Cambodia: NGOs and faith, justice and public policy

16 May 2012|Fr Frank Brennan, SJ

Fr Frank Brennan SJ, a professor of law at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University, spoke to a multi-faith crowd last week to discuss reconciliation and justice.

Siem Reap, 16 May, 2012 — On Saturday, I was travelling around the Catholic parish of Khompong Thom in Cambodia in company with the director of UCAN News, Australian Jesuit Fr Michael Kelly, and the parish priest, Thai Jesuit Fr Jub Phoktav. As we drove through the village of Prek Sbeuv, Jub matter-of-factly pointed to Pol Pot’s old house.

It is an unremarkable house, and if tourists happened to be this far off the beaten track they would have little idea that this was the residence of one of the world’s greatest war criminals.

I thought back to 1987 when I met a Khmer leader in the Site Two refugee camp on the Thai Cambodian border. I asked him if he could ever imagine a return to government in Cambodia. He looked very sad as he told me how the Khmer Rouge had killed most of his immediate family. He could not trust the Khmer Rouge again.

I had the sense that he would find it hard to trust any of his fellow Cambodians ever again in rebuilding his nation from such ruins. Reconciliation was a fashionable textbook concept.

Twenty five years later, there is a certain routine to life in Cambodia, though poverty in the villages is widespread and government corruption legendary.

The previous evening I had been asked to address a multi-faith group of NGO and Church workers on faith, justice and public policy. What could I, a Catholic priest from Australia, say about such matters in a largely Buddhist country devastated by genocide?

Whether Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim, faith is about my having, owning and reflecting on a belief system which allows me to live fully with the paradoxes and conflicts of life and death, good and evil, beauty and suffering. It is only fundamentalists who are able to live as if these paradoxes are not real, as if they do not impinge on our sense of self and on our considered actions every day.

By embracing these paradoxes and confronting these conflicts, the person of faith, whether inspired by Jesus, Mohammed, or Buddha, is able to live an engaged life of faith. I am able to commit myself to others, in love and in justice. I am able to be open to reconciling, or at least being reconciled to, the previously irreconcilable.

I am able to accord dignity to all others in the human family, no matter what their distinguishing marks, and regardless of their competencies, achievements or potentialities. I am able to surrender myself to that which is beyond what I know through my senses. I am able to commit myself to the stewardship of all creation.

The atheist, the person with no faith except in man himself, may do all these things to varying degrees. Suffice it to say, I cannot imagine being committed to these tasks so comprehensively and so universally except with faith. Some atheists are among the finest, most generous humanitarians I know. But equally I know that my faith enhances my humanitarian instincts and achievements. I would be a lesser person without my religious faith.

For example I would find it difficult to accord full human dignity to persons at either end of the life cycle but for the abiding conviction that every person is uniquely created in the image and likeness of God. I would find reconciliation in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia incomprehensible and impossible without some religious faith.

When we live in diverse, pluralist societies, it makes good sense for us to be able to translate our comprehensive world view in terms accessible to others if they do not subscribe to our way of thinking.

The challenge to a Christian living in a largely Buddhist society has some similarities to the challenge confronting a Christian living in a society where the public square is largely the preserve of those who argue and agitate with a secularist mindset. We have ideas not just about what is good for us as individuals but what is good for the society of which we are a part.

While it might be patronising and inappropriate for the religious person to tell others how to live their lives, there is nothing wrong with participating in the discussion about how society might be shaped for the good of everyone.

As state officials or as citizens, religious faith can help us and our neighbours. The religious person who espouses universal truths and the universal dignity of humanity might be more likely to stand up for the people on the margins — the land evictees, the stateless, and the trafficked of Cambodia.

The religious person is free, and perhaps duty bound, to speak up in the public square and vote accordingly. When appointed as a state official, that person is vested with a public trust and must discharge it faithfully. It would be wrong for a religious person to abuse that trust by imposing their religious views on others.

It is important to distinguish the citizen or public official with religious faith from the religious official or representative of the faith community. There are other prudential issues to consider when we come to define the role of religious leaders in the public square.

Buddhists in countries like Cambodia and Myanmar know that the monks can be very effective in making public protests. But the monks must not do it too often; otherwise they lose their exalted role. And if they never do it, they risk becoming irrelevant and withdrawn from their people. Think just of the time when the monks marched in the streets of Rangoon and gathered outside the house of Aung Sang Su Ki when she was under house arrest.

People of faith come into the public square as committed citizens. True to their religious tradition, they discharge the public trust vested in them and work to recognise the dignity and human rights of all persons, at all life stages, no matter what their competencies, potentialities, achievements or distinguishing marks.

People of faith work to establish the conditions for the common good, and to respect and enhance the culture and space for freedom of religion and conscience for all their fellow citizens. They find hope in the midst of despair and love in the midst of hatred, and persevere to educate and form citizens and to design structures appropriate to our history and culture, promoting the rule of law and due process for all.

I remain in awe of those Cambodians who have been able to be reconciled, committing themselves to the common good of their nation. Fr Jub drops in occasionally for a chat with Pol Pot’s niece who still lives in the family home. May God continue to bless them both.

Frank Brennan, SJ, professor of law at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University

Originally published at Eurekastreet

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