Sunday, November 22, 2009
Stepping into (on to) the past.
I felt bad today. The team has been touring and seeing all sorts of wonderful things. They have seen beautiful babies, played with joyful children seen cultural richness and wonderful history… and then Brian shows up! It’s not true but I kind of feel that way for today we hit the Toul Sleng torture center and the killing fields. Definitely time to change gear! It felt like a real downer for the team. While it is not about me I did feel a bit like I was raining on their parade. All their previous activities, orphanage visits etc have ultimately been in a context of poverty and loss but the joy of the kids at Rescue is powerful and somehow eclipses the ambient tragedy of this land. Funny how love and joy can do that! Today, however, there was no such subtlety. Today evil was in their faces! Yet it is in the face of such evil we find our need to be working in this country. It is the brokenness of this land that demands our response. I think the team is up for it and will rise to the occasion.
After 20 years of relationship with Cambodia there are still circumstances that I find jarring. There were several of those today.
Once again I trekked out to the mass graves and once again wandered around looking at the clothing and bones as they continued to surface. This has been going on for decades for this is no normal ground. It is so saturated with human remains that it is more a matrix of clothing and bone than it is earth – how deep it goes I have no clue.
Much has changed since my first visit when I ventured out of the city with armed guards for a fleeting and tense visit the open graves while the perpetrators, the Khmer Rough, moved close to the city. The visit did not last long before my guard nervously fingering their AK-47s became too frightened and insisted we scurry back into the safety of the city before the Khmer rouge would re appear with the setting sun. Now this site is so much more civilized – assuming you can bring civility to a mass grave. Pleasant walkways have been constructed in addition to a well presented photographic and artifact pavilion which walks the visitor through the history of this place in particular and the revolution in general. Tended lawns spread below a carefully positioned pole from which the national flag flutters and westerners and locals alike quietly stroll around to the background noise of children playing and even singing. Oh, and yes, there is now an admission fee.
Once again I wonder around the site with others half the bewildered spectator and half the focused forensic scientist. It is not the stacks of skulls staring back at me from their arranged display, nor is the scene of pit after pit where thousands died that impact me. Perhaps it is years of crime scene work and forensic examination that demands mental and emotional attention be focused on the details. It is the individual teeth, the small button from a ladies blouse or the short length of hammock string knotted to fit the skinny arms of a malnourished victim. It is in these single artifacts that I find intense personal stories – personal tragedies beyond my imagination. For these, all of them, represent real people – individuals with hopes and dreams like my own. Who somehow in events well beyond their control found themselves staggering through this hell not so many years ago.
Into this contemplative scene intrude a lovely young couple speaking German. Obviously in love they walk close and bump into each other obviously enjoying the physical contact. Occasionally they catch each other’s eye in an affectionate glance. Speaking softly they appear oblivious their environment as they stroll. Their love seems to blind them to the bones, clothing and teeth they so casually walk on.
I am instantly offended and in a peculiar reaction find myself picking up teeth and placing them at the side of the walkway so as to prevent them being walked on by the advancing couple. I move carefully as if to express some sort of protection, respect or even affection for these little scraps of humanity that represent such intensely personal loss. For somehow lives long gone seem closer here – more immediate. As I reflect on the couple and the context of their date I retreat from my irritation for they illustrate a strange and powerful thing. God has designed us for love. Affection, tenderness and relationship can not only exist in the context of all things evil - it can obliterate it.
Christ, is our best example of love, which obliterates evil and death. In the presence of such love evil simply cannot stand.
And so, after some contemplation, I think the German couple may simply be illustrating a wonderful and powerful truth. That love does eclipse evil. Love can and does exist in the presence of profound darkness. It can and does overwhelm even the most horrific crimes. It can, and I hope will, overwhelm the evil in our own lives… that we too will trample the darkness underfoot.
In the end that is why we are here in Cambodia - to, like the German couple, trample evil underfoot all the while rejoicing in the relationship we have found in Christ and seeking to share that with so many others who would long to have something or someone eclipse the darkness.
I guess that is the lesson of faith in Cambodia - Joy in the darkness.