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The Foreign Gospel (theological issues)

October 1, 2010

Only since 1993 and the birth of religious freedom in Cambodia has there been a significant number of Christians in Cambodia.  Nearly every Christian in Cambodia today is a first generation Christian.  That means they have far more “Buddhist” understanding than they do a “Christian” one because this foreign religion is so new to them.  Regardless, when communicating cross-culturally, many words and phrases which we use and understand in Christian circles may have completely different meanings.

There are many theological misunderstandings which come from the Cambodians having a different understanding of the terminology being used. God (Preah Ang) is not understood as a supreme God, but can be any divine or semi-divine being, including the King (whose official title is translated God). Jesus (Preah Yea-su) is a completely foreign word to the Khmers which is preah yea-su in Khmer.  It is often initially confused with the word for rubber plantation which is prey kow-su. Peace (suntapiup) is not understood as a state of mind, but as a lack of armed conflict. Christianity (susna krus) is understood as a foreign religion which usually has a lot of gifts for the people. Salvation (songkruah) is often thought of as freeing a person from the hardship of the world, especially freedom from poverty. The red cross is primarily engaged in “salvation” (relief) activities. The cross (churchkang) is a symbol which is used for warding of evil spirits and is drawn on doors frames, trees and the walls of houses.  The Christian practices of Baptism (cheromoytuk) is usually understood in regards to Buddhist practices of washing off curses and “bad luck.”   This practice is performed by monks and spiritists when requested or on special occasions. Prayer (atitan or soat toah) is understood as soat toah which literally means chanting scriptures.  This is done by monks, usually in the Pali language and it is unintelligible to laypeople. It is not speaking to a personal God, but reciting magical incantations.  Heaven (tan souh) is understood not as a place of perfectness, but as a place of many levels including a heaven for evil people and a place for demons. There are numerous heavens and hells in the Buddhist worldview. Forgiveness (pardon) (ah toh) is usually understood as a rich person’s pleasure.  No matter what evil things they do, they can always pay off the officials and get a pardon for this evil doings. Sin (bap) is killing of innocent animals, murder or stealing and also previous life curses which are passed down from the mistakes of the past lives (understood in terms of reincarnation). Demons and Spirits (arek) are mostly good which are invited to come into a person to “bless” and “protect” them from harm. If a person does something to offend a demon, the demon gets revenge but it is because of the error of the person that offended the spirit. Preaching (ahtibie) is considered as giving a speech as the Khmer word literally implies.  Speeches are given by government officials in an effort to persuade people to vote for them or think they are a great person.  Speeches are full of lies and false promises. Death and life (slap/chivut) are not understood in terms of finite existence.  Death is simply a stage into the next life (reincarnation) and life is a continuation of a previous life.  It is extremely rude to talk about death as it can bring about bad luck and the persons possible death.

Even though a person may understand the words you are using, they are substituting the meaning of those words in relation to their own cultural understanding.  To be an effective communicator, you have to know and understand both your own culture and receptor culture so that you can assure the message is being communicated effectively.

Note: This blog is part of a series of posts dealing with cross-cultural communication.  You can find the first blog here.  To view other related blogs, see the category <cross-cultural communication>.

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