Saturday, October 22, 2005

Violence in missionary video for youth

The Jim Elliott Story - DVDIn 1956 five young men who had gone to Ecuador as missionaries were killed by mistrustful members of a tribe who called themselves Huaorani, but whom the missionaries called Aucas. The five young men were Jim Elliott, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming and Roger Youderian. The Jim Elliott Story is a DVD that tells the story of these five young men, and of how the Huaorani came to receive Christian missionaries after the deaths of the five.

The Jim Elliott Story is the first video in the Torchlighters: Heroes of the Faith series, produced by the Christian History Institute with the Voice of the Martyrs. The 30-minute animated story is intended for youth ages 8-12. In my view the real treasure on this DVD are the 83 minutes of special features including an interview with Steve Saint (son of Nate Saint), and an interview with Marj Saint Van der Puy (widow of Nate Saint).

Steve Saint explains that the name of the tribe was always Huaorani; that is what they called themselves, and in their language it means "The group of True People". The Quechua name for the tribe is "Auca" which means "Naked Savages." The Huaorani did not wear clothes, were extremely mistrustful of others (sometimes justifiably so), and their response was to spear to death those who were thought to be a threat.

The animated feature depicts the Huaorani ambushing and killing workers for an oil company. I was somewhat troubled that the animation showed the Huaorani warriors gloating over the dead bodies of the men they killed. But there is no depiction of a witness who saw these warriors to tell someone what happened after the killings. There also was no depiction of the preceding murder of some Huaorani by an oil company worker. There is a risk in showing such oversimplifications of violent events to young people who might only carry away negative racial stereotypes.

The evangelical church culture that tells and retells the stories of the five martyrs is one that persists in talking about the tribe as the Auca, using the pejorative name assigned by the tribe's neighbors. That the five missionaries did not know the true name of the Huaorani was not their fault. That Vision Video or the Christian History Institute today describe the tribe as "Auca" or "Auca (Huaorani)" (here and here) is simply backwards.

The thrust of the story told in the animated feature is to encourage young people to dedicate themselves wholly to God, and it uses the example of the martyrdom of the five to inspire such dedication. The animated feature only begins to tell the story of how Christianity came to the Huaorani, and what the results were.

To get a better idea of the full story, one needs to go to the special features on the DVD. Steve Saint tells amazing stories of how Christian missionaries are reaching across cultural barriers in an ongoing relationship with the Huaorani. He speaks from the position of someone who has followed through on his father's commitment to get to know the Huaorani so that he can communicate a life-giving message in their language.

My copy of the DVD came as a free sample to a church using other resources from the Christian History Institute. My advice: Get the DVD, ditch the animated feature, and use the special features.

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