The story of Democratic Kampuchea and the reign of Pol Pot and the infamous “Killing Fields.” Also briefly touches on the Vietnam invasion of Cambodia. What lessons from Kampuchea can be learned for the church today? In this post I expand upon a prior post and ask and challenge atheists to stand up and intervene in unhealthy and toxic situations for the betterment of our species. Will atheists and secularists rise to the occasion?
“To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”
Khmer Rouge Slogan
“When the Vietnamese invasion happened, I cried. I was crying with joy that my life was saved. I was crying with sorrow that my country was once again invaded by our century-old enemy. I stood on Cambodian soil feeling that I no longer belonged to it. I wanted freedom. I decided to escape to the free world.”
Teeda Butt Mam account of surviving The Killing Fields
“I am afraid, still,after ten yrs. away, to voice my thoughts.”
Comment on SGM Survivors
“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
John 8:32 NLT
In 1970 the leader of Cambodia Norodum Sihanouk was visiting China when he was overthrown in a coup that placed Lon Nol in power. In the course of time in Cambodia the country became embroiled in civil war. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters needed supply lines through Cambodia for logistics efforts in the Vietnam conflict. Plus they also needed their sanctuaries to wage an insurgency. As a result the North Vietnamese launched attacks against the new government in Cambodia. Ousted ruler Norodum Sihanouk encouraged these efforts and supported the conflict against the new government. Soon Khmer Rouge rebels appeared on the scene and used the King’s support. The Khmer Rouge is the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampouchea in Cambodia. It was formed in 1968 as an offset of the Vietnam’s People Army from North Vietnam. As the civil war grew the Khmer Rouge obtained more power and started to control more territory. The Communist insurgency was becoming stronger and Pol Pot and Leng Sary started to purge the Vietnamese trained communists. The Communist Party of Kumpuchia (CPK) became a strong independent force in time. In 1973 the CPK fought battles against the government forces with little or no North Vietnamese troop support and they controlled 60% of Cambodia’s territory and 25% of its population. The CPK had reduced Lon Nol’s power to cities and main transportation routes. The CPK had drawn most of its strength in the country side. On January 1, 1975 Communist troops launched an offensive which was the hardest fighting of the war. It led to the collapse of the Khmer Republic. and the Lon Nol government surrendered on April 17, 1975. The stage was now set for one of the darkest movements in modern history.
The Killing Fields and Vietnam’s Invasion of Cambodia
After the collapse of the government the first act the Khmer Rouge did is to order 2 million people living in the capital Phnom Penh out into the countryside. This was to be “Year Zero.” Inspired by Chairman’s Mao vision of China Pol Pot wanted to create a classless society and one of the purest forms of Communism that was to exist. The country was now known as Democratic Kampuchea. In an effort to recreate society the traditional Khmer people were viewed as superior. Citizens were turned into rural peasants and referred to as the “old people.” Urban workers and intellectuals were viewed as the “new people,” and easily expendable.
In their attempt to recreate society everything was abolished that was not accepted. That included money, free markets, normal schooling, private property, foreign clothing, religious practices and traditional Khmer culture. The first people who were killed were the men, fathers just disappeared. Then to prevent revenge situations the Khmer Rouge killed the wives and children of the men who were executed. Children were encouraged to spy on their parents and report family members. Young children were taken away and lived in communes so they could be indoctrinated. As the Khmer Rouge was breaking down the Cambodian society to reconstruct it, they used slogans such as this one. “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.” Anyone who had memories of the old Cambodia posed a threat to this new and pure regime. Those that were a threat included the following, former soldiers, the police, those that fought in the Cambodian civil war. Merchants, capitalists, businessmen, farmers, landowners, and landlords also posed a threat to this emerging pure state. Also deemed a threat were intellectuals such as doctors, lawyers, monks, teachers, and civil servants or old government workers. Anyone who spoke a foreign language or who wore glasses was killed. Others started to starve under these new rules. As one person recalled, “I was scared that they would hear my thoughts and prayers, that they could see my dreams and feel my anger and disapproval of their regime. I was always hungry. I woke up hungry before sunrise and walked many kilometers to the worksite with no breakfast. I worked until noon. My lunch was either rice porridge with a few grains or boiled young bananas or boiled corn. I continued working till sunset. My dinner was the same as lunch. I couldn’t protest to Angka, but my stomach protested to me that it needed more food. Every night I went to sleep dirty and hungry. I was sad because I missed my mom. I was fearful that this might be the night I’d be taken away, tortured, raped, and I wanted to commit suicide but I couldn’t. If I did, I would be labeled “the enemy” because I dared to show my unhappiness with their regime. My death would be followed by my family’s death because they were the family of the enemy. My greatest fear was not my death, but how much suffering I had to go through before they killed me.” The most notorious of the centers were people were executed and tortured was the S-21 jail in Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng. 14,000 men women and children were imprisoned there and only 7 walked out alive after the Khmer’s brutal rule for four years. No one really knows the final toll of the Killing Fields of Cambodia. The estimates are between 1.4 million and 2.2 million were killed. The Cambodian Genocide Project at Yale University believes that 21% of the Cambodian population, lost their lives in the Khmer rule.
