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They think we’re cannibals

Lessons from Jim Elliot’s martyrdom, 68 years later

A plaque honoring Jim Elliot and Ed McCully at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. Wikimedia Commons

They think we’re cannibals
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Sixty-eight years ago this month, missionary Jim Elliot and four others were speared to death by Huaorani Indians in the Ecuadorian jungle.

However we understand this story now 70 years on—(was this a martyr’s epic adventure or an object lesson in cultural ignorance?)—I think it’s important to say that should anyone claim to know that God did not, in fact, call those men to that work and to their death, they are lying. Elliot and the others loved Jesus and were doing what they thought He wanted, at great personal cost. Let no cynicism invalidate that.

In my recent reading of Through Gates of Splendor, the book in which Elisabeth Elliot retells the story through the men’s journal entries, what struck me most was not the cultural awkwardness or even the great drama. It was the missionaries’ total confidence in their own intelligence gathering. For weeks leading up to their ground approach of the Huaorani, the men flew their prop plane over the tribe’s settlement, dropping gifts and yelling phrases they believed translated to “friend.”

They then painstakingly analyzed every tiny movement the tribe made in response. Jim wrote one day that he “saw a thing that thrilled me—it seemed an old man who stood beside the house waved with both his arms as if to signal us to come down!” Nate Saint once wrote that the tribe had removed a wall from one of their huts, allowing him to peek inside from the air, which he considered to be a “friendly-looking deal.” Sometimes the missionaries dropped brand new machetes as gifts to the tribe, for whom the knives were indispensable. When a man brandished his machete over his head, wagging it at the plane, the missionaries unquestioningly interpreted it as a thank-you.

They were obsessively analytical. They were so confident. And they were mostly wrong.

When Elisabeth Elliott returned to the jungle in 1958, after subsequent missionaries had made successful contact with the Huaorani, the tribe told her they’d speared the five men because they thought they were cannibals.

Reading back through the men’s journals after this revelation is like going back to the beginning of the movie and noticing all the signs you can’t believe you missed. The Huaorani were technologically primitive and shockingly barbaric. Some even testified to burying their children alive.

Suddenly into their private world flies a group of men with obviously superior technology and resources, and yet who seem almost desperate to make contact with the Huaorani. What other conclusion could the Huaorani have drawn except that this was a pretty obvious Big Bad Wolf situation?

People can’t be attracted by our “witness” without having any real idea what we’re witnessing to.

The missionaries’ journals suggest the men recognized the danger. But they seemed to attribute the tribe’s wariness to childish ignorance instead of reasonable mistrust. In a way, it’s a testament to the missionaries’ faith. The gospel was so central to their worldview that they apparently forgot what the world looks like when you’ve never heard it. Without the gospel, people who have everything don’t risk their lives to “befriend” people with nothing. Other than the gospel, there’s really no story so urgently compelling that people will sleep in the jungle and crawl through the mud to tell it.

Western Christians ought to be careful not to make the same mistake. Our neighbors are losing familiarity with the gospel—both the particulars of the story itself and the kind of world the Bible says this is. People might accept that we think a man rose from the dead; we’ve all got our little myths, don’t we? But they’re increasingly baffled by the suggestion that we think everyone should literally believe it, too. Or that the man we claim rose from the dead makes profound demands on our time, conduct, and affections.

And yet, when they put “our” books on their lists, or invite us to write columns in their newspapers or speak at their colleges or be in their “documentaries,” we trust our own interpretations. Blinded by our hope, or by the sheer force of our desire to be One of the Cool Ones, we think this means we’re doing it! We’re making inroads! A friendly-looking deal, indeed!

But this “cultural inclusion” doesn’t necessarily mean our neighbors are “warming up” to the claims of Christ. People can’t be attracted by our “witness” without having any real idea what we’re witnessing to.

The missionaries who finally made inroads to the Huaorani had to start further back than “we are friends.” They had to go back to basics. You are Man and Woman. Someone made you. He is the One True God. “They learned from the missionaries that the Man Maker sent his Son to die for people full of hate, fear, and desire for revenge,” wrote Steve Saint, son of Nate Saint, decades after the killings.

God wanted the Huaorani for Himself, because He is Love. He wants our neighbors in the West, too. It’s the Christians’ job to bring the gospel to them, but we need to go back to the basics. We are Man and Woman. Someone made us. We need saving, and Jesus saves. If we’re going to shine a light into enemy territory, we can’t act like we’re showing up to a welcome party. We can yell “friend” all we want—but they might still think we’re cannibals.

Maria Baer

Maria Baer is a freelance reporter who lives in Columbus, Ohio. She contributes regularly to Christianity Today and other outlets and co-hosts the Breakpoint podcast with The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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