Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Kim, Kanye, and the Rest of the Story
Most Americans were probably introduced to a significant historic commemoration taking place this week by the recent visit of Kim Kardashian and her husband, Kanye West to Armenia. The purpose of their trip was to have their baby baptized and to help commemorate the beginning of the Armenian Genocide in 1915 which, by 1923, took the lives of up to 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks and displaced a million more. The picture of the brash reality TV star in an Orthodox Church liturgical setting was bizarre. But at least Kardashian was able to acknowledge something that a succession of presidents have not, namely, that what happened to the Armenian population in the crumbling Ottoman empire was, in fact, genocide, a carefully planned and executed ethnic cleansing that destroyed much of an ancient culture. The photo op did pose the question, often asked by an old Chicago radio personality, “what’s the rest of the story?”
Geopolitics loom large, then and now. The Turks, wary of Russian aggression on their eastern border viewed Armenian nationalists, emboldened by the global chaos unleashed by the First World War, as threats. This alleged threat became the occasion and excuse for the planned genocide, the final solution – to borrow a later twentieth century term – to long standing ethnic hatred of the Armenian minority population. Reports from U.S. diplomats and Congregationalist missionaries poured in documenting the atrocities in real time. But American politics and a preoccupation with the war in Europe meant there would be little formal acknowledgment of the Genocide by American leaders let alone firm action to stop it.
Turks have a long history of vigorously denying what historians have decisively shown to be true. The Pope’s recent use of the term “genocide” led to the recalling of the Turkish ambassador from the Vatican State. A long list of American presidents, including President Obama have, however, been complicit in the denial, trading historical truth and present day acknowledgment for diplomatic and military relationships with Turkey. Armenian Americans had hoped this year, the centennial year, would be different. They will again be disappointed.
While acknowledgment of the Genocide is important, a critical step in the healing of memories, of even more urgency this year is the need to address the precarious state of the Armenian diaspora in the Middle East, and in particular the descendants of survivors who now live in Lebanon and Syria. While the welfare of many in Lebanon is vulnerable to the volatile political environment in and around their country, the civil war in Syria has led to the destruction of major centers of Armenian Christian populations in and around Aleppo, Syria. Armenians are, once again, threatened and displaced. For many in Syria acknowledgment of the Genocide in 1915 is the least of their concerns. Today lives, homes, churches and schools are again being lost in the chaos of civil war and amid the aggression and atrocities of ISIS and related groups.
Because of deep historical ties to the Armenian Protestant community in Turkey and the Middle East related to the large presence of Congregationalist missionaries in Turkey beginning in the 19th century, as well as ongoing relationships with Armenian Orthodox and Protestant Christians through the Middle East Council of Churches and the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East, the United Church of Christ is particularly attentive to the need both for the acknowledgment of the Genocide as well as the current crisis facing Armenian Christians and others in Syria and beyond. At the UCC General Synod this summer delegates will consider a statement that
“reiterates the church’s abhorrence when peoples and communities are made victims of violence, particularly when based on race, ethnicity, creed, or any other aspect of identity. Taken to the ultimate manifestation, such victimization constitutes genocide, a crime that should be prevented, halted, recognized, and acknowledged, in order to protect the communities, and offer recognition of the injustice it represents.”
Publicity shots of Kardashian and West with clerics in ancient vestments may be one more chapter in the bizarre narcissism of celebrities. But if it helps remind us of “the rest of the story,” it will have served a good purpose. This is, indeed, a week for remembrance, acknowledgment, and urgent action.
John H. Thomas
April 23, 2015