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SCOTT DREYER: Lessons from Cambodia (I)

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  — Matthew 16:18 (NIV)

As a child I spent a lot of time listening to the radio and one spring, in addition to getting excited about an upcoming birthday, I heard news reports about a group called the Khmer Rouge taking over the far-off country Cambodia. It seemed distant to a kid in Southwest Virginia, but it made an impression on my mind. 

Fast forward about a quarter of a century, and I was still in Roanoke, but this time, co-teaching an honors program for freshmen at Patrick Henry High School. Teaching a survey of the non-western world for ten years, we included a unit about Southeast Asia, which itself included a brief study of Cambodia.

The 1975 fall of the capital city of Phnom Penh to the communists called the Khmer Rouge triggered one of the most horrific genocides the world has ever seen.

Here in the US we have heard talk of “the great reset,” but the Khmer Rouge and their bloodthirsty leader Pol Pot had such a “radical reset,” they took 1975 and renamed it “Year Zero.” In other words, everything that had happened or been learned previously was criminal, and the whole culture had to restart from scratch. 

To launch their gruesome version of “Year Zero,” the cities were forcefully emptied and the masses driven to the countryside to farm. Fanatical, armed teenaged bands broke into banks and poured the now-useless money into the streets, because the whole country was put on a starvation-level economy. Anyone who showed signs of education was killed. My students were always amazed to learn that the simple act of wearing glasses was a death sentence. Glasses meant 1. Your family had enough money to buy you glasses and 2. You could read and write. 

Plus, being a doctor, nurse, teacher, engineer, journalist, or even being able to speak a second language marked one for execution. 

One Cambodian professor who was smart enough to see it coming threw his glasses away and for four years pretended to be an illiterate laborer, just to survive.

Normal people recoil at the evils of Hitler, but Pol Pot managed to kill some 2 million of his countrymen–a mind-blowing 25% of the whole population–in four short years through mass executions, torture, overwork, and starvation.  

Each year our students sat in stunned silence when as a part of our Cambodian unit they watched a brief excerpt of the 1984 movie The Killing Fields about Pol Pot’s genocide. 

Fast forward to now. 

A young couple recently spoke at church about going to Cambodia as Christian missionaries. Amazingly, despite much of the globe being closed to Christian workers, Cambodia is now wide open: its prime minister recently begged for more such missionaries to go to his country and help his people. Because of their tragic history, Cambodians probably more than most people recognize the violence that communism and atheism can do and has done.

Here in the US,  a recent Gallup poll showed that, for the first time since the question was asked in the 1930s, less than 50% of Americans are associated with a church or synagogue. In the US and much of the West, religious affiliation is down. In contrast, Christianity is booming in much of the developed world, including much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In Cambodia, the number of Christians has doubled every fifteen years, for twice in the past 30 years now.  

In America today, many would have us believe that Christianity is a force of oppression, and if we can just throw off its shackles, we will all be happy and free. Historical lessons from communist lands like Cambodia, however, teach us just the opposite. 

Horace Greele, editor of the New York Times during the US Civil War era, put it this way: “It is impossible to enslave, mentally or socially, a Bible-reading people. The principles of the Bible are the groundwork of human freedom.”

Know the truth. It may upset some people, but it will set you free.

– Scott Dreyer

Scott Dreyer in his classroom.


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