With the announcement of the imminent bombing of Phnom Penh by the United States, Pol Pot and his Communist party underlings known as the “Khmer Rouge” took over the capital city of Cambodia—and the country. Known as year zero to those inside the borders, “1975” was what the rest of the world called it.
In three years the Khmer Rouge executed nearly all of Cambodia’s educated. Today, when heavy rains fall every May to October, the country’s mass graves belch their contents—fragments of shirts and bones. Pol Pot and his armies led a reorientation of the Khmer people. Along with the major division of his entourage, Pol Pot fell from power shortly after he obtained the position of dictator. The Khmer Rouge left a nation uprooted from homes, family structures demolished, and languages altered. Just as sin disfigures humanity, the destruction of culture, cultural artifacts, and common space dehumanizes.
Forty years after Pol Pot’s year zero, I worked on the Cambodia-Thailand border to research a donor-funded BioSand water-filter project in its fourth year. One question prompted the study: has the access to clean water changed living standards for the Cambodian people?
Daily a small group of Khmer women and I ventured out on a door-to-door search. Often we found the filters nestled beside the remains of abandoned houses. The concert structures were built to last the ages. Like the Roman aqueducts that still arch over the Italian countryside, the filters continued to do their work on the rain that dripped through the rusted lids and into their basins providing clean water to the weeds that flourished below the spouts. BioSand Filters have a near-perfect design—durable, easy to construct, and made from locally sourced materials. One can filter enough water to care for a large family’s needs and require no electricity, minimal upkeep, and no moveable parts. The project in this region failed, however.
Cambodians who live in border villages move—a lot. One can see their footpaths that lead into Thailand on Google Maps. Many pack up what they can carry, and they leave with the plan to return if their luck fails in Thailand. Few have luck. Fewer return to their filters, which weigh too much for transportation. Though the BioSand filter satisfied a dire need, clean water, it failed to supply something else the Khmer Rouge destroyed—a sense of place.
In the 2014 movie Monuments Men, George Clooney’s character, Frank Stokes says of people under attack, “You can wipe out an entire generation. You can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements, and it’s as if they never existed.”
As my team observed in Cambodia, to restore humanity from war and the effects of sin requires more than the daily provisions of clean water and wholesome foods. The arts expressed in cultural artifacts provide a community with an identity. Such objects mark humanity’s collective history in story, in image, and in dance, to name a few.
Protestants often see the arts as a waste of time and money—precious resources better spent to fulfill the Great Commission. Perhaps we’ve framed the topic incorrectly as if we must pick between the arts or caring for those in need. The good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection restores that which sin destroyed. The scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, show how the triune God sustained his covenant people, and Jesus, in the desert—a harsh environment, in which food and water are precious. In this context, the reader finds the phrase “…humankind cannot live by bread alone, but also by everything that comes from the Lord’s mouth. (Deut. 8:3, NET).
God’s Sustainable Provisions
What does “everything that comes from the Lord’s mouth” mean? Israelites wandered around in the wilderness and could not read or even hear the “word of the Lord” in the way Protestants think of it today. Instead, they saw the image of the tabernacle. They lived the word in the routine practices of their lives by following the commands. They held the word of the Lord and felt it with their hands as they prepared the sacrifices. The visible and physical word of the Lord in the presence of the tabernacle and ritual of the sacrifices sustained the Israelites as they wandered through the desert on their journey to the Promised Land. Perhaps such physical reminders upheld the people in hope and made it possible for them to persevere on their forty-year journey. The commands and laws put into practice by the Israelites offered a sense of belonging—a community and culture. And through the very physical artifacts of their culture Yahweh came to his people.
Jesus referenced Moses’s words in the Lord’s forty-day test in the desert (Matt. 4:11). Significant cultural interactions marked his ministry. He taught in parables that drew on the rich Jewish heritage. Jesus declared that the ancient Jewish feasts pointed to him. On the night of his betrayal, he took the elements of the Passover saying, “Take, eat, this is my body,” and “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood…” (Matt. 26:26, 28, NET).
Parables and agricultural practices are two Jewish cultural articles that Jesus used in his messages. He set a precedent for the creation of a new kingdom and culture, Christianity. For the church, the sacraments act in much the same way as the law and sacrificial system did for the Israelites who wandered in the desert. The tabernacle and sacrificial system no longer remain, but the triune God still seeks to meet and sustain his people through the mundane, earthly, tangible things of culture. Through the physical artifacts of the sacraments and worship, Yahweh comes to his people. To sustain human life requires more than the daily provision of food and water, more than bread alone.
Embracing Humanity’s Embodiment
Footpaths lead away from Cambodian villages on the border of Thailand. The inhabitants, escorted away from their life-saving water filters, will continue to leave them behind until the people gain an identity as a community and staying becomes more desirable than risking their lives in a foreign country.
The work to bring the peace of Christ’s kingdom in the world demands an embrace of humanity’s embodiment. We inhabit our world in such a way that we need culture—and subsequently the arts. Humanity finds nourishment through the very tangible, physical, and visible expression of the word of God. Because it is through these means that God comes to us. For the Israelites who wandered the desert, embroidered images of pomegranates on the priest's robes sustained them. For the illiterate peasant who lived in Germany during Medieval times, paintings on the cathedral walls illuminated their lives. For Christians who live in Chicago, the beat of a drum set in a Sunday morning worship service might carry them on their way.
The arts—created with the mundane earthly materials of paint, dance, and instruments—tell our stories and provide us with a cultural foundation in which we form a communal identity. Let’s see the arts as precious things through which God comes to us. Precious things best used to fulfill the Great Commission. Perhaps Dostoevsky had it right: “Beauty can save the world.”