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Faith can help Cambodia rebuild

Faith is an essential asset if Cambodia is to restore itself

  • Frank Brennan SJ
  • Cambodia
  • May 14, 2012
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On Saturday, I was travelling around the Catholic parish of Khompong Thom in Cambodia with the parish priest, Thai Jesuit Fr Jub Phoktavi. As we drove through the village of Prek Sbeuv,  Jub matter-of-factly pointed out Pol Pot’s old house.  It is an unremarkable house; if  tourists happened to be this far off the beaten track they would have little idea that it was the residence of one of the world’s greatest war criminals.

I thought back to 1987 when I met a Khmer leader in the Site Two refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border.  I asked him if he could ever imagine a return to government in Cambodia.  He looked very sad as he told me how the Khmer Rouge had killed most of his immediate family.

I had the sense that he would find it hard to trust any of his fellow Cambodians in rebuilding his nation from such ruins.  But 25 years later, there is a certain routine to life here, though poverty in the villages is widespread and government corruption legendary.

The previous evening I had been asked to address a multi-faith group of NGO and Church workers on faith, justice and public policy. What could I, a Catholic priest from Australia, say about such matters in a largely Buddhist country devastated by genocide?

Faith is about my having and reflecting on a belief system which allows me to live fully with the paradoxes and conflicts of life and death, good and evil, beauty and suffering.  It is only fundamentalists who are able to live as if these paradoxes are not real, as if they do not impinge on our sense of self and on our considered actions every day.

By embracing these paradoxes and confronting  these conflicts, a person - whether inspired by Jesus, Mohammed, or Buddha - is able to live an engaged  life of faith.  I am able to commit myself to others, in love and in justice. I am able to be open to reconciling, or at least being reconciled to, the previously irreconcilable.

I am able to accord dignity to all others in the human family, no matter what their distinguishing marks, and regardless of their competencies, achievements or potentialities.  I am able to surrender myself to that which is beyond what I know through my senses.  I am able to commit myself to the stewardship of all creation.

The atheist, the person with no faith except in man himself, may do all these things with varying degrees of success.  Suffice to say, I cannot imagine being committed to these life tasks so comprehensively and so universally except with faith.

Some atheists are amongst the finest, most generous humanitarians I know.  But equally I know that my faith enhances my humanitarian instincts and achievements. Without it, I would be a lesser person; moreover, I would find reconciliation in post- Khmer Rouge Cambodia impossible.

When we live in diverse, pluralist societies, it makes good sense for us to be able to translate our world view in terms accessible to others.  The challenge to a Christian living in a largely Buddhist society has some similarities to the challenge confronting a Christian living in a society where the public square is largely the preserve of those who argue and agitate with a secularist mindset.

We have ideas not just about what is good for us as individuals but what is good for the society of which we are a part.  While it might be patronising and inappropriate for us to tell others how to live their lives, there is nothing wrong with participating in the discussion about how we might shape our society for the good of everyone.

As state officials or as citizens, our religious faith can help us and our neighbors.  The religious person who espouses  universal truths and the  universal dignity of humanity might be more likely to stand up for the people on the margins: the land evictees, the stateless and the trafficked of Cambodia.

It is important to distinguish the citizen or public official with religious faith from the religious official or representative of the faith community. Buddhists in countries like Cambodia and Myanmar know that the monks can be very effective in making public protests.  But the monks must not do it too often; otherwise they lose their exalted role.  And if they never do it, they risk becoming irrelevant and withdrawn from their people.

As people of faith we come into the public square as committed citizens.  True to our religious tradition, we  discharge the  public trust we are given and we work to recognise the dignity and human rights of all persons, at all life stages, no matter what their competencies, potentialities, achievements or  distinguishing marks.  We work to establish the common good.

We find hope in the midst of despair.  We love in the midst of hatred.  We  persevere to educate and form our citizens and to design structures appropriate to our history and culture promoting the rule of law and due process for all.

I remain in awe of those Cambodians who have been able to be reconciled, committing themselves to the common good of their nation.  Fr Jub drops in occasionally for a chat with Pol Pot’s niece, who still lives in the family home.  May God continue to bless them both.
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