As the country cannibalized itself people turned on each other. Soon members of the Khmer Rouge started to purge each other in a state of anti-Vietnamese paranoia. There started to be border clashes with Vietnam and Vietnam became increasingly concerned about the Khmer Rouge regime. As anti-Vietnamese paranoia set in, even Khmer Rouge loyalists found themselves executed. On December 21, 1978 two divisions in a Vietnamese offensive crossed the border of Kumpuchea. That became a full scale invasion on December 25, 1978 when an estimated 150,000 Vietnamese troops with 13 divisions moved deep into the country. This is how one person reacted to the invasion. “When the Vietnamese invasion happened, I cried. I was crying with joy that my life was saved. I was crying with sorrow that my country was once again invaded by our century-old enemy. I stood on Cambodian soil feeling that I no longer belonged to it. I wanted freedom. I decided to escape to the free world. ” Vietnamese soldiers saw starving and dead people alongside the road and in the countryside as they moved toward Phnom Penh. On January 7, 1979 the Vietnamese army entered Phnom Penh as Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge fled. Vietnam established the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation that would be the new government. I won’t get into the details of the Vietnamese -Cambodia War, it lasted until October 1991, if you want to read more about it you can do so here.
Theological Lessons From Democratic Kampuchea
I want to be crystal clear as I write this that I am not saying anyone is like Pol Pot. I don’t want it to be construed that John Piper, Mark Driscoll or anyone else is like Pol Pot in the sense that they killed 2 million people. Neither of those individuals are responsible for the physical deaths of nearly 2 million people. That said…I think there are some lessons from Democratic Kampuchea that need to be stated and are relevant for the church today. I love history, I never imagined when I was in college or grad school that all the history I read would be applicable to situations like this today. In this post I look at Neo-Calvinist membership covenants and ask if they are a new Berlin Wall amidst a new Cold War? Then in this post I look at the personality cult, and how it applies to John Piper and Chairman Mao, or C.J. Mahaney and the “Dear Leader” of North Korea.
Democratic Kampuchea is a lesson in what happens when a movement or system is committed to pure doctrine. Doctrine at any cost, doctrine that tramples, overwhelms and conquers. The commitment to doctrine in light of the evidence of past failures and issues should raise concern. It amazes me that in history some people keep trying to re-invent communism and do it right. After all look at the varying degrees of communism that existed in history. Vietnamese communism, Sino (Chinese), Soviet, North Korean, etc… Democratic Kampuchea should be a warning as to what happens what doctrine is adhered to regardless of the cost. When you consider how some theological movements operate despite the fact that they leave so much carnage, destroyed families, destroyed lives, mental health issues, etc… are some theological movements any different? Sure its not a literal “Killing Fields” but I would suggest the following…can it be a spiritual “Killing Fields?”
