Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Wondrous Cross of Grace

"I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32; cf. Matt. 9:13; Mark 2:17)."

Tuol Sleng was a former high school in Phnom Penh prior to the Khmer Rouge regime (1974-1979) in Cambodia. It was converted into a prison and interrogation centre where at least 17,000 were tortured, and subsequently executed in a nearby field called Choeung Ek (also known as the killing fields).

The summary statistics for S-21 are as follows:

1975: 154 prisoners
1976: 2,250 prisoners
1977: 2,330 prisoners
1978: 5,765 prisoners

These figures, totaling 10,499 do not include an estimated 2,000 children who were killed. There are only seven known survivors of Tuol Sleng Prison, as the rest were executed at Choeung Ek.

Tuol Sleng (or S-21 prison) was headed by an individual known as "Brother Duch." He was a mathematician named Kang Keck Leu prior to his placement as commandant of the S-21 prison under the Khmer Rouge regime. My question to the reader is, "What should a Christian think, or perhaps even better, do when confronted with such an individual who is probably on par with the likes of Stalin and Hitler?"

Let me quote from Religion Today, April 1999:

"A man who ordered the deaths of 15,000 people reportedly has become a born-again Christian. Kang Kek Ieu, 56, admitted that he is "Duch," the chief torturer and executioner of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, Reuters said. He directed the Tuol Sleng detention center in Phnom Penh, where people were taken to be tortured and killed during the regime's bloody reign from 1974 to 1979. About 2 million Cambodians died in purges and from starvation and overwork before Vietnamese troops invaded and drove the Khmer Rouge from power. Duch may have been the Khmer Rouge's most sinister figure. As head of the internal security force, he reportedly oversaw the interrogation and torture of suspected traitors. At least 15,000 people were shipped to Tuol Sleng, a former high school, where they were chained to beds, tortured into making false confessions, and executed in a nearby field. His name is on many execution documents, including one ordering the deaths of 17 children whose parents were accused of being spies. One day American missionary Christopher Lapel reportedly baptized Duch in 1995. "Lord, forgive what I did to the people," Duch said to Lapel, who did not know Duch's identity at the time. Duch has since been helping humanitarian groups at work in the country. A reporter with Hong Kong's Far Eastern Economic Review interviewed him for a story in the magazine's April 29 edition, Reuters said. Duch expressed regret over the killings and said he is willing to face an international tribunal. "I have done very bad things in my life," Duch said. "Now it is time to bear the consequences for my actions.’"

So Brother Duch is now a Christian, you say. But how did it happen?

Quoting from Facing Death In Cambodia by Peter Maguire:

"One of the strangest episodes in the Khmer Rouge breakup was the emergence of S-21 prison commandant Brother Duch. The former teacher who had overseen the systematic torture and executions of at least 14,000 people was living in Battambang and had become an evangelical Christian. Baptized by American Pacific College missionaries in 1996, Duch now worked for an NGO called the American Refugee Committee. British journalist Nic Dunlop had been fascinated by Duch and for many years carried Duch's picture whenever he traveled to Cambodia. When Dunlop saw a familiar-looking buck-toothed, rabbit-eared man in a village near Samlot in 1999, he was almost certain it was the former Tuol Sleng commandant. Duch introduced himself to Dunlop in English and said that he was a former schoolteacher from Phnom Penh named Hang Pin. The Englishman returned to Bangkok and traveled back to Samlot a week later with American journalist Nate Thayer to help him verify the man's identity.

The reporters found "Hang Pin" in the same village, and when he began to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, Thayer cut the sermon short: "I believe that you also worked with the security services during the Khmer Rouge period?" At first, "Hang Pin" tried to deny the charge, but he soon broke down: "It's God's will that you are here. Now my future is in God's hands." Unlike Pol Pot and the rest of the former Khmer Rouge leaders, Brother Duch admitted his guilt. "My unique fault is that I did not serve God, I served men, I served communism. I feel very sorry about the killings and the past. I wanted to be a good communist." When the journalist presented Duch with a memo he'd written, authorizing an interrogator to torture a prisoner to death, he apologized: "I am sorry. The people who died were good people ... there were many who were innocent." The former S-21 commandant admitted, "Whoever was arrested must die. It was the rule of the party." Duch said that he had had "great difficulty in my life, thinking that the people who died did nothing wrong."

One American Refugee Committee official was flabbergasted when Duch's identity was revealed to him before Dunlop and Thayer reported it in their respective newspapers in April 1999. "We are in a state of shock frankly. He was our best worker, highly respected in the community, clearly very intelligent and dedicated to helping the refugees." Duch accepted his fate, admitted his guilt, and took responsibility for his actions: "I have done bad things before in my life. Now it is time for les reprisals." Duch's pastor, Christopher LaPel, remarked: "Duch is so brave to say 'I did wrong, I accept punishment.' The Christian spirit has filled him to his heart. Now, he is free from fear. He is free -- not like Khieu Samphan or Nuon Chea, or other top leaders." Many Cambodians were confused by this western religion that appeared to allow for an absolution of horrible transgressions. A Cambodian working for another Christian NGO, fired for crashing a company car, observed: "That wall [into which I crashed] was fixed in one week. I was broke and they fired me. But Duch, he killed thousands and they forgive him. I don't get it.’"

