Re-Imagining the Khmer World:
Saving the Cambodian Nation through Political Theology
Q. ADAM MARSHALL, GEORGIA GWINNETT COLLEGE
Nestled in the heart of the Southeast Asian peninsula, Cambodia has a rich and complex history. Those with some familiarity of Cambodia might recognise its most prominent and proudest features – the temples of Angkor. At its height between 802 and 1431 CE, the Khmer Empire, with its centre near Siem Reap, had an impressive infrastructure network that archaeologists are still uncovering. These magnificent temples of Angkor are full of Shaivistic Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist iconography. Importantly, images of Angkor remain one of the most potent symbols of Cambodian identity.
Of the most esteemed kings of Angkor was Jayavarman II, who helped expand the Khmer Empire to its greatness. He also, according to a 1050 CE inscription on a temple at Angkor, made an ‘auspicious magic rite’ with Siva on Mount Kulen, making him the ‘king of the gods’. Pairing divinity with sovereignty is a well-established way of consolidating power at the national level. For evangelical Christians, this Hobbesian relationship between divinity and sovereignty – where the sovereign power of national rulers is legitimised through a god – plays an important role in the salvation of the Cambodian nation.
Additionally, threaded throughout Cambodia’s history is the notion of peoplehood, or ethnicity. Ethnically speaking, Cambodia is predominantly Khmer. In fact, the Cambodian people often use ‘Khmer’ interchangeably with all things Cambodian. The land, people, language, and even religion are commonly referred to as simply ‘Khmer’. Significantly, Buddhist religion indexes a proper Khmer person and helps hold this Khmer ‘world’ together. As one of my Khmer friends suggested, ‘we are Buddhists because we are Khmer’.
To be Khmer is to be (Theravada) Buddhist. Thus, becoming Christian, or another type of religious person for that matter, was often described as betrayal – a betrayal of one’s Khmer identity, one’s family, and the Khmer people. Another friend even suggested that becoming a Christian meant that they ‘no longer fit in’ this Khmer world. Intrinsic to Khmer evangelical Christianity was what Christians often called ‘persecution’ (karbietbien), namely being mocked, ridiculed, rejected, and in rare instances, being victims of targeted violence due to their ‘betrayal’ and otherness.
Iconography of Jesus at Grace Community Church
Iconography of Buddha at a Pagoda (wat)
Throughout my research with Khmer evangelical Christians in Phnom Penh, I discovered two techniques that my friends deployed to navigate being both Christian and Khmer.
The first was imagining their Buddhist world through images of Angkor. By keeping what it meant to be Khmer in the image of ancient Angkor – when the Khmer people were at their greatest and when kings and gods had an abiding relationship – they could confidently claim that part of their identity while not identifying as Buddhists.
They were equal with all Khmer people in their shared history. While of interest to a handful of missionaries, Buddhism was rarely addressed in contextualising Christianity. In fact, it was often bypassed in order to reach to the Shaivistic Hindu origins of Angkor and when the Khmer ruler made an alleged agreement with a deity. Of course for the Evangelical, those rulers had the wrong relationship with the wrong god.
The second and surprising technique was how they enfolded this history into the present political context and, thereby generated the momentum to transition Cambodia from a Buddhist nation to a Christian one. They used Cambodia’s ongoing political turmoil as a fulcrum to bolster Jesus’s position as the true ruler (mchah’) of the nation. Simon Springer has convincingly argued that Cambodia’s recent political and economic transition – to a hastily implemented democracy and liberalised economy – has perpetuated political violence in Phnom Penh’s public places. Additionally, this violence helps legitimise the current political regime’s, the Cambodia’s People Party (CPP), authoritarian control over the Cambodian nation. I do not simply mean that my friends interpreted violence and government corruption as evidence of the need for Jesus’s salvation. It certainly was. Moreover, they used political antagonism to thrust Jesus’s salvation from the individual convert outward to the Cambodian nation, stressing that it was the Khmer nation that stood in the need of Jesus’s salvation and not simply the individual convert.
To ground this point with some concreteness, I look to a friend called Ratanak. Ratanak belonged to Grace Community Church (GCC), an Evangelical church in a densely populated, poor, and precarious neighbourhood called Toul Sangkae. He and I visited over coffee one Saturday morning in late July 2016. He regularly participated in ‘Black Mondays’, when participants wore black shirts as a subtle form of protest against Prime Minister Hun Sen and his CPP. We quietly discussed the recent assassination of Kem Ley. Kem Ley was a bold critic of the Hun family and one of Ratanak’s heroes. He was killed in broad daylight while drinking coffee at a busy petrol station near the city centre two weeks prior. Ratanak asserted that his death was ‘like losing a family member’. He did not want to discuss the matter any further. No one did. Violence at the hands of the Cambodian government was too painful and too familiar. It was best to remain silent to keep chaos at bay.
Like most of my Christian friends, he was hopeful for Cambodia’s future on account of the advent of (Protestant) Christianity in the Khmer world. Reflecting further on the social and political situation in Cambodia, Ratanak claimed, ‘I have hope that God will put Christians in leadership. When leaders are Christians, they have a lot of love – [they] love the nation’. ‘If there are many Christians’ he went on to suggest, ‘there are no problems. Now it’s difficult. Later, when there are Christians who work in the government, who are doctors, who are skilled, Cambodia will be developed’.
Ratanak’s political theology – using theological thought to understand and engage the political sphere – was common amongst all of the Khmer Christian communities I researched. The logic was simple, if enough Christians became political leaders, then Cambodia would come out of the doldrums of social and political strife that has troubled the nation for multiple generations. The Evangelical’s dream would be that the Cambodian nation would become a nation of Christians and, that therefore Jesus would be Cambodia’s true leader. This logic sounds familiar to what Ruth Marshall reports regarding the Pentecostal ‘Born-Again’ movement in urban Nigeria. Her Pentecostal interlocutors imagined that the aggregate power of Christian conversion would result in political stability. In that way, she argues, Pentecostalism is a highly political movement. What is helpful to glean from Marshall’s analysis for the Cambodian context is that Christian religious practice can have political focus even when it is not perceived to.
The problem for Khmer Christians was that they faced a lot of antagonism: antagonism in the form of persecution due to their ‘betrayal’ and otherness; antagonism in the form of political violence and corruption by simply dwelling in the nation’s capital. People dared not directly act politically, lest they end up with the same fate as Kem Ley. However, as in other politically volatile contexts, religion nevertheless helped make their political action possible. Khmer Christians often come together to declare Jesus’s Lordship over themselves and hoping and longing for the time when the Cambodian nation would be led by a fellow Christian, just as the above photo shows. Their political theology interprets sovereignty and power through the image of Angkor, allowing them to reinterpret what was possible on the national, political level. Like Jesus’s rejection and crucifixion that gives salvation, their persecution and political antagonism was the vehicle to bring Jesus’s salvation to the Cambodian nation.