The following is an email I sent to some missionary friends a little while ago and while I did get an initial response, I didn't get any answers. They were very busy while they were in Cambodia and my questions were quite detailed so there may be multiple reasons why no answers were given. The point is I asked these folks because I believe their motivation is to help Cambodia and Cambodian people and I want to have answers to the questions I am asking. This is the email I sent them, but I have omitted their names and the names of specific organizations in Cambodia because the point wasn't to single out individuals or organizations, but to ask questions about evangelism in Cambodia that I think are important....
I have some nagging questions and concerns about missionary and/or Christian organizations in Cambodia that I want to ask but I hesitate because I am not sure exactly how to phrase them without seeming offensive. I am asking you because through our limited interactions I get the sense that you and (name omitted) truly care about Cambodia and the Cambodian people and it is the sense of sincerity that comes across when I read your posts or speak to you that makes me bring these questions to you. Please consider that I am asking these questions or noting my observations over a broad spectrum of experience in Cambodia and I don't mean for any of my comments/questions to be offensive or to generalize them as reflective of all Christians. So here they are:
1. The Khmer Rouge destroyed so much of the Khmer cultural history including its rich Buddhist history. Along with 1.4 million (Cambodians have told me it should be 3 million) people killed there was also a near destruction of Buddhism in Cambodia. The monastic population went from something like 70000 before the Khmer Rouge to around 600 after the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia's largest cultural icon to the world is Ankor Wat which while largely Hindu originally has deep historical ties to Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddhist religion was literally interwoven with a sense of being Khmer. With so many Christian organizations spreading the message of Christianity in Cambodia, doesn't it in some ways deprive this generation of Cambodians the opportunity to reclaim their Khmer cultural identity and the opportunity to rebuild a central aspect of what was taken from them as individuals and a collective society? One generation removed from the genocide (everyone under 33 was born after Pol Pot lost Phnom Penh and everyone 33 or older lived through the regime) and 15 years removed from the multi-factioned civil war, shouldn't Cambodia have the opportunity to heal their spiritual, psychological, emotional, and physical wounds with the spiritual tradition which is their "religious" home? I mean that it is a known entity and not a foreign conception of spirituality/religion. Isn't the Cambodian culture and psyche uniquely married to Buddhism through its everyday usage of spirit houses, traditional medicine, offering alms to the monks, protective tattoos, making offerings to deceased relatives and ancestors, and rich iconography of Cambodia's Buddhist history? Is the spreading of a "Western" faith in a country that was so recently forcibly robbed of their historic faith a sort of religious/spiritual imperialism that capitalizes on desperation and loss?
2. Some of the NGOs working in Cambodia (organization names omitted) are quite direct in their evangelical message and some are a bit more selective in how they portray themselves. Each of the organizations I mentioned has done anti-trafficking and anti-exploitation work in the field of forced prostitution and each of them has a ministerial religious component to their programs. The vast majority of the young women rescued or assisted in their exit from the sex industry have overwhelmingly expressed a desire to return to their communities and villages in rural Cambodia. Their experience as prostituted women and girls made them "broken" and "unworthy" in the eyes of Cambodian society while they were sex workers. Once they exit with the help of one of these organizations there is an immense pressure to become like the "rescuer." Even when it is not an overt part of the mission statement, though it is a part for most of the orgs I listed, their is an underlying desire to please the individuals and orgs that have helped them out of such hellish conditions. This is understandable. But Christians are a marginal population within rural Cambodia and are often seen as separate and different from their Buddhist counterparts. Doesn't including a Christian mission or even subtle undertones prevent these young women from achieving what they have overwhelmingly expressed is their desire to successfully re-integrate into their communities? Doesn't becoming Christian just place them in another category as different from their larger community as well as their families and friends? Does including the Gospel message in anti-exploitation work actually serve to benefit the young women and girls exiting forced prostitution or rather does it serve to benefit the ngos themselves and increase their international funding appeal?
3. I've spoken to several highly qualified Cambodians working in the development and social work sector and asked them about (name omitted NGO) and various positions within that org. The responses I got were a bit surprising to me. They said that to move up or advance within (name omitted NGO) it was important to be a part of the religious activities within the organization. The folks I am referencing have years of experience and degrees that qualify them for work at (name omitted NGO), but they were all quite resentful at the idea of having to become or appearing to be Christian in order to do what they are are already qualified and capable of doing. Doesn't this place (name omitted NGO) and other likeminded ngos in a position of having lesser qualified staff due to their official/unofficial declaration of promoting Christian workers in a predominantly Buddhist country? Does this internal policy actually place them at odds with the largely Buddhist populace they actually aim to serve? Through efforts such as this is Cambodia producing Christians who are essentially doing little more than changing religious labels in an effort to find gainful and meaningful employment (I know this is not entirely the case as I have met some wonderfully kind Khmer Christians, but they stand out from many of their Christian counterparts)? Is Christianity being used as a means of discrimination towards Cham (Muslim), Buddhist, and largely shamanistic animist ethnic minority groups within Cambodia based on unofficially official policies?
