A Sermon for the Grace Church (Episcopal), Brooklyn Heights, NY, on the Centennial Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide by Rev. Julie Hoplamazian
A Sermon for the Grace Church Brooklyn Heights On the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide by Rev. Julie Hoplamazian
I have a story to tell you. It’s not a nice story. In fact, this is a very graphic story.
If you’re the kind of person who is disturbed or upset by stories of violence, or if you have a young child with you who you don’t want hearing this kind of story, it is OK to exit the sanctuary at this time and return in a few minutes.
The story I have to tell you is about a young woman named Maritza Mooradian. Maritza was born at the turn of the 20thcentury, in the town of Malatia, in Ottoman Turkey. She was the third of four children and the only girl. In the year 1915, when she herself was about 16 years old, there came a knock at the door. Her father opened the door to Ottoman soldiers and was shot and killed at point blank range. In fear, her younger brother, about 5 years old at the time, ran and hid. The soldiers stormed into the house and found her older brother and took him away, never to be seen again. Those remaining – Maritza, her mother, and her two grandmothers – were ordered to leave the house immediately, taking only what they could carry, and join the mass deportations of the Ottoman Armenians to the Syrian desert. One of her grandmothers was bedridden. In panic and shock, Maritza, her mother, and her other grandmother were forced to leave her behind. They marched through the desert for weeks, maybe months. Maritza’s grandmother died first, of starvation. They left her body at the side of the road as bayonets threatened to pierce them if they stopped to mourn her. The marches continued. In order to protect Maritza from rape and torture that was so common for the young women in these marches, her mother caked mud on Maritza’s face in order to disfigure her and make her unappealing to the ruthless Ottoman soldiers. Eventually her mother died too, of starvation. Occasionally, these death marches would pass through towns, which gave opportunity to the soldiers to sell the deportees as slaves. On one of these stops, Maritza had the good fortune of being sold as a slave girl to a Turkish family. This family took good care of her and helped her flee the Ottoman Empire as the war ended. Maritza’s oldest brother had already come to the United States several years prior and was fortunate enough to escape the genocide. Through the communication among Armenian churches on either side of the ocean, she was able to locate her brother, and eventually, she managed to travel to the U.S. and arrive at the harbor of safety, one of hundreds of thousands of other Armenian refugees escaping the horror and trauma of genocide.
It was early on in my life that I understood Maritza’s story as my own. How much of this was taught to me, and how much I absorbed through unspoken cultural assumptions, I will never be certain. But it was clear to me, from my childhood, that as an Armenian, I took part in my great-grandmother’s pain. Maritza, or “Medz Mayrig,” as I called her, lived a long life in the US. She married, had 3 children, outlived 2 of them, and was a stalwart matriarch of our family until she died in 1995, when I was 16 years old. I had the privilege of knowing her my entire childhood. When my brother and I were young, I recall regular visits to Medz Mayrig, where we would have to sit with her and speak only in Armenian. She almost demanded these visits, to make sure we were learning about our heritage and never forgetting how to speak the Armenian language. She would always tell us, “Never forget your mother tongue, and never forget your faith.” She never spoke of the genocide, but even the trauma of genocide wasn’t enough to shake her faith in God. And what she passed down to us was an equally unshakeable faith in God and pride in our Armenian heritage that I am honored to be able to share with you today.
This deeply rooted cultural identity was my first awakening to the idea that by virtue of who and what I am, I share in someone else’s pain and someone else’s story. Woven into the fiber of my being was the reality that my birthright bestowed upon me an equal weight in carrying the burden of the pain of the past and the grief of my people. Maritza’s trauma, though it didn't happen to me, is my trauma too.
It is trauma that still seeks closure and resolution. For a century now, the Turkish government has vehemently denied that the atrocities suffered by the Armenians in WWI constitute genocide. This is actually the final stage of genocide: the denial of it. It is the last violence done to a people: after the violence of erasing physical existence, it is the violence of erasing memory. Without memory of wrongdoing, perpetrators are not held accountable for their crimes. Anytime impunity reigns, injustice wins, and the victim is caught in an endless cycle of grief. Injustice is toxic. It poisons people’s spirits and ability to live with hope. The repeated denial of the Armenian Genocide has been a grave injustice that is slowly killing the Armenian hope that the world will come to terms with the truth of its history.
The denial surrounding the Armenian Genocide has made manifest another reality that sadly has come to fruition throughout the 20thand now 21stcenturies: Maritza’s story is not just my story, or the story of all Armenians. It is the story of millions of other people throughout the world – Jews killed at the hand of Nazis, Cambodians at the hand of Pol Pot, Rwandan Tutsis at the hand of Hutus, Bosnians at the hand of Serbs, Sudanese victims in Darfur, Christians in the Middle East today… despite cries of “never again,” Genocide continues to happen all over the world, over and over and over again.
