Surprising Witness: The Story of Christians for Social Justice in Cambodia

June 2006, Phnom Penh, Cambodia: A Christian working in a secular human rights organization started a discussion group for expatriate Christians interested in issues of faith and justice. He did so partly to give himself an outlet for thinking about faith and justice, as any attempt to discuss how his faith impacted his work was met with hostility by other expatriate human rights workers. Three years later, the group has had surprising results as it serves as a bridge that is breaking down barriers between the expatriate Church and secular human rights workers with positive results for the communities that both wish to serve.

An Overview of Christians for Social Justice
Christians for Social Justice (CSJ) was initially focused on raising awareness of social justice issues with concerned Christians and being a place where it was safe to talk about the intersection of faith and justice. It quickly, however, moved toward offering Christians a chance to respond personally to issues of social justice through partnership with a local human rights organization.

Early participation for the CSJ group in social justice issues involved supporting a legal case for two men wrongfully accused of the assassination of a high-profile trade union leader, as well as the case of residents of an urban community who were being violently and illegally evicted from their homes by a land developer with connections to the government.

The experience of CSJ in partnering with secular
human rights groups is one that is worth
replicating in other contexts.

CSJ members supported the causes by:

  • being a presence at trials,
  • participating in peaceful demonstrations,
  • releasing balloons,
  • meeting with their embassies to ask for foreign aid accountability,
  • holding prayer vigils,
  • attempting to visit political prisoners,
  • witnessing evictions to mitigate against violence,
  • sleeping overnight in communities with the knowledge of the developer to prevent unlawful evictions, and
  • hosting rural community leaders who came to the capital as part of a peace network to lodge petitions with the government over the encroachment and loss of their land and natural resources.

As a leader in CSJ said about attending a recent trial, “The idea is primarily to turn up; sit in the trial and be a presence and a witness in order to show moral support for the two men; send the message to the judge that this cannot be done in a corner, but that people, including the international community, are watching; be praying and interceding for justice and righteousness; and to show solidarity with our friends in the human rights movement.”

The unintentional side effect of CSJ's involvement with human rights in Cambodia has been an informal reconciliation between Christians and secular human rights workers. When the group initially formed, there was concern bordering on hostility from expatriate human rights workers toward involvement with Christians.

At one point, the director of the human rights group, who had been attending the CSJ meetings, asked group members to come and talk to her staff because she was having heated conversations weekly with staff who were worried that she was getting involved with Christians. Over time, it became clear that these responses were often coming from deep wounding at the hands of Christians in the past. For instance, there was one investigative reporter who spent a long time researching clergy sexual abuse cases and others who had experienced condemnation and judgment from Christians in their families of origin. There were also concerns that Christians would abuse their positions to proselytize.

Making Progress with Secular Human Rights Workers
The members of CSJ never ended up meeting with the secular human rights workers. Over time, however, the human rights workers were able to see the faithfulness and integrity with which the Christians pursued their work with the human rights organization. As a result, many of the human rights workers who would never willingly darken the door of a church now attend CSJ meetings, the first half of which includes prayer and a faith reflection.

Activist friends regularly express their surprise that Christians are concerned about social justice. Their opinions about Christians, as well as Christ, are changing as they are exposed to Jesus' teachings. For example, a Danish volunteer said, “I don't know if you know, but in Denmark we don't think very highly of Christians. You guys have really made me think.” Others have expressed that they have been able to connect with Jesus' teachings for the first time through the writings of Walter Wink and Shane Claiborne. With few words and loving actions, the CSJ members have been able to build trust with individuals who were previously (often justifiably) skeptical and suspicious.

Finding the Balance
The experience of CSJ in partnering with secular human rights groups is one that is worth replicating in other contexts. The CSJ members have brought the Christian peace-making perspective to the discussion that insists that even the oppressor is a human made in God's image and is capable of redemption and repentance. Their attempts at engaging the perpetrators as fellow children of God have influenced the approach of the human rights organization and changed not only their perspective, but also their approach in engaging the powers in Cambodia.

On the other hand, the secular human rights workers keep the missionaries from becoming too buried in their individual ministries at the cost of ignoring issues of social justice in their context, and therefore modeling an incomplete discipleship that neglects God's heart for peace and justice. They also give the CSJ members opportunities to respond concretely to issues of social justice, despite their busy lives. My connection with them on a personal level has helped me to engage with the teachings of Jesus in fresh ways, as they experience them for the first time, and as they connect them to their own unique spiritual journeys.

The fact that so many human rights workers have expressed to us their surprise at meeting Christians concerned about issues of justice (and that this, in turn, has caused them to re-consider the teachings of Jesus) is a reminder to me that what my husband calls “the gospel lived,” as opposed to the “gospel preached,” is attractive in itself. The kingdom as expressed in Luke 4:18-19 is still good news to those who need it, particularly to those who have already written off Christianity because they have experienced the worst of what is done in the name of Christ.

At the same time, the members of CSJ have done a good job of honoring the spiritual journey that their human rights counterparts are already on—whether they have encountered Jesus personally yet or not.

The Christians have been willing to learn from the humanitarian values that the human rights workers bring to the conversation. The human rights workers, I would hazard to guess, would not be satisfied with formulaic faith, and would have an instinctual distrust for anyone who seems to have all the answers. However, they do seem to find radical discipleship compelling and attractive. What started just a few years ago as a discussion group for Christians has expanded into a partnership of peace and mutual understanding, a surprising witness in a context of violence.

Samantha Baker Evens has been a member of the InnerCHANGE community for the last eleven years in San Francisco, Australia, and (currently) Cambodia. She is married to Chris and has two small sons.