Ecuadorians called them savages, but they are the Huarani people. A primitive tribe, they lived in the shadows of the jungle in Ecuador, launching savage attacks against one another, attacks that went on so long, no one remembered what rift had begun them. They were well acquainted with death but not with the outside world until, in 1956, five American missionaries went missing after making contact with them. Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, and Peter Fleming packed a small plane with gifts and began making inroads with the tribe in hopes of reaching them with the Gospel. After just a few days of contact, the Huaorani killed the five men. A handwritten journal chronicling the contact was left behind, as were five young widows and their children. News of the deaths spread worldwide.
The story is unusually sticky – not complicated sticky – but hard-to-forget sticky. Though newspapers would focus on the martyrdom of five men, the best of part of the story happened two generations later. After Nate Saint’s aunt and Jim Elliot’s widow returned to the Huarani to complete the mission of the young evangelists, an unbreakable interconnection between the murderers and the martyred men was forged and continues today. The entire tribe trusted in Jesus and gave up violence. The man who murdered Nate Saint has become a surrogate grandfather to Nate’s grandson who has lived with and loved this warrior, now gentle because of the Spirit of Christ. The grandchild who never knew his grandfather knows intimately the man whose hands murdered him.
It is almost unfathomable on every level. It is hard to comprehend how such a violent people can turn gentle. It’s even harder to comprehend a new widow returning with the Gospel to men who savagely murdered her husband. It’s hard to believe that a single woman, aunt to one of the murdered men, would return and spend the rest of her life with the Huarani and be buried among them after her death. And it’s an even larger stretch of the imagination to see documented on video (Beyond the Gates of Splendor) the playful grandfather-to-grandson relationship between the killer-turned-saint and the victim’s offspring. Unbelievable, that is, unless you know much about Jesus. This kind of impossible is the unmistakable signature of Jesus. And nothing and no one on this earth has anything like it.
No anti-depressant or anti-psychotic can bring change like Jesus. He makes brothers of enemies. He makes violent men peaceful. He enables victims of great atrocities to forgive their perpetrators. Five men gave their lives to bring the Gospel to people who had never heard it because they followed Jesus whose pattern was the same. Their death opened the door for Jesus to create brothers of enemies.
Which is more amazing? Men who would lay down their lives or men and women who would forgive? I tend to think that to forgive comes harder for humanity than even death. Would not some rather die than forgive (and do so every day)? Yet forgiveness is the most radical and central characteristic of Gospel. To forgive is to suffer, not unlike two women suffered to return to men who murdered their loved ones and led them to Christ. From the death of five and the forgiveness of many, Jesus created a new people and an unlikely kinship between an old murderer and a boy. Beauty from ashes. That is the unmistakable signature of Jesus.