In an effort to “reflect the full dignity of human beings made in the image of God,” Wheaton College has announced it will appoint a task force to review and rephrase an insensitive description on a plaque. The on-campus memorial for five martyred missionaries, including Wheaton alumni Jim Elliot and Ed McCully, references their 1956 killing by “savage Indians” in Ecuador. The formerly unreached tribe had been known as Aucas, which means “savage” in the Quichua language. Now the group calls itself Waorani, also spelled Huaorani or Waodani.
Wheaton president Philip Ryken says the word savage “has been used historically to dehumanize and mistreat indigenous peoples around the world.” Rewording the plaque, he says, “will carry forward the memory at Wheaton College of brave missionaries and their sacrificial witness, while at the same time respecting the Waodani people with whom they shared the gospel of the love of Christ.”
Working to Avoid ‘Unnecessary Offense’ by Using ‘Waorani’
Joseph Moore, Wheaton’s marketing communications director, says administrative leaders decided to take steps to eliminate “unnecessary offense of pejorative stereotypes.” Over the years, he says, they’d received about a dozen comments about the questionable wording. “In the 64 years since the College received this gift,” says Moore, “we have also continued to grow in our understanding of how to show God’s love and respect to others.”
The plaque, dedicated in 1957, was a gift from Wheaton’s class of 1949, of which both Elliot and McCully were members. The missionaries’ story, Moore says, is central to Wheaton’s “mission and identity,” and it’s “a story we want the world to know.”
A task force consisting of various campus representatives is expected to make a recommendation for new wording by May 1. The school’s board of trustees and administrative cabinet will have final say, and a replacement plaque will be installed this summer.
In the year 2000, Wheaton changed its mascot name from the Crusaders to Thunder, noting that the institution didn’t “want to glorify” a violent period of Christianity.
Missions Attitudes Under Scrutiny
A reworded plaque also reflects how views of missions work have evolved. Missionary organizations now avoid what’s called the “white savior complex.” Mission to the World coordinator Lloyd Kim says Western missionaries consider themselves guests and follow the lead of national partners. “We’re trying to dispel the attitude that says, ‘We are the heroes coming to save you,’” he says. “We are coming in as learners.”
Elisabeth Elliot returned to live among the tribe that killed her husband, and its members eventually converted to Christianity. In her writings, Elliot attempted to change perceptions of the Waorani as savages and of Americans as saviors.
Lucy S.R. Austen, who’s writing a biography of Elisabeth Elliot, says evangelical Christians have tended to retell “the same streamlined version of events, with the same triumphal gloss” from the 1950s. “It seems to me,” Austen adds, “that white Americans tended to have a faulty understanding of non-Western cultures when the plaque was given, and that now that we know better, changing the plaque would be a great chance to do better.”