‘Killing Fields’ Journalist Dies

When I listened to NPR on Monday this week, as I often do in the morning, I was suddenly reminded of how one solitary life far away in another culture can have an enormous influence on the rest of us. Dith Pran, the Cambodian-born journalist whose experiences inspired the movie The Killing Fields, died Sunday at age 65. It was Pran that coined the term “Killing Field” after seeing the remains of victims of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. He was my age and he had a great impact on my life and how I’ve been able to view other such human tragedies ever since.

I want to pay tribute to his memory though I never had the privilege to meet him. It’s possible, because of those things that so easily keep us from speaking across artificial barriers, that someone reading this has an entirely different opinion regarding Mr.Pran. I’ve been told that in the Khmer Republic today, this is one subject, which is not spoken of openly. But I ask for your patience to be able to tell you how personal this became to me and has been part of me these thirty-five or so years.

I was in New York in 1973-74 preparing to go to then Cambodia, doing post-graduate training in Missiology (the Science of Missions). As part of my studies, I was doing a field research on the land, culture, and people of that country. It was more than just an intellectual exercise of history and statistics: I was prepared to leave my own “comfort” zone and invest my life in helping others whom I had never met. The special area of interest for my cultural study was the religious history and in those days it seemed to be one of the most excited places in terms of a Sovereign God who works in mighty ways fulfilling his purposes for all creation. God was at work in undeniable ways as a national church was coming alive and growing as never before. Years of dedicated, slow work were suddenly showing remarkable results; it was truly “a movement of a people” toward Christ. I personally met at this time, one whose life work had been the printing of the Cambodian Bible- which had been done right there in Nyack, New York.

But there were other forces of work at the same time. The terrible evil of war was even then escalating and there was a growing sense of urgency for those in the country. I found myself deeply identifying with the Khmer people and what it must be like “on the ground”, as they say. I felt a love being created in my being for real people as I read some of the personal stories coming out and the efforts of others to be of help. I met a medical doctor who had persuaded the Cambodian government to allow him to build and staff a much-needed hospital and then was raising support in the States through the auspices of World Vision to make it a reality.

And then in the midst of such hope, the whole story changed abruptly as the war in Southeast Asia went from bad to worse. The door of opportunity for the gospel of the redeemer sent from God suddenly shut with devastating results. With were not to learn the enormous dimensions of that tragedy until much later, and that’s where Dith Pran and his incredible story comes in. I remember the awful anguish I felt when it was clear that I was not going to be able to go to that land that I had already, in a sense, given my heart to. I was reassigned to Brazil and arrived there in 1976. I was just beginning to make the transition culturally from all that I had learned of one new “people group” of the world to a totally different one, the Brazilian when Dith made a personal appearance. No, he didn’t come to Brazil, but his film did. I was with my family when he reached out of that film and touched my life so deeply.

If there is a God, why is there evil? Why did the “killing fields” happen? How can the rest of us not remember the next time the decision is made by someone to go to war? Any faith system humankind can adopt to live by must be able to face these realities of our human condition and find satisfactory answers, or else it will fail to be the inner brace we require to live by. If you are an atheist, surely you know that you have your own faith system and you have discovered some way to live with these realities too and your answers will be different from those who have a faith system that begins with a Creator God, whose sovereign control over all things past and present, presents its own challenges. When I saw the Killing Fields and didn’t turn Dith and his story out of my life, I was forced to review my own faith system to its very roots and that was a major crisis for me. My system, or I should say the God of my system did not come to pieces as I faced the dimensions of this human tragedy. That there could be such joy and hope for a people one moment and the reality that it could be dashed to those ruins we see in the film, has taught me profound lessons that I intend to never forget. Without one man’s courage and determination against impossible odds to tell the rest of us in the watching world the story from within, my next thirty-fives years of life would have been very different. Because of him, my understanding of a personal God who is deeply involved in the earth’s peoples has been greatly enlarged and so I have learned to trust this God for whatever we encounter in life- be it the starkest evil that one human can inflict on another, such as displayed in the Oklahoma bombing, or be it a completely unexpected “natural” disaster such as we saw in the Tsunami of southeast Asia.

As I come to the end here, one disclaimer is needed. I’m not speaking out of any one “ideology” here, but rather out of the great narrative that informs us about how this God has been personally identifying with and acting for humankind’s deliverance from all the evil and oppressions of life since the beginning of time. The narrative is not god, but it points us to the living God responsible for the narrative as well as the faith it creates in him for those that accept his testimony. “Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life”.


The KILLING FIELDS (film)Warner Brothers trailer