How Don Richardson Led Warring Cannibal Villages to Christ, and Changed Christian Missions Forever

In this screengrab from video, Don Richardson is shown sharing his story of ministering to the Sawi people.

By David Marshall Published on August 18, 2018

Do you have one of those friends who:

(a) Writes best-selling books?

(b) Paints beautiful scenes of primitive life?

(c) Lived among cannibals, headhunters, snakes and crocodiles, then helped transform human savages into productive and peaceful members of modern society?

(d) Has discovered startling truths which transform how you see God’s work in the world and lent Christian thinkers formidable weapons in contemporary debates with skeptics?

AND

(e) Has won the “Life-Time of Service Award” from an association of North American churches and organizations promoting Christian missions around the world?

Too much for one person? Not if you know about my friend Don Richardson.

Don is a great story-teller, too, and he’s been sharing his adventures and insights with audiences around the world for more than forty years. Having met many of his friends during my own travels, I wouldn’t be surprised to find some among The Stream’s readership as well.

If you haven’t read Richardson’s books or heard him speak, you’ve been missing out. Don shares some fascinating and profoundly important truths about how God works in a world in which almost every neighborhood, classroom, and lab has become a miniature Noah’s Ark of multi-cultural humanity.

Richardson and the Sawi Culture of War

It was in the early 1960s when Don and his young wife Carol left their homes — hers in Oklahoma, and his from islands that bookend Canada (Prince Edward and Vancouver) to start their life in missions. They went to the Sawi tribe in coastal New Guinea, bringing the Gospel of Peace. Harmony proved a tough sell. The Sawi were an anti-social and cruel people. They held a custom called “fattening like a pig for the slaughter.” A man would pretend to befriend someone from a rival village, then betray, murder, butcher and consume him. They honored betrayal, in other words. So when they heard the gospel, they honored Judas as the hero.

So the two missionaries wondered how could they possibly convert such savages to faith in a teacher who told his disciples to “turn the other cheek”? And they also had wonder if they themselves were being “fattened for the slaughter.”

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But they had something the Sawi valued: hatchets, machetes and other modern conveniences. Eager to work for those wages,  three villages of Sawi merged into one around the Richardsons’ home. Battles between two of those villages flared up constantly — fourteen in the first two months alone. The Richardons mended their wounds. But they feared that the first fatality would plunge the tribesmen into endless cycles of vengeance. So they announced that if village leaders failed to make peace, they would pack up and leave.

But would peace even be possible? Did a people so poor in social capital have what it took to forge a lasting peace? Richardson fretted, “When treachery is philosophically justified, true peace is impossible. Long, long ago the ancestors of the Sawi had locked the entire culture into a ceaseless treadmill of war.”

Then a key to that lock fell into Richardson’s hands.

Jesus, the Greatest Sawi Hero

He learned that the Sawi had one way to make peace and escape the risk of betrayal. A father might dare to give his son to a man in an enemy village, and that village would give a child in return. So long as both “peace children” lived, fighting would cease. 

Richardson watched the two warring villages swap children. At first he was confused; it took time to sort out what was going on. But then  he realized that in one way, these Stone Age headhunters already knew something about the gospel — something very rich.

What was Jesus, Richardson thought, but the “peace child” (“Tarop”) of God? There was a key to the gospel already hidden at the core of this savage culture, pointing Sawi to Christ and preparing them for a great transformation.

Thrown in among some of the cruelest savages on the planet, Don and Carol found that God got there first.

Richardson climbed into a meeting house, on stilts above rainy-season floods, and spoke to the men of one village:

“‘When you, Kaiyo, gave [your son] Biakadon, it was to sprinkle cool water on just one village — Haenam. Mahaen gave you [his son] Mani to make peace with just one village — your own. But Yesus is not a Tarop for one village only, but for all mankind …”

Betrayal may have been a a value to the Sawi, but never the betrayal of a peace child. So just like that, Judas became the greatest scoundrel of the gospel, and Jesus the greatest hero. On that day, one of the world’s most savage tribes came to understand one aspect of the Gospel as few have ever known it. They embraced Christ. And this new life formed the basis for a social revolution that improved life in the swamps of New Guinea incalculably.

God Has Prepared the World for Christ

Don tells the story of the Sawi rebirth beautifully in his best-selling Peace Child. But the general lesson he learned in New Guinea proved of wider relevance. Thrown in among some of the cruelest savages on the planet, Don and Carol found that God got there first, through what he called “cultural keys” and “redemptive analogies.

Richardson’s second book applied that lesson to peoples around the world. In Eternity in Their Hearts, Don pointed out that missionaries and anthropologists have often found awareness of One All-Powerful Creator God in many nations. It’s just as the Bible predicts, he argued. Paul appealed to redemptive analogies when he preached to Epicureans and Stoics in Athens (Acts 17). Richardson illustrates this with series of remarkable stories about tribes around the world who were likewise prepared by their own prophets for the Good News of Jesus.

Richardson was not the first to suggest that God had prepared the world for Christ. Arguably this perspective goes back to Jesus himself and his first followers: “Abraham rejoiced to see my day.” Other modern scholars have found awareness of a “High God” much like the Christian God in cultures around the world. From Justin Martyr to C.S. Lewis, many Christians have recognized that great Gentile thinkers were also seeking someone suspiciously like Jesus, too. Scholars have traced similar phenomena in Africa (also here and here), and India.

After reading Richardson’s stories and traveling to Asia as a missionary myself, I found astounding redemptive analogies pointing to Christ at the heart of Chinese culture. I defended this perspective in my doctoral dissertation, finding it key to understanding the powerful impact of Christianity on Asia.

Pointing Humanity Towards Redemption

Don Richardson was recently honored by Mission Nexus for what he did for the Sawi people, as well as for inspiring others to further Christ’s call to bring the Good News of Jesus to other peoples.

Don Richardson’s stories are riveting and inspiring, Acts of the Apostles in an Apocalypto world. But Don helps answer some of the most pressing questions that our globalized secular civilization asks as well.

“Isn’t God just the product of western culture?”

“Are cultures all equally valid?” (Don also wrote a critique of Islam.)

“How should Christians respond to the rich tapestry of cruelty and wisdom, folly and stunning insights, which constitutes human traditions?”

Don Richardson helps many find Christ, not only on the cross, but at the crossroads of culture and history, pointing humanity towards redemption and wholeness.

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  • Mary White

    I just reread Don’s story last week “Peace Child” which was carried in the January 1976 Reader’s Digest, lol….who says print is dead? lol Thank God I’ve kept every Reader’s Digest I got…..it’s wonderful to know that he’s still active, “Peace Child” is a gripping story.

    • Jacob Miller

      I had forgotten about “Peace Child.”. I remember being inspired by it, in the day. although I forget most of the details. I read the book but wasn’t there also a movie?

      If I remember correctly — the basic premise is that he was trying to explain the doctrine of substitutional atonement and found a parallel in that tribal culture.

      If I remember even partly correctly, it’s a testimony to how impacting the book was! (I’ve read a lot of books.)

      (I also read “Eternity in their Hearts” but I’m pretty sure I won’t be reading his Koran criticism book any time soon.)

  • john appleseed

    I’m thankful for Don and the tools that he has given to missions.
    And thank you, David, for writing this.
    May the Lord use this is stir people to consider God’s call to the thousands of unreached people-groups worldwide.
    Every Christian should obey Jesus and “pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:38)
    Every Christian should be willing to go, saying “Here am I! Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)

    (My wife and I are incredibly blessed to be missionaries in the Philippines.)

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