Remembering South Vietnam with an Ecumenical Christmas Card - by Mark D. Tooley

Is the religious Left trying to atone for its sin of supporting communist tyranny?

The National Council of Churches (NCC) has dispatched its 2009 Christmas card and end of the year solicitation, advertising its “ecumenical efforts for our common witness in this fragile world.”  It asserts that the NCC “makes visible the gift of our unity in Christ” through fighting for “adequate health care” (i.e. Obamacare), speaking out on behalf of the poor (demanding an ever expanding Welfare State), and advancing “economic, gender and racial justice.”  It also touts its increasing Jewish-Christian and Muslim-Christian dialogues, though probably the focus is more on the latter, almost always accompanied by silence about human rights in Islamic culture.

More telling was the art for the NCC Christmas card.  It features a Nativity scene by a Vietnamese artist, Le Van Tai, whom the card explains was resettled as a refugee in Australia in 1985 after spending four years in a Hong Kong refugee camp.   He was not reunited with his wife and family until 1992.  Le created his Nativity scene while in the Hong Kong camp, with encouragement from the Hong Kong Fellowship of Christian Artists.

Why did Le flee Vietnam to endure 4 years in a refugee camp?  Why was he separated from his family for 11 years?  How did he get to Hong Kong?  Of course, the NCC Christmas card does not answer these uncomfortable questions.    During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, nearly 2 million South Vietnamese escaped their new communist rulers by risking their lives on rickety boats that departed into the South China Sea at night, evading communist gun boats.  About one third of the escapees died at sea, by drowning, exposure, or piracy.    The more fortunate ones eventually got to places like Hong Kong, where they hoped for eventual resettlement in America, Australia, or elsewhere in the West.

Presumably Le escaped capture, had a sturdy boat, avoided pirates, and arrived in Hong Kong safely.  But he still had to languish for 4 years in a camp.  And he endured an 11 year separation from his family in Vietnam, whose communist tyrants were not always eager to allow wives, parents and children of capitalist-loving escaped boat people to rejoin their loved ones in the West, except for a price.  What would compel a Vietnamese to risk the nightmare of unsafe travel on the South China Sea, with a 30 percent chance of death, not to mention an uncertain future in a camp and years of separation from family?

Of course, the NCC’s Christmas card would not explain.  But after Communist North Vietnam’s “liberation” of South Vietnam in 1975, a vicious and impoverishing dictatorship was installed.  It did not murder millions as their Communist Cambodian neighbors did.   But the Vietnamese Communists did imprison over 1 million in re-education camps, and they did murder tens of thousands of suspected counter revolutionaries, not to mention enslaving an entire nation under a one party state that banned political opposition, religious freedom, private property, and free speech.

Meanwhile, what was the justice-seeking NCC saying about Communist-ruled Vietnam while hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees like Le were trying to escape for their lives, especially to avoid reeducation camps?   In 1977, NCC relief officials testified before a U.S. Congressional committee about a Vietnamese reeducation camp they had visited, which they likened to a “small tropical resort.”  They were much “impressed” by Vietnam’s “prudent policy” educating its people for their “new role in society.”  They further noted that the “entire process of reeducation is one reflecting the government’s commitment to encouraging and enabling people to exercise their rights, restored as full participants in Vietnam’s future.”

One NCC relief official even commended Vietnamese “reeducation camps” for helping “former [South Vietnamese] officers” be ”reconstituted back into society as full citizens.”   He contrasted this seamless process with ugly America, where “draft dodgers or deserters have not yet found that means to become full participants back in U.s. society.”  He concluded:  “As a churchperson, I would have to identify with the Vietnamese as those who have chosen the better way to heal the wounds of war.”

The head of the NCC relief agency in 1977 joined with then NCC President United Methodist Bishop James Armstrong to sign a New York Times ad defending the “present government of Vietnam,” which “should be hailed for its moderation and for its extraordinary effort to achieve reconciliation among all of its people.”   The NCC’s relief arm even channeled at least half a million dollars to Vietnam’s “New Economic Zones,” where South Vietnamese were forcibly herded as part of their involuntary integration into communism.

An NCC relief brochure of that time hailed the new Communist Vietnam as a “nation of dedicated people, hard at work, and enthusiastically building a new society from the rubble of war…’without bitterness or rancor, and eager for friendship with the United States.”   An NCC relief delegation visited Vietnam and afterwards bubbled with praise for Communist Vietnam for its “pioneering, new-nation spirit,” its “healthier economy,” its work for the “welfare of its people.”  Concluded one gullible NCC official:  “It would bring a lump to your throat to see them cooperating and working together.”  One NCC official even condemned fleeing Vietnamese refugees:  “Every country is entitled to its own people.”

Thankfully, Le did not share the NCC official’s view that he rightfully was the property of the Communist Vietnamese government.  He courageously escaped, enduring who knows what horrors, and survived to become an artist and poet apparently living comfortably in Australia with his family.  His painting of the Nativity, with a South Pacific motif, is quite good.  The NCC Christmas card, in featuring the picture, cites the Scripture from James 1:17:   “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above…”   By spotlighting Le’s work, is the NCC perhaps subtly atoning for its sins?