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Beware hidden prejudices

Dear Editor,

"Proselytising amid the Poverty" by Sebastian Strangio was an informative, fair and balanced inquiry into the activity of Christian and other non-Christian missionary efforts in Cambodia. However, Sophan Seng's recent letter (dated September 9) to the editor entitled "Not-so Christian charity" is anything but. His response is misinformed and dangerously imbalanced. 

For example, Mr Seng asserts that the church has "adapted its strategies to limit the changes of the world with the intent of keeping the status quo, of continuing to spread the Christian doctrine as well as civilising others". The unfounded nature of this assertion and of his paranoia about Christian methods and motives is boldly underscored by the work of groups [who] are focused on helping people break the cycle of poverty ... regardless of whether those they serve ever convert to Christianity or not.

Mr Seng demonstrates either an unwillingness or inability to consider counter-examples against his thesis when he equates Christian missionary work with the colonising work done in the past by the Catholic church, or with those who appropriated Hobbesean philosophy as a part of their missionary impetus. These are simply not representative of contemporary Christian missionary work, no matter how "academically" one tries to dress up the assertions.

Certainly ignorance and colonialist hubris have been characteristic of some missionary work historically, and those should be acknowledged, condemned and prevented from repeating. Indeed, the appropriate place for the "dead, white European male", with his "white man's burden", is somewhere in a crypt in Paris or London. However, many current missionaries are more aware of the evils committed in the name of God than critics like Mr Seng, and are eager to avoid those evils.

Mr Seng has succeeded only in attacking a straw man. It is easy to knock down straw men. It is much more difficult to acknowledge your own prejudices and to admit the atrocities which can be born from them. It is much harder to find fault with, for example, those missionaries who are eager to communicate love, value, and worth to young girls sold against their wills into prostitution - again, regardless of whether those same girls ever become Christians or not. Stone-throwing from ivory towers should not be permitted to hinder such worthy work.

Cambodia's heritage of religious tolerance is commendable, and right. It implicitly gives credit to the discernment and intelligence of the Cambodian people, and provides a context in which good examples can shine and proliferate and bad ones be shamed and eliminated. 

Cambodia's history provides some sobering lessons about what happens when intolerance runs amok. As the government of Cambodia contemplates the balance between religious freedom and regulation of religious activity (Christian or otherwise), I urge it to recognise prejudicial intolerance like Mr Seng's for what it is, and to leave it out of their consideration.

David Peters

Philosophy professor,

Florida Christian College

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