatory" terms critics of missionaries use to describe peoples like the Korowai, such as "primitive" or "Stone-age". "They are humans just like us, and they have desires and agency to act upon their desires. This has led them to petition the government for help. This has caused them to ask for missionaries."

As for perfect harmony with nature, Johnson says it's "a common Western lie."

"A common trope among Western tourists to tribal peoples is to remark on how these tribal peoples 'live in perfect harmony with their environment.' Recently I saw a Youtube video proclaiming this very thing about the Korowai, a tribe I’ve lived among since 2007."

"How did these tourists pick up on this 'perfect harmony with nature,'" Johnson asks.

"Did they perceive it from the chronic cough and the drawn, tight tuberculoid features of the older Korowai? Did they learn this from the yellowing or even balding heads of the young people from malnutrition? Did they learn this from child-brides silently inhabiting Korowai treehouses? Did they perceive this 'natural-ness' from the dirt and grime-smeared babies? These babies ARE, indeed, closer to 'nature' I suppose, if you mean mud and earth."

"In reality," Johnson continues, "the Korowai fight nature tooth and nail. In the end, they almost always lose."

"The history of mankind is a history of societies trying to shape their environments, but what do people do when the environment is too tough? They do what they can, and barely survive," he explains. "Such has been the plight of the Korowai."

"When we entered Danowage in 2007, the kids really did not play together," Johnson said, exposing the heartbreaking truth of the alleged "harmonious" life. "Most just sat and stared, too tired and weak from malnourishment to expend any calories in the vanities of play."

"That is also why the Korowai do not have an advanced and refined culture. There is not a body of great composers of music being born from their culture, nor any advanced musical instruments except the mouth harp and a few drums. They carve arrows, but other artwork is minimal. They don’t produce the intricate woodcarvings exhibited by more dominant tribes to the south, such as the Asmat."

"What does it mean to be in harmony with nature? What is more 'natural' for man," Johnson asks.

"Let’s look at an example from history. The ancient Sumerians and the Indus Valley civilizations had toilets that they flushed with water from about 2000 BC. It is common (i.e. natural) for many of the civilizations of mankind to have some sort of toilet system in place, and natural for mankind to fashion some manner of hygienically voiding their bowels."

"The Korowai still defecate in the woods," he explains. "If the majority of the world’s population uses some sort of toilet system, are the Korowai more 'natural' or less natural when compared to the rest of the societies of men?"

Instead, Johnson proposes two possible definitions for the "natural" life.

"If natural means basic and common to mankind, then the Korowai are not natural. They are an historical oddity. Such remote tribes are not the norm, for the norm is to advance and fashion new inventions. In fact, many such tribes once branched off from a stock which advanced technologically while their technological growth remained stunted, or even degraded. In the slow march forward these people have fallen out of the march and some have even wandered backwards."

"Or does natural mean more earthy and close to nature? And if this is so, then why is this a virtue," Johnson asks. "I would not praise my son for eating with his hands if I had forks and spoons for him to use. Simple is not necessarily more pure. The natural world is more simple, and yet brutishly cruel. The Korowai, lacking guns, murdered one another with alarming regularity for decades with arrows."

"While their architecture is impressive with their tall treehouses becoming an icon of remote Papua, let’s remember that the motivation for building these tall treehouses was borne out of a superstitious fear of witches," Johnson adds. "The same modern secularist world that disdains religion also admire these treehouses, yet these treehouses were borne of their religious/spiritual worldview."

"Let me challenge the reader," he states. "As of 2019, in contrast to this common trope of tribal peoples living in harmony with nature, let us observe that it is the industrial nations of the West who do the most for conservation. The Western nations are the most pristine and abundant in wildlife. They are the nations which pass regulations to limit pollution and carbon emissions. On the other hand, the Korowai seek out cheap rice and noodles and discard the plastic wrappers wherever it pleases them without a thought to littering."

Peoples such as the Korowai are not living an idyllic life in tune with nature, Johnson concluded. "They’ve just not succeeded in taking dominion over creation. They’ve been unsuccessful in the fight against their environment, so instead of shaping their external world into a place where creativity and health can flourish, they’ve had to be content with doing just enough to survive."

"If a tourist ever exalts a tribal culture because they are 'in harmony with nature' remember the high infant mortality, the propensity to violence, the low technology, the poor hygiene, and the poor status of women. And then please reason with them that they are just spewing a Western myth and the sad reality is much different than they've been taught."

For more information on the real work being done not only to reach people like the Korowai with the Gospel but to work to eradicate the problems that plague them, visit HeartCry Missionary Society.

Please continue to pray for missionaries like Trevor and his wife, and the people they serve. Learn more about their ministry to the Korowai in the video below:

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