Pol Pot And The Jewish Cardinal


The Killing Fields. Genocide and mass atrocities. The horror that was Cambodia under Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime.

Pol Pot was one of the world’s bloodiest dictators, bent on restoring an agrarian society based upon Marxist principles:

An estimated 1.5 million people living in Cambodia were killed during the brutal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge – History.com

Others claim that there were many, many more victims in this tiny country of only 7.3 million people at the time the Khmer Rouge seized power:

A U.N. investigation reported 2–3 million dead, while UNICEF estimated 3 million had been killed – Wikipedia

But this reflection isn’t really about Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge.

It’s about all of us.

It’s about choices that we make.

It’s about evil.

We understandably recoil in horror over terrorist attacks here at home. But none of us, thank God, is ever likely to personally face the brutal genocide and mass murder that has often raged throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. And it’s certainly difficult for us to ever imagine ourselves actively participating in such extraordinary brutality, death, and destruction.

And yet, deep down we may recognize that there is a certain ordinariness that all too often seems to accompany these horrors.

Bear with me for a moment. I’ll come back to that thought.

I was watching Fr. George Rutler’s EWTN series entitled Christ in the City. At one point, Fr. Rutler told the story about the man who was known as The Jewish Cardinal, Jean-Marie Lustiger. Cardinal Lustiger was born in Paris in 1926 to Jewish parents who had owned a hosiery shop.

At age 13, Lustiger converted to Catholicism. His sister did as well a bit later. Two years after Lustiger’s conversion, their mother was captured by the Nazis. She would later die at Auschwitz. Although appointed Cardinal of Paris by St. John Paul II in 1983, Lustiger maintained throughout his life that

I am as Jewish as all the other members of my family who were butchered in Auschwitz or in other camps – NPR

Considered a possible successor to the throne of St. Peter, he dismissed the possibility by joking that “few things would bedevil bigots more than a Jewish pope.”

And in one final note of levity NPR, in the link above, reported upon his death:

There used to be a joke in Paris. What’s the difference between the chief rabbi of France and the cardinal of Paris? The cardinal speaks Yiddish.

It was said of the Cardinal:

To meet Jean-Marie Lustiger was to meet a man of God: He was a wonderful human being intelligent, caring, funny in a wry way because he had been transformed by the power of God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

So what does Cardinal Lustiger’s holy, extraordinary, authentically Catholic yet authentically Jewish life have to do with the murderous Pol Pot?

Simply this: a brief intertwining of their lives.

It seems that in the 1950’s Cardinal Lustiger and Pol Pot simultaneously attended some of the same political science lectures at the Sorbonne.

Over here sits one man, a direct victim of Nazi genocide and murder. A man of the light who would later go on to become a Prince of the Church, healing wounds and saving untold thousands of souls. Over there sits another man, one of the darkness who himself would later engage in war crimes and atrocities against humanity, offering only murder and destruction on a scale rivaling Hitler.

It’s even possible that these two ordinary students – two very young men with seemingly average and ordinary lives ahead of them – sat next to each other in the same classroom, where they learned the same geo-political lessons, asked the same questions, sought the same answers, and perhaps even searched for the same basic truth. All so very ordinary.

And yet, not.

At its core, this dual-life vignette is about choice and free will. About how we choose to live and govern our lives. About the decisions we make and why. About the questions  we ask ourselves. And, ultimately, about whether we live in the dark or seek the light.

Yes, it is all that. But there’s also something more at play here.

Certainly, the Cardinal and Pol Pot made radically different decisions about their lives. Probably small, everyday choices, step-by-step, day-by-day. And they ultimately ended up taking profoundly different, violently clashing paths.

But why? Were these two stark paths inevitable? What compelled such a radically different departure, coming as they did from at least one similar starting point?

Evil. Plain and simple.

We are free to ignore and dismiss the reality of evil. It’s all too easy to believe that evil acts and atrocities are isolated incidents, mere aberrations, rather than some supernatural, transcending oppositional force operating throughout the world.

We can easily pretend that evil doesn’t exist.

But we do ourselves no favors, we avoid no pain, we win no battles, we compel no hearts and minds, by ignoring reality.

A brief blog post can never do justice to this vast subject. And I certainly know my limitations so I won’t labor on.

But the Catholic Catechism, I think, sets out a good working framework for our better understanding. Note the natural and the supernatural assumptions:

311 Angels and men, as intelligent and free creatures, have to journey toward their ultimate destinies by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray. Indeed, they have sinned. Thus has moral evil, incommensurably more harmful than physical evil, entered the world. God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil.

Ordinary, everyday wrong choices and “preferential love” can lead us astray. Which can lead us into sin. Which inevitably does lead us to corruption, destruction, evil, and eternal death.

We need only look to the story of the Cardinal and the killer for proof. One looked evil in the eye and spit into its face. The other embraced it. One sought eternal life. The other appealed to physical death and destruction.

These two men are role models of a sort.

Perhaps we look at them and see only extremes – we believe that we will never be as evil as Pol Pot, nor as holy as the Cardinal. I’m not so sure that we can ultimately avoid becoming one or the other.

But they certainly provide clarity.


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, photo©ErlingMandelmann.ch


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