Wednesday, September 25, 2013


S-21 is the prison where Pol Pot had thousands of political dissidents, ethnic and religious minorities, and ordinary innocents interrogated and tortured.  I walked through it on a recent visit to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.  

Literally sick to my stomach, I sank onto a bench outside the museum and tried to pray. The victim's pain was stunning.  Even more nauseating was a question lingering in my mind. How did this happen?  I've read biographies that tried to explain how men become tyrants, dictators and mass murders, but that's not what was bothering me. Rather it was this: How do ordinary men become professional torturers and executioners? In one upstairs galley I read the profiles of the wardens and the prisoners - nearly identical.

Looking up at the tree in blossom, ripe with life, I began to be afraid that I actually knew the answer.  These words came streaming to me.

But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.  Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. (James 1:14-15)

The story of Cain and Abel is a powerful example. One brother, Cain, desires God's good favor.  He wants to be accepted, loved, and honored.  When his sacrifice is found wanting, God confronts him.  God warns Cain that sin is crouching at the door; he must master his anger, his sin.  Instead, he kills his brother.  His desire, one we can all sympathize with, ruled him and his brother Abel's blood cried out from the ground against him.

What happened?  How did Cain come to commit murder?  He wanted something and sinned to get it.  It just happened to be a "big" sin.  Don't be surprised.  John puts it this way, "Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." (I John 3:15).  John is restating Jesus's words in the Sermon on the Mount, "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ` You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, `You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell" (Matthew 5:22).   Hating your brother, calling him names, even being angry at him is akin to murdering him. 

Name calling, anger, hatred is just one set of temptations.  There are plenty of others that entice us to sin.  I wondered sitting there what desire it was, what sin, that led these farmers, workers and soldiers down this dark path?  Did they long to be accepted, finding in the Khmer Rouge a sense of belonging?  Did they hope for promotion?  Was pride driving them to be somebody someday?  Perhaps they needed the money? Survival mixed up with a little greed could be a deadly stew. Perhaps it was the innocent love for their country that morphed into a willingness to do whatever it took to make things better.

I'm not making excuses for them.  It's just that sitting there, meditating on James' words, I understood.  "When sin is accomplished, it brings forth death."

I have longed to be accepted.  Haven't you?  What did you do to get it?  Tell a little lie? Bully somebody to show solidarity with the "in-crowd?"  That happens more often at work than at high school in my experience.  James whispers, "death."  

I have been prideful.  I have looked down on people not as smart as me, not as "in the know."  I have been sure that my way was best.  I have put what's good for me and mine ahead of everything else.  Haven't you?  "Sin is crouching at the door..."

The horror of the evil these ordinary men did can hardly sink in.  When the prison was liberated there were 7 living people left.  Fourteen people were slaughtered just before rescue and are buried on site.  People were kept in cells 3 foot by 6 foot.  That's the size of a coffin, folks.  They were hung upside down by their hands until they passed out and then dumped in waste water to wake them up.  Twenty. Thousand. People.

The horrors of S-21 happened in the years surrounding my birth.  That puts victim and torturer alike in my parent's generation.  Many of the oppressors walk free today.  I prayed for them too: for forgiveness, for them to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, for peace.  But I also prayed for me.

Sitting on that little bench, I confessed.  I understand how it happened.  I understand that there is no real difference in my pride, my anger, my desire to be accepted, and their similar longing.  And there are only a few steps from there for sin to literally bring forth death.  Not just my spiritual death, although that is more than enough, but the physical death of thousands of others.  I prayed that God would save me from being mastered by my desire.  I begged to be emptied of my sin and willfulness.  To no longer be so stiff-necked, to become a sacrifice so that I might never sacrifice others.

One of the blessings of this "Whatsoever Wednesday" journey into mastering my thoughts has been that it is easier to see things from a perspective of faith.  But that day I almost wish to put my "faith glasses" down because the view was hard to bear.  I saw straight through the horror, the death, the sin, and the pain, to the real people, to the real potential of my sin.

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

No comments:

Post a Comment