The Common Good

Does Grace Abound to the Chief of Torturers?

090306-duchOn the first day of the Obama administration, our newly elected president signed the order to close down Guatanamo. Scores of human rights advocates were in ecstasy. For those of us committed to peace and social justice, the words Guatanamo and Abu Ghraib invoke images of shock and horror. How could we as a nation have stooped so low? Where was the outcry from the Body of Christ?

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These are crucial questions that we as a nation need to ask ourselves. What happened in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and, yes, even Afghanistan-think Taxi to the Dark Side-is a stain on our nation's moral character. But let's be clear about one thing. Much worse crimes have been committed by much worse regimes in the not too distant past. To put it mildly, when you stack the crimes of Dick Cheney against the crimes of Duch, a former Khmer Rouge prison commander, the latter makes the former look more like Dick Van Dyke.

Between 1975-1979, Duch was the director of the Tuol Sleng prison during the horrific era of the Pol Pot regime. Pol Pot's dream was to turn all of Cambodia into an agricultural commune. Under Pol Pot's rule private property, currency, and religion was abolished. Just about anyone associated with the middle to upper class were considered a threat to Pol Pot's communist dream of a poor man's paradise. It's estimated that the Khmer Rouge killed up to two million people during their reign of terror. Nearly 17,000 of those people passed through the Tuol Sleng prison where they were tortured in monstrous ways-before they were marched to the infamous Killing Fields to be executed.

Fast-forward 20 years. In 1999, a British journalist discovered Duch in Northwestern Cambodia. The Duch that he discovered was hardly the same man. By 1999, Duch had converted to Christianity, worked for two Western aid organizations, and even started a house church while in hiding. Today, Duch is on trial for crimes against humanity by a U.N.-backed court designed to reconcile the Cambodian nation with its troubled past.

I was in Cambodia last month teaching a seminar to Bible school students, so I got the chance to interact with many Cambodians about their nation's troubled past. It was my fourth time to the nation and, little did I know, the trial of Duch-which is the first official trial of a former Khmer Rouge official-began during my visit. The occasion was truly historic. While it seemed to me that many of the Christians were willing to forgive and put the past behind them, Duch himself has remained an enigma.

There's little doubt that Duch has demonstrated genuine remorse over his past crimes. Unlike the other four defendants (to this day, only five former Khmer Rouge officials have been arrested) Duch has admitted that crimes occurred at the prison under his watch, and yet Duch hasn't made a formal confession of guilt. His reason? He claims that he was forced to do what he did. Had he not followed orders, he would have been killed-or worse.

I have to admit that I'm on the fence about this one. Not that I don't think that Duch should be tried, convicted, and imprisoned up to the rest of his natural life. I do. Neither do I think that fear for one's life justifies torturing 17,000 people and sending them to their deaths. It doesn't. I hope that Duch eventually pleads guilty and makes a formal unqualified apology. What troubles me about Duch's defense isn't that it's absurd, but that there might be a grain of truth in it-even if it still doesn't justify what he did.

Visit the Killing Fields today and the tour guides will tell you that thousands of war criminals are walking the streets of Cambodia with impunity. In fact, former Khmer Rouge officials fill just about every position of the Cambodian government today. They'll also tell you that it's very difficult to prosecute former offenders because many of them were brain-washed adolescents that were forced into what they were doing, much like the child soldiers today in northern Uganda that are forced to do horrific things by the rebel leader Joseph Kony. With so many people forced into the miserable position of having to choose between kill or be killed, it is very difficult to identify who the real perpetrators were-the ones that had a legitimate choice.

To top things off, many scholars postulate that it was the longstanding U.S. bombing campaign of the Cambodian countryside-a campaign that killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians-that drove an impoverished population into the arms of the Khmer Rouge in the first place. How much do you want to bet that there will never be as much as a truth and reconciliation committee on that matter? Given the seriousness of the times, the actions of the U.S. bombers are also understandable-frighteningly understandable. I bet that many of them went on to live productive, healthy, and, yes, even godly lives afterwards.

The Apostle Paul marveled that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ could save even him, the chief of sinners. In his former life as a religious extremist, Paul had presided over the deaths of countless Christians, and yet what he did seems to pale in comparison to what Duch did at the Tuol Sleng prison.

But maybe that's the point. If the grace of Christ isn't sufficient to cover everything-including the worst imaginable sins-how could we be sure it's sufficient to cover anything? As mindboggling as it may be, the truth still remains. "Where sin abounds, grace abounds much more," (Romans 5:20). Whether it's Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, the guard at Abu Ghraib, or a former Khmer Rouge official, the biblical record is clear: God's grace abounds even to the chief of torturers.

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