Killing Fields to Forgiveness
By Dr. Larry Dinkins
In 1980, while I was a student studying the Thai language in Bangkok, I was asked by an OMF friend to help minister to Cambodian refugees in a transit camp. Many of the refugees were planning to go to the West, so I was asked to teach them the Bible in English while my OMF friend translated into Khmer. I vividly remember the squalor and cramped conditions of the camp, but at that time I did not appreciate the trauma back in Cambodia which had caused the camps.
All of that changed when after 27 years I had my first chance to step foot in Phnom Penh. I met Sokreaksa in the lobby of the OMF mission home. He is the author of the book, Tears of my Soul: The Story of a Boy who Survived the Cambodian Killing Fields. The book begins with Sokreaksa as a nine-year-old boy kneeling at the edge of a mass grave along with many of his family members. A single blow from a hoe to his head toppled Sokreaksa into the grave as his family was cut down and piled on top of him.
Amazingly, Sokreaksa lived and crawled out of the grave, surviving in the jungle on roots and bugs for many months. Finally he was able to make it to a refugee camp in Thailand and eventually to Canada. He met Christ there, but he was plagued by post traumatic disorders and nightmares. Part of his healing journey included returning to Cambodia as a missionary in order to help rebuild the country both practically and spiritually. Sokreaksa has not only started a school in the town where his family was murdered, but he has also planted many churches in the area.
The day after meeting Sokreaksa, I visited the infamous Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) in the heart of Phnom Penh. It proved to be the most sobering hour I have spent in my entire life. During four years (1975-1979) the Communist Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot carried out one of the worst genocides in modern history. Officials estimated that more than 30% of the population (about 2-3 million of the estimated 7 million population) was killed. Around 20,000 of this number passed through a converted high school, which came to be known as S-21 or Tuol Sleng concentration camp. It could be that only seven people out of the 20,000 survived. One of them was Vann Nath, a skillful artist who was kept alive due to his ability to draw leaders of the Pol Pot regime. Vann Nath was able to draw the classrooms from memory in graphic detail. These rooms had been converted into tiny prison or torture chambers. Even more disturbing were the many renderings of indescribable torture inflicted by young guards, most of them in their early teens.
One room contained photographs of former Khmer Rouge soldiers and their testimonies of why they had joined the Khmer Rouge. Many claimed that they had to kill their own people or be killed themselves. Most of them had been defaced and had graffiti on them. One picture, however, stood out from the rest. It showed a woman, formally of the Khmer Rouge, making an offering to a monk in a Buddhist merit-making ceremony. I had witnessed such ceremonies on numerous occasions during my twenty years in Thailand and knew the underlying desire was to make good karma and hopefully gain a better place in life in the next reincarnation. I asked my host to translate the bright red graffiti on the picture (likely written by a Cambodian affected by the carnage of the Khmer Rouge). It read, “There is no reason to concern yourself with meritorious ceremonies, your murderous crimes will never go away.” The weight of this statement struck me deeply. It encapsulates in one sentence the utter bankruptcy and hopelessness of manmade religion, which seeks through human effort to somehow erase the deep shame and guilt of sin.
The message of the Bible is that no matter how deep the stain of sin, the cleansing power of the blood of Christ can remove it. David, who after his double sin of adultery and murder must have felt much like this guard, was eventually able to say, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven …” (Psalm 32:1-2). The power of this message of grace and forgiveness has spread throughout Cambodia. In 1980 there were a few hundred believers, in 1991 there were only 1,000, but now there are an estimated 200,000 believers in 2,500 churches. This is phenomenal growth, especially when you consider that Thailand (with five times the population of Cambodia and 100 more years of missionary presence) has a similar number of believers. The environment of revenge and hatred left by Pol Pot has caused the subsequent generation to be that much more responsive to a message of love and forgiveness.
Christianity is truly unique in this regard, for no other religion can offer genuine forgiveness from the guilt, shame and stain of sin.
Sokreaksa experienced this forgiveness at a deep level, so much so that he was able to forgive the murderers of his family. I was so captured by the message of his book that I could not put the book down and ended up finishing it in the early hours of the morning. An especially riveting section told of when Sokreaksa confronted one of the killers and extended forgiveness to him. This stands in stark contrast to the initial revenge that Sokreaksa had planned in his mind if ever he encountered his family’s killers again.
Sokreaksa’s story reminded me of Corrie ten Boom who met the SS guard who had beaten her sister while she was dying in the concentration camp. Corrie had just spoken at a Christian meeting and was walking out when she saw this converted Nazi, a man she had most feared and hated just years before:
‘Miss ten Boom, I am now your brother in Christ,’ he said as he put out his hand to greet her. “My arm was like lead at my side and in the few seconds of hesitation I argued with God. ‘Why Lord? Why should you save that man? He deserved hell. Why should you have mercy on him? Why should you save him when he helped to kill my sister?’ But God insisted, ‘You love him for my sake.’ ‘Oh, no, Lord you can’t ask me to do that.’ God said, ‘You love him for my sake and Betsie’s. He’s now my child.’” And then Corrie thought of what she had just been preaching – love and forgiveness. It was as if God’s power came into her and lifted her hand up to shake the hand of her former captor. “I experienced God’s love filling my heart for that man. It was a miracle. It could not have happened any other way.” (p. 126, Bill and Shirley Loes, Is It Sacrifice, IV Press 1987).
In his earthly ministry Jesus didn’t just teach on forgiveness but demonstrated that forgiveness to a woman caught in adultery, a paralyzed man, Peter, those who crucified him and to the thief on the cross. His sacrificial death was the ultimate statement and timeless offer of forgiveness to a dysfunctional and depraved world. It is sad that genocide had to be experienced first before the life-giving message of forgiveness could break through to Cambodian hearts in large numbers. Asians need to hear that no amount of merit making will erase the sin debt. Satan (the original murderer) runs his own spiritual concentration camp which keeps people captive to deception and sin.