Another lesson that came to mind as I thought about this topic is that is that Kampuchea is a lesson in what happens when a country turns against itself. It was in the process of cannibalizing itself and tearing itself apart and caught in a spiral as things got worse. No one trusted anyone and people turned against each other, all in the efforts of trying to survive and indoctrinated. This may be controversial to say as I know there was a lot of controversy about Vietnam’s invasion and the cold and soured relationships in Asia in the 1980’s. The only way that Kampuchea was able to got out of this cycle was by outside intervention. It came about due to Vietnam’s invasion, as it resulted in the Khmer government fleeing. Let me tie this to the modern mess in evangelicalism. Many parts of the evangelical church are turning inward. They are cannibalizing itself and hurting itself. Not only that but they are hurting others in the process. The late Mars Hill Seattle, Sovereign Grace, parts of Acts 29, etc…. are devouring itself and consuming itself and others in the process. What is the fruit of these organizations? Torn families, destroyed lives, alleged covered up abuse both domestic and sexual and corruption that is tarnishing others. Could Mars Hill fix itself? What about Sovereign Grace? How can you fix a dysfunctional culture that is top to bottom? There is another thought that I would suggest that popped in my mind the other day. In many ways I think the worse is yet to come with some of these organizations. Why do I say that? Because it takes time to get everything out especially when they operate in secrecy. However I also think its going to get worse in the church for the following additional reason. Over the last two decades there has been a surge in the “non-denominational” church model. Many of these models have no accountability, no checks and balances and this flawed model has been embraced and people have flocked to it. So I would venture to say that right now is when people are getting hurt and broken. It will take time for the problems to emerge and when they do I think many people will be shocked.
So if organizations are cannibalizing itself and hurting itself what can be done? In this post I wrote about my desire for atheists and secular individuals to pay attention and maybe become involved in helping out those who are being hurt. Why do this? To better our species. I’ll get into this below in the next section.
Why Atheists/Secularists and Concerned Evangelicals Should Work Together for the Betterment of our Species
In this post I said the following which I want to publish again. This thought is what drives this post today. After all I wanted to spend more time reviewing this thought.
When the Mars Hill situation was ongoing and stories and pain would be hemorrhaging out of the organization I was upset by how it was affecting churches and organizations in the Washington, D.C. area. I couldn’t understand the mess. Mars Hill Seattle taught me how cancerous some parts of evangelicalism can be. I don’t think many Christians have a pulse on atheism or the movement; and many don’t understand it. I was reading all the stories of financial improprieties and the belief held by many that Mars Hill 501 c3 status was compromised. I read the stories of how people hoped someone would do something, yet I knew many people were afraid. I then decided and looked into the possibility of doing a tip to the IRS and asking them to look into the situation. What I wanted to do was trigger an investigation into Mars Hill and have the IRS fully investigate the organization and Mark Driscoll’s finances. But I didn’t want to attach my signature to the paperwork or send that email. I was afraid of retribution or something ugly coming after me, and I already was managing enough in a false accusation.
So here’s what I did. One day on Facebook I reached out to the organization Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. I explained to them what was going on, my concerns and I asked them, “do you realize the alleged illegal activity that is coming out?” I asked the atheist organization given their activism in monitoring churches for politics, to file or give a tip to the IRS. The response I got was that they were not going to do it, it wasn’t their lane and they gave me the form that I didn’t want to send in. I was frustrated in that action.
I honestly believe that atheism has a lot of potential and can assist the evangelical faith. And I am reaching out to the atheist community and asking for help. Can the atheist community pay closer attention to what is transpiring in evangelical Christianity? Can they file a tip on behalf of those Christians concerned about financial fraud, child sex abuse cover up, or questionable church activity? There are Christians concerned about this stuff, heck I see how it influences churches I have popped up at. Can an atheist middle ground emerge of former Christians and atheists who understand the problems and look out for their friends and family members still caught up in these toxic movements? I wish a body of people can grow to understand each other and help each other out. If Christianity can’t police itself can atheists help police it and abort further Mars Hills for becoming the mess they are. Some of you may think I’ve spent too much time in the sun, but I am honestly serious about all this. Neil Carter will you and Recovering from Religion consider this point?
I am honestly wondering if evangelicalism will be able to police itself. Can it? Will it? There are some noble people out there such as Warren Throckmorton and Dee Parsons or the Phoenix Preacher. But the size of problem is enormous and the issues overwhelming. Can evangelical Christianity police itself? I honestly wonder if that is feasible. Sometimes I view evangelicalism like Democratic Kampuchea which is why I researched and wrote about the Killing Fields for this post. In the end Kampuchea needed outside intervention in order to save itself from itself. I sometimes feel in light of individuals like C.J. Mahaney, Mark Driscoll, Mark Dever, Jonathan Leeman and the prosperity gospel crowd, I sometimes feel like others on the outside need to intervene and help out. Why? It’s necessary for our species and the betterment of the human race. I am hoping atheists and organizations like Recovering From Religion, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State will take notice and report questionable religious organizations to law enforcement or draw more attention to it. It would have been beautiful if someone, somewhere intervened in some of these churches and called them out or got law enforcement involved early on, especially for those that had alleged criminal activity.