My first awakening to the issue of genocide was as an Armenian, but my great awakening to this issue was as a Christian. Sometime in my 20s, as I had grown weary of the Armenian cries for justice falling on deaf ears, it was my seminary community - ecumenical Christians, Christians from all around the country from all different denominations, all of whom cried out at the injustice of it all – that opened my eyes to the power of Christian solidarity to awaken hope where despair seemed too easy a victor. Hearing non-Armenian people of faith feel disgusted at genocide denial was a tremendous witness of what it means for Christians to bear one another’s burdens and take part in each other’s pain. They reminded me that by virtue of who and what I am – not only an Armenian, but a child of God – I share in someone else’s pain and someone else’s story.
The ecumenical Christian community helped me remember that at our baptism, we pledge “To strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.” Our faith is rooted in a Savior who was executed for a crime he did not commit; Jesus’ suffering on the cross is a reminder that he is our co-sufferer in injustice. As the body of Christ, we share in one another’s suffering, just as Christ does with us, especially the suffering of injustice. In Paul’s words about the body of Christ, he says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor 12:26) As the body of Christ, we are inextricably linked to each other. Crimes against humanity affect us all. Having been on the receiving end of this kind of solidarity – experiencing others standing with me and other Armenians and indeed all victims of genocide not because of their own personal experience but because of the convictions of their faith – was transformative for me. I learned the immense power of living into our identity as children of God, and that I could participate in that transformative power anytime I chose to stand in solidarity with victims of injustice.
Many people have asked, in the face of such injustice, where God is in all of it. I’ve known many descendants of genocide survivors – peers and friends of mine – express deep anger at God for letting this genocide happen to the Armenian people, some of whom reject faith altogether. Yet I’ve known so many actual genocide survivors, like my Medz Mayrig, who had a steadfast faith in God despite the immense suffering she endured. I’ve never lived through genocide myself, but I imagine you have to have some sort of faith… in something… to survive such horrors. Some sort of faith to get you through an experience that could easily give you over to despair. For Medz Mayrig and so many like her who might have wondered where God was in all of it… God was in their hope for a better tomorrow. Whether that tomorrow means freedom from Ottoman oppression or a day without death and destruction in our daily headlines, God is in the hope that the dark times do not get the last chapter in the story.
And yet, as Christians, if by virtue of who and what we are we participate in one another’s stories, then the question we must ask in the face of genocide is not only “Where is God in all of this?” but “Where am I in all of this?” As our Scripture reading from the first letter of John says today, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:17-18) On this day when we commemorate the 100thanniversary of the Armenian Genocide, what does it mean to love in truth and in action?
After all, what can we really do? Genocide continues on a global scale with impunity. The problem of genocide is far bigger than any of us can even imagine. What does it mean to take part in the suffering of others, to love them in truth and in action, when there most likely isn’t anything we could do that would make any difference at all?
Where injustice is concerned, we can be inspired by the faith witness of so many genocide victims and survivors who looked to God in hope, even in the most dire of circumstances. With a fundamental trust in God, loving in truth and action means we can take many steps toward the powerful witness of solidarity with our suffering sisters and brothers. Loving in truth and action means being careful we do not fall victim to lies and denial. Pope Francis set an example of this 2 weeks ago when he expressed his solidarity with Armenians and mourned with them the first genocide of the 20thcentury. Loving in truth and action means having the courage to speak the truth to power. It means seeking the truth and knowing the stories of those history is trying to forget.
Loving in truth and action means we must pray, ceaselessly, for victims of genocide; pray, ceaselessly, for justice for its perpetrators; and pray, ceaselessly, for an end to genocide worldwide.
Loving in truth and action means we can join political action aimed at preventing and stopping genocide.
Loving in truth and action means that we do not remain silent or complacent about the crime of genocide. It means educating others about it, speaking up when we hear denial taking place, and refusing to be a bystander in this global problem.
Recalling the words of Paul again, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” When we stand in solidarity with our fellow human beings who have fallen victim to the injustice of genocide, we not only suffer alongside them, but we honor them too. In this, the whole body not only suffers together but rejoices together as well. Go forth then, sisters and brothers, and be the body of Christ who rejoices together. Be the body of Christ who honors its members. Be Easter people who love, not only in word or speech, but in truth and in action. Amen.
Thanks to Andrea Colls-Halpern of Brooklyn Heights, NY, for calling Marash Girl's attention to this sermon which she was lucky enough to find on the internet and has copied above.