Pchum Ben. Perhaps the most widely observed “holiday” of Cambodia.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve mentioned the land in which I live. One of the lesser-known countries of South-East Asia, Cambodia is where God called my family and me to live, two and a half years ago. I’m finally going to share a bit about living here.
But if you will, stay around! Though it may seem far-off, irrelevant and uninteresting, you may be surprised by an obscure connection I made this week between the pagan, Buddhist-animistic Cambodian culture, and that of familiar America (or Australia or Canada).
This week, Pchum Ben (pronounced: puh-choom bun) 2017 reached its climax. It’s a Buddhist festival unique to Cambodia in which it is believed that the gates of hell are opened and the spirits of the dead roam the earth. The living make sacrifices of food to appease their ancestors that they may gain favor from them rather than be cursed.
In the midst of nation-wide excitement, hustle, and activities, my family has been hosting a team of short-term missionaries from North America. Freshly plucked from their “familiar” and dropped into “foreign,” they felt the weight of spiritual warfare as millions of people around the country buy into lies passed from generation to generation.
I have to wonder how many of the “Western” population – specifically Western Christians – see the waste, futility, and deceit of Pchum Ben, but not of Halloween.
Yes, that’s the obscure connection I’ve made.
noun. an act or instance of using or expending something carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose.*
Though most people in Cambodia have money to get by, it is certainly a poor country. Living conditions are often unclean if not downright unhygienic. Education and morality are neglected. All the while, during the holiday of Pchum Ben, people sacrifice food and throw rice into the air and into empty fields.
Citizens of North America and co., though far better off in the money domain, are still responsible for their spending. In fact, it’s perhaps because God has blessed us with these countries that we ought not to spend mindlessly. One statistic estimates that Americans spend up to $6 billion on Halloween each year.
Maybe the massive waste of food and rice during Pchum Ben could be justified if it amounted to something; if the spirits of the ancestors really were affected and appeased by it. But as Bible-believing Christians, we’re in on a liberating secret. The account of Lazarus and the rich man beginning in Luke 16:19 makes clear enough that the dead can not come back to this earth.
And maybe the massive waste of money during Halloween could be justified if… well if it was for some praiseworthy cause. But whether you consider the origin of Halloween or what it is today, could you really describe it as true or noble or right or pure… or anything on the Philippians 4:8 list? Could you really look Jesus in the eye and insist that it’s praiseworthy?
noun. the action or practice of deceiving someone by concealing or misrepresenting the truth.*
This week, I asked a Cambodian friend if she is scared during Pchum Ben. She assured me that she wasn’t and communicated something to the effect of that she just follows the traditions because it’s what everyone does. It’s not about fear and spirits of the dead and yucky, morbid monsters. At first glance, this seems like a positive thing. And yet I find myself wondering… is it really good that people blindly follow those who have gone before them?
Likewise, it seems that many people – even many Christians – don’t think of Halloween as gothic or ghastly, but rather family-friendly and innocent. The way I see it is that joining in with Halloween once threatened people’s identification with the Church and not joining in threatened their identification with the world. So somewhere along the way, Halloween was given a new brand – fun – which allowed for people to live with a foot in each kingdom (or at least to feel like they were).
I’m not an expert on Halloween. Further, my convictions may be shaped by the home I grew up in.
In fact, not long ago, it would have been a valid argument to say that I don’t know what I’m talking about; that I’m a hypocrite for blindly following the traditions passed on to me by my parents just as much as Pchum Ben and Halloween participants.
However, I did some research on Halloween to give myself a bit more credibility, and it only strengthened my beliefs. This video and article were very insightful.
You’ll learn through them that Halloween arose from a Celtic holiday in which the dead were believed to return as ghosts and people would leave food and wine outside their doors to leave roaming spirits at bay. Doesn’t that sound so much like Pchum Ben, the Buddhist holiday that we (or at least I) would be quick to call a pagan belief and ritual?
I realize that this topic is somewhat controversial
My role is not to convict you; that’s the role of the Holy Spirit. If you read my words and come out with a completely clean conscience about celebrating Halloween a month from now – if you thought it was just an interesting post about two different cultures – what more can I say to you? Live in your freedom.
But if you find yourself feeling like you need to justify yourself, perhaps consider that God wants you to pay this more attention and thought. Remember that it’s Jesus who justifies us by His blood, not us by our arguments, so defensiveness may tell you something about your heart. Just something to consider.
*definitions are from Google