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Church Behind the Wire

Barnabas Mam knows the love of God. That’s it, plain and simple.

Of course, there is more to it: the story of the Cambodian church in the years of the Killing Fields and the refugee era that followed is complex and sometimes horrifying. Nonetheless, that single theme comes through: Barnabas Mam knew the love of God in the most frightening, dangerous situations imaginable. That love in turn empowered him to pour out his life for his fellow Cambodians, that they, too, might know the power of the gospel.

“Yet” is the geographical fixed point for the follower of Christ. It acknowledges the darkness while simultaneously turning our attention to the light. It shifts all glory away from suffering and to the God who meets us in that suffering. “Yet” is a miracle word that we utter by God’s grace alone. It is a pivot point, a tiny word that connects the worst experience with the truth of God’s redeeming love and power. My life isn’t the only one that has a resounding “yet” at it’s center. You’ll find yet over and over in the Psalms…

Barnabas Mam was a nominal Buddhist, then a committed Communist, then – and now – a devout Christian. His story in Church Behind the Wire: A Story of FAITH in the Killing Fields highlights the power of God to change hard hearts and to work through remarkable suffering, and the Cambodian experience of the last four decades is a profound illustration of Tertullian’s maxim that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

There are enormous lessons here for a Western church often caught up in the American dream of wealth and comfort and ease, for an evangelical culture that sees apathy or dislike as “persecution,” and for believers who think of Jesus primarily in terms of personal fulfillment. The American church has not known persecution; Christians here have not known even societal condemnation, much less massacre. Rare is the believer who has faced anything worse than veiled scorn for his beliefs – and depending on which part of the country one lives in, the scorn might be flowing the other direction.

book cover for Church Behind the Wire

Whether local of foreign, we Christians were persona non grata. Who would blame us if we succumbed to the pull of despair? But somehow, I knew there was an alternative to misery—and I knew that alternative was worship.

Yet Barnabas Mam isn’t delivering a critique of Western Christianity, though he does comment on some of our oddities occasionally. He is telling the story of God’s goodness in the midst of horrors we can only grasp. If his proclamation of God’s faithfulness in the face of real threats is convicting and challenging, that speaks to our faltering, not his message. Again: the book is oriented on a simple theme: that God is good, and his love is always with us.

Because Mam hews closely to this theme, the book isn’t merely challenging; it is thoroughly encouraging. It is apparent that the gospel – the good news – of Jesus Christ has profoundly shaped his life, and so the gospel shapes the book, and so this book reminded me to look again and again at the great love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Reading turned my heart to worship more than once. How many memoirs can make that claim? In a day overflowing with memoirs, this one stands out, because Mam has no interest in making himself look good. His weaknesses, sins, and failures are writ large on these pages. But God’s grace, favor, goodness, and miraculous power are writ even larger.

The church’s “great leap forward” wasn’t based on lies; it was based on Truth. The Truth… And this church is populated with, some estimate, more than two thousand former Khmer Rouge leaders and officers who stand as brothers and sisters next to those whose families they murdered. This is what one might more accurately call a “great leap forward.

Here, too, are good reminders for the Western church, especially the more cerebral types. (I’m looking squarely at my own Reformed cohort in particular, here.) The reality of God’s present activity in the world couldn’t be more apparent in Mam’s story. Prayers answered, provision made, protection given – this is God in the now, presently working in the lives of his people in ways that we ought not hesitate to describe as miraculous. We need to hear this, as a people who often intellectually affirm God’s power but rarely pray as though he will actually do things. Intellectual assent to great truths is important – but if that assent does not carry through into our prayers and our choices, it is ultimately meaningless.

We were back home. But what does home really mean? If it means—as the Scriptures assert—a secure place to abide in the presence of God, then I had been home all along. Dr. Stanley Mooneyham said, on that night in 1972 when I first ran into the arms of my Father, “To become a Christian is not to accept a Western religion, it is to come home.” That very night, I was home.

When I fled Phnom Penh in 1975, I was home. Shackled to a bamboo cot in Sambok Moan, I was home. I was even home in the Killing Fields near Battambang. All along the way to Site II, I was home. And the beauties of home described in Psalm 23—rest, protection, peace, goodness, and mercy, to name only a few—were at my disposal as much then as now.

The love of God had chased me from Phnom Penh to Thailand and back again.

The other side of that coin is the reality that Barnabas Mam and his people were praying not only for personal comfort, but for real change in hard hearts and a broken nation. They prayed not only with the expectation that God could move, but with much greater aims in mind than ours. We content ourselves with prayers for God to make our comfortable lives even more comfortable, to remove even the hint of suffering. They prayed for God to use their suffering (as well as to save them from it), and for their people and nation to recognize his goodness. The fruit was and is flourishing churches and slow but real healing of deep, deep scars. Again, Mam’s story challenges us to examine our priorities and the aims of our prayers. Do we put the advance of the gospel front and center practically as well as verbally, or do we allow ourselves to be distracted by other ends?

The book wasn’t without its occasional missteps. It’s clear that Mam has little time for “high-sounding theology” (his phrase), and he several times sets theological clarity against deep fellowship. The value of right doctrine, it becomes clear late in the book, has been a painful lesson for the Cambodian church to learn, as it now battles against cultism operating in the name of Christianity. I certainly share his high value for unity among God’s people, but where he sees these elements of the faith in opposition, I see them complementing one another. I would love for him to value truth – which many believers have bought with a price just as great as that the Cambodians paid for their fellowship – just as much as I wish my Reformed friends valued real unity over theological nitpicking.

On the whole, though, I really enjoyed the book. Mam, it is clear, really loves Jesus, and the gospel has shaped his entire adult life – and through him, many thousands of believers in Cambodia. Praise God! Would that we all held the gospel so dear and knew it so clearly. Kitty Murray, Mam’s coauthor, deserves some serious commendation as well: this book was exceptionally well-written, with some really beautiful and powerful turns of phrase throughout.

I will leave you with the marvelous thought with which Mam and Murray close the book (and encourage you to read it for yourself):

I began my story by telling you about worship in a Cambodia that was essentially a prison state. It ends with worship in a healing Cambodia. The common thread is worship of a God who is ever worthy. This is what it means to be home.

Pipe up!

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