However I think atheists may have some problems with this idea. After all atheists are a small number. They are only about 4% of the population and vastly outnumbered. So why care? For many reasons…they should care because of the harm that is being done to their species. They should be concerned and worried for family members, friends, or loved ones who are trapped or caught up in these organizations. After all if you love someone…how can you turn a blind eye? Atheists should care about questionable organizations for the harm they are causing in spiritual abuse, child abuse, or domestic abuse. They should be aware of what is happening just as civic minded citizens who pay attention to what is happening in their cities or neighborhoods. It’s overdue it’s needed and I think atheists and secular individuals can fill a gap and I hope they will receive this warm suggestion and plea for help. Some of you may think I am nuts or that I have lost it or too idealist. I’ll grant you that I may be idealist, but I am appealing to the better angels of people’s nature in writing this post. My question is the following…will atheists or secularists rise to the occasion?
Will Atheists Rise to the Occasion?
I included this clip from The Patriot to make a point. I remember when I was involved in Crusade at Marquette and going to a conference in Minneapolis called TCX. They showed that clip to challenge people to do missions work. I want to use this clip to challenge people outside the church to pay attention and notice the problems in the church. Let me say this, I view atheists, agnostics, and secularists as friends. I don’t view them as enemies or foes. I love and care for them as I still feel drawn to their intellect, their unique way of thinking and skepticism. Some people may scoff or find this strange for a Christian to say, but do you know that from time to time I’ll drive to church listening to the Thinking Atheist or Christopher Hitchens on my Android? Why? I love the intellectual stimulation and the challenges to my thinking. I love to wrap my mind around what they are saying and chew on it. I enjoy it. I also respect the high intellectual standards that you can find in atheism. So to those of you who are atheist, to those atheist organizations will you hear my plea? At a time when you are most needed, when a part of your species is stuck in the cycle and becoming a modern day Kampuchea, will you stand up and object or point out the problems? Can you be a part of the solution? If a church is covering up child sex abuse can you make that phone call to the police? If you know of a church that is being dishonest with their finances can an organization like Recovering from Religion report it to the government? You are needed now, and I view this as being a high and honorable calling. For the betterment of society can you stand up, take notice and make that call or intervene? There are a lot of Christians who share your concerns about questionable organizations who want to see these organizations dismantled as we don’t want anyone else to be hurt. For the betterment of our species can we partner together? Can we labor together? We may disagree on the subject of God but let’s focus on what we agree on. We don’t want to see people being hurt. We are both concerned about questionable religious organizations cheating the system. We are both concerned about organizations abusing their authority and gaming the system. We both are concerned for loved ones caught up in these churches or organizations. There is much common ground that we can share and I hope that there can be a moderate and sizeable group of atheists who are concerned and can intervene. Just as Vietnam intervened into Kampuchea can atheists do the same thing and prevent further Mars Hill Seattle or Sovereign Grace’s from rising? I write this because I honestly wonder if Christianity can police itself and hold questionable people and organizations to account. If you are a Christian and you read this I hope this challenges you to get off the fence and challenge questionable organizations or pastors instead of supporting them. I wish you would cease turning a blind eye and saying, “It’s not my problem….” My hope is that if you are a Christian you’ll have trouble sleeping tonight as you ponder all the hubris and problems in evangelicalism and that in the morning you’ll wake up and want to help be part of the solution. Silence is approval and gives the those in authority their permission to do what they can. Many of these problems could be solved today if people voted with their feet and practiced discernment.
In closing I will leave you with Bette Midler’s “From a Distance.” I think the idealistic themes from the song are a cry we all strive for in the hubris and excesses of evangelical Christianity. If you are an atheist and you read this post and find it challenges you to do more I’d love to hear about it. Also thank you for hearing my plea. As always I love you guys!