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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"Church Behind the Wire"

TITLE: Church Behind the Wire: A Story of Faith in the Killing Fields
AUTHOR: Barnabas Mam
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012, (352 pages).

This book takes a penetrating look at the horrific Killing Fields in Cambodia during the tragic 70s, and how Christians like Barnabas Man maintains hope in a world of hopelessness. It is a journey of faith in what may be called the "Holocaust" of the Far East. The author has personally gone through the suffering first hand. His conversion to Christianity only makes matters worse. He gets persecuted time and again by the Communist regime of Pol Pot and the Vietnamese invaders. Not only that, he gets to see how others are persecuted.

He describes how young children gets enlisted and indoctrinated with the ideals of Communism. Under the guise of the greater good for the greater society, these young children learn to elevate the Communist ideals and leaders so much, even at the expense of forsaking one's sense of identity. As the collective society expands, the individual identity contracts. The ideology easily leads to the wanton taking of human life without much thought or regard. Even the author's name has been cut short to a one syllable name by the Khmer Rouge. Mam shares about how the regime uses fear to control the people. They use power and authority to silence the people into unquestioning submission. The strategy to build a new country begins by tearing down the old. Genocide is one such flawed strategy.

Staying Alive Through Faith and Hope

Mam spends four years in prison, and is said to be one of only 200 surviving Christians in the land. Under such dire conditions, where then is hope? With suffering as a given, how can Mam survive it all?

His survival tip? Faith.

Deciding that he can no longer serve two masters, Mam opts for Jesus instead of remaining loyal to the Communist regime. His life is an example of learning to live wisely as serpents, and innocent as doves. Hope is in Christ, Mam reflects. Through the singing of hymns he has learned in the past, he is able to focus on the beauty of heaven instead of the ugliness on the earth he sees. By meditating on the Scriptures in his heart, he learns to trust and worship God, despite the ideologies and flawed thinking amid the persecutors. Through frequent thoughts of heaven, his hope is broadened when he sees the greater reality of the Kingdom, in contrast with the hopeless surroundings he face. Through hope, he sees the permanence of heaven instead of the temporal in Cambodia. Through prayer, he maintains an upbeat disposition by praying for true liberation. Even in moments of hunger, he is able to think of the true Giver of all blessings. Even without the direct fellowship of the estimated 200 followers of Christ then, Mam is able to remain hopeful, not wanting to go back to either the fatalistic Buddhist religion or the emptiness of the Communist ideology.  His obsession with the person of Christ, actually helps him through many hard times, "profiting" from the gospel through trusting.


Mam also makes several tough decisions. Mam reflects on how he used to spy for the Communists. As he seeks out the enemy by spying on Americans, he learns instead that it is God who is seeking him out. Mam also shares about his conversion experience. Recalling the evangelistic campaign of Stanley mooneyham, Mam relates how impressed he was about the way the evangelist makes the case for a Creator God, in contrast to the dominant teachings on Darwism in his society. The contrast is also dramatic. Instead of the Buddhist-Communist emphases of hard work to the detriment of self, Christianity is simply accepting Jesus into one's life, freely and lovingly. Buddhism and Communism seem enforced. Christianity is freely given and freely received. Mam relates that one reason why Buddhism is deconstructed in Cambodia is because it is not personal enough. Worse, over four years, Pol Pot's rename country of Kampuchea totally deconstructed the country from inside. The entire culture and society were destroyed. All three "kings" prove helpless in uniting the country. Firstly, the Communists flip flopped between being pro-Vietnam to anti-Vietnam. Secondly, Prince Sihanouk's neutral stance failed to instill any stability. Thirdly, the radical strategies of Pol Pot instead of constructing, actually destroys the whole country. All of these downfalls, only lead Mam to hope more in Jesus, the true Hope of all.

The story of faith during the Killing Fields years is both tragic and heartwarming. Tragic when we see how cruel people can become toward human life. Heartwarming because of the faith of Mam in spite of the evil around him, and how he tries to help others in times of suffering. At the same time, silence is not just golden. It is survival. Mam also survived because of the skills he had. From construction to agriculture, from translation to literary skills, he is able to be useful for his masters. Psalm 23:5 becomes so real to Mam as he lives in the presence of his enemies. By 1978, matters worsen as Cambodia goes to war against Vietnam. This is when the Killing Fields is at its peak. From 10000 believers in 1975, only 200 survived by 1979.

Application for the Modern West

This book reminds us in the comfortable west, that for every complaint or unhappiness we have with life, it is nothing compared to the genocide years. For every freedom of religion and belief we have take for granted, we ought to be ashamed when we fail to cherish them, in the light of other parts of the world where basic rights are simply denied. It speaks of simple faith and trust on the part of Mam. It shows us that faith without suffering is not tested faith at all. Does this mean that we need to go through suffering in order to prove our faith. Not necessary. Yet, this is something that I fear many of us in the West are unwilling to go through, and unable to overcome. Finally, Mam shows us the importance of seeing hope through having a vision of heaven. That end in mind helps cement our hopes in spite of the hopelessness we see around us.

Three things strike me. Firstly, do not take our freedom to believe for granted. Secondly, we need to learn to identify with fellow sufferers in Christ. This means that through books like these, we learn to understand the struggles fellow believers go through. Thirdly, we need to be prepared to be tested in our faith, in both good and bad times. For those of us living in comfort and take our freedom of faith for granted, re-think about our own sense of hope. Let this book remind us again, that even today, there are suffering brothers and sisters out there who are being persecuted for Christ. They are largely unknown and unheard of. We need to let books like this remind us to pray and to fight for justice wherever we can.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Moody Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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