When I was in Cambodia, a brother-in-Christ asked me, "If you are preaching to the natives in this war torn country, what would you say to them concerning the eternal destiny of those who died in Tuol Sleng, and the man who did these mass murders?" The truth is simple: those who died outside of Christ are outside his saving grace, while he who believes on Jesus will be saved (Romans 10:9-10, 13). He continues, "Are you going to tell them that their relatives and friends who were tortured and died of excruciating pains were condemned to hell, while the man who did this to them will be in heaven?"

These questions led me to reflect upon the beauty of the cross, a simple truth that we oftentimes tend to forget. Self-righteousness is a disease of the soul. If the sinner cannot escape from this disease, it is not an exaggeration that he may not be able to receive the gospel of grace. Are we better sinners than our neighbors? Remember the parable concerning the publican and the Pharisee, "And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner (Luke 18:13)." He who is able to correctly perceive his standing before the almighty, thrice holy God will never consider himself more righteous than his neighbor. "But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away (Isaiah 64:6)."

Unbelievers demand justice, but Christians should all the more desire grace. If we were to receive our due according to the justice of God, we would all be condemned as hell-bound sinners. When we hear the alleged conversion of the ex-commandant of Tuol Sleng, it is quite easy for us to be critical of his profession of faith. But give this critical attitude of ours a little more thought, and we will realize that it probably stems from our deep-seated self-righteousness, a bent that consider us as being more righteous than our neighbors. But how gracious it was for the Father to forgive our sins on account of the imputed righteousness of Christ the Son! Were we not deserving of hell fire? Were we any better sinners than "Brother Duch?"

God in His sovereign grace has chosen to save murderers like the Apostle Paul and King David, and adulterers like Abraham and Solomon. Will God turn away one who seeks refuge in the mercy of Christ our Savior?

And if Christ has forgiven us of our horrific sins, are we then not able to forgive our neighbors? If God is able to write off our deeds of evil against Him, who are we to withhold forgiveness from one who has been forgiven by Christ Himself? If it were not for the sovereign grace of God, we would have been fellow "commandants of Tuol Sleng," and probably worse.

This also brings us to remembrance of Christ’s lesson in Luke 7:47, "Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little." Let us peruse Barnes’ helpful comments concerning this verse:

"The meaning [of Luke 7:47] may be thus expressed: "That her sins, so many and aggravated, have been forgiven—that she is no longer such a sinner as you suppose, is manifest from her conduct. She shows deep gratitude, penitence, love. Her conduct is the "proper expression" of that love. While you have shown comparatively little evidence that you felt that "your sins" were great, and comparatively little love at their being forgiven, "she" has shown that she "felt" hers to be great, and has loved much." . . . He who feels that little has been forgiven—that his sins were not as great as those of others. A man’s love to God will be in proportion to the obligation he "feels" to him for forgiveness. God is to be "loved" for his perfections, apart from what he has "done" for us. But still it is proper that our love should be increased by a consideration of his goodness; and they who feel—as Christians do—that they are the "chief of sinners," will feel under infinite obligation to love God and their Redeemer, and that no "expression" of attachment to him can be "beyond" what is due."

So, fellow brethren-in-Christ, how do you see yourself before the perfect holiness of God? Do you, like the Apostle Paul, consider yourself to be the "Chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15)?" Or do you find yourself more worthy and deserving of God’s forgiveness than Brother Duch?

In this holiday season, let us remember that: when we were by nature children of wrath, God has by His sovereign will, goodness, mercy and love chose us from the foundation of the world to be saved in Christ Jesus. And we are, of course, no better than other sinners who need the Great Physician. So, as God had been merciful and gracious to us all, let us be merciful and gracious to our neighbor, and especially, our brethren-in-Christ. "As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10)."

Prayer: Lord, let my words be spiced with compassion, my ears be filled with patience, and my hands be quick to pull the lost "out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh (Jude 1:23)." Amen.


Mike Messerli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Messerli said...


Let me cast my vote- I am desperately wicked, who can know it? Apart from the work of Christ in my life I am without hope and without God in the world. I, without God, could do all that this man did and more. There is no great sinner than I, and thus I am most grateful for the grace and mercy of God. It's Christ in me, my hope of glory!

Thank you for your story, and the grace of God in this man's life. It's a story I wouldn't hear in the states, thanks for sharing it.


vincit omnia veritas said...

Hi Ptr Mike,

Thanks for the comment. May the grace of God continue to be made known to those countries without Christ this X'mas. And may the Lord raise up more workers for the harvest is plentiful.

In Christ,