4. These questions have larger implications socially but much of it is based in my own inability to rectify Christianity with my own Buddhist beliefs and my experience of religious intolerance back in Georgia. I feel like letting you know that is pertinent to the questions. How is Christianity able to rectify such practices as feeding hungry ghosts (Pchum Ben holiday), honoring the spirits of ancestors and appeasing local spirits (spirit houses and spirit shrines), and making offerings to monks/nuns/wats as a means of purifying past misdeeds? I know as a convert to Buddhism years ago, having "Christians" tell me that I was going to hell for not being a Christian was hard to take. It was hurtful though I really believe several of these folks really meant it and did not intend it as a personal attack. How is this taught in Cambodian churches? If a young woman or man becomes a Christian out of sincere faith and belief, how do they rectify that with their Buddhist mom, dad, siblings, and grandparents? How are they taught to view the other 98% of the non-Christian population? A sweet Khmer young woman flatly told me that anyone that does not believe in Jesus Christ as God will not go to heaven and it seemed to escape her that she was saying that everyone of her friends, classmates, and coworkers would be denied entrance into the heaven of her conception because they were all Buddhist and Muslim. This point was not missed on her peers however and I wondered if they felt how I felt those years ago; that by following my deepest convictions and beliefs I would somehow always be "condemned" by folks that were a large part of my life. From a Biblical or church perspective I don't know what the answers are. I know what I believe but I would like to know what Christians believe in this regard and more specifically what Cambodian Christian denominations are teaching and preaching in this vein.
To sum all of this up I want to give an example of a conversation that stuck with me that I have been trying to make sense of the past few years. The pastor of a Khmer church also worked a day job as a barber in rural Cambodia. I went to him for my normal haircut ("Cut it short like the monks.") and seeing that I was a white skinned foreigner he asked me if I was Christian. I told him no; I practice Mahayana Buddhism (technically Vajrayana Buddhism but that is splitting hairs here). He said "That is too bad. I am a Christian." I told him that my family is Christian and that I went to Christian schools as a child, but that I became a Buddhist a long time ago. He asked me why I became Buddhist and I did my best to explain what led me to becoming Buddhist. It was in a mixture of Khmer and English and it wasn't an easy conversation. Then I asked him why he became a Christian. Before he could answer, his buddy and fellow barber chimed in "Look at all of the Buddhist countries. Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia everyone is Buddhist and everyone is poor. It is difficult to get food. Most people don't have any money and have difficult lives. Look at Western nations, everyone is Christian and they have big houses, expensive automobiles, lots of food, and money. He got tired of being poor and Buddhist and thought that if he becomes Christian maybe Jesus will give him lots of money, food, and a life that is not so difficult too." My Christian pastor friend then tried to give his answer but to be honest it didn't stick with me and his friend's quick reply has stuck with me for a few years now. Both of these guys were covered in the "protection tattoos" given by monks and "magic" people and they said those tattoos had been a part of their protection during the Khmer Rouge and civil war years (keep in mind I lived in an area that was a Khmer Rouge stronghold until they laid down their arms in the mid-90's). He believed that these tattoos had protected him from bullets from entering his skin and made him invisible to his enemies. Many men in my town were covered in these tattoos, but once he became a Christian he no longer needed these tattoos and saw them as unattractive and part of his past as a soldier. They had lost their magic to him. I can't presume to know his thoughts and I realize that there is already some speculation on my behalf along these lines, but I can't help but wonder if he wouldn't have been better off with his magic tattoos and the shamanistic Theravada Buddhism of Cambodia than he was with his foreign Christian faith in a Jesus that his friend perceived as blessing Western nations with wealth and excess.
I hope I haven't overwhelmed you with my questions and observations. As a Buddhist, I realize that I am not necessarily impartial in my perspective and opinion, but I am asking these questions because I really would like to understand some of the motivation and dynamics that are involved in Christian missionary work in Cambodia. Being limited in my understanding of contemporary Christianity and partial to Buddhism, I hope that my questions, observations, and wording is not offensive or rude. Thanks for any insights you can shed on these questions because I have been asking them for a while now and I just am not coming up with any satisfactory answers.