Breaking the Culture of Discord

Posted on December. 8. 2021

From Gndevank Monastery, Armenia (Photo: Flickr/Raffi Youredjian)

One often hears Armenians declare in a playful self-criticism “If you gather four Armenians in a room, you will hear at least five opinions” or “there are two Armenians on an island and they will build two churches.” On the positive side, it does speak to the resourcefulness of our people to have passionate views on important issues. It also exposes our penchant for endless debate and often a lack of consensus. As Armenians, we have many admirable attributes, but a moment of candid self-reflection will reveal ample evidence of suboptimal effectiveness due to an inability to work in a truly collaborative manner. The diaspora in America was established with a strong component of commonality. The indiscriminate nature of genocide made survival a unifier. As we are all painfully aware, the history of the diaspora continued on a different path in 1933 with the administrative division of the church. What followed were tragic schisms of families, walls of isolation and institutional redundancy. Ironically for several decades, the pseudo competitiveness did inspire the community to expand and prosper. Thousands of American Armenians from prior generations, however, were victims of artificial barriers despite living in the same community simply because they were born into this unnatural state. 

As the expansion leveled off in many communities, a thaw prevailed that opened up new possibilities. Those early days of interaction between divided brothers and sisters in the 70s have evolved into what we call today the pan-Armenian movement. As a new generation experienced the irrelevance of the division and Armenia became an independent nation, the diaspora found common ground and the will to increase collaboration. Old problems faded, and new ones emerged. The traditional query of “what church do you go to?” has been rhetorically replaced with “do you go to church?” The vestiges of the division, however, still exist. We still have two dioceses in each North America region, and the organizational alignment has a more traditional affiliation. The Prelacy adherents are generally affiliated with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), Armenian Relief Society (ARS), Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), Hamazkayin and Homenetmen. The Diocese is traditionally a reflection of ACYOA, Tekeyan and AGBU. Of course, there are thankfully a growing number of exceptions, but the lines are still evident. The good news is the cooperation between these groups has become common…something unheard of a generation earlier. There was a time when those associated with the Tashnagtsagan community would generally not be in the Knights of Vartan. Today, thankfully, it is commonplace.

In today’s American diaspora, the emerging cooperation from a pan-Armenian culture has replaced the passion for true church unification. Our leaders lack the will for resolution, so institutional cooperation has replaced church unity. Most Armenians associate the disunity of our American diaspora with tragic events of 1933. The seeds of discontent actually reared their ugly head shortly after the fall of the First Republic in 1921. It is quite ironic that the status of the Armenian state has been both a cause of division and also the emergence of pan-Armenian collaboration. The period from the 1920s until the start of the Cold War was filled with unrelenting attacks between Armenian political parties. It was a classic “blame game” while little changed. During the height of the east/west tensions, an awkward perception grew within the Armenian community as the Soviet Union, a former ally of the US during World War II, was now a bitter adversary. Even in my youth, I remember hearing elders refer to other families as “Bolsheviks” or “fascists.” Thankfully, those days seem to be buried deep in the past as a new era of cooperation has emerged with the independence of Armenia. But has the culture of dissension simply been transferred to other vehicles?

One of the current challenges in our communities is finding the balance between our commitment to an organization and the mission itself. At times, our intense loyalty to an organization can overshadow the mission which may be commonly held by the community at large. This has the potential of creating unhealthy intra-competitiveness. A collaborative environment driven by commonality will bring that balance. It is worth a moment of personal reflection. Our affiliation with a certain group is admirable, but the emphasis should always be the mission…not the organization. The lay relations between Apostolic, Protestant and Catholic denominations can range from non-existent to tolerant. Many Apostolic adherents were raised with the perception that our Protestant brethren were “converted” or “assimilated.” Apparently, our common faith in the teachings of Jesus Christ has not been enough to truly embrace each other. Judging each other on our ethnic identity was more fashionable. This type of behavior has contributed to undermining our strength. The evolution of the Prelacy and the Diocese reflects the difficulty in unifying our church. While our leaders continue to rationalize their failure to unite our church with rhetoric about our “administrative differences but spiritual unity,” deep-rooted loyalties have encouraged a “happy medium” of cooperation. 

In its infancy in the 1950s and 60s, loyalty to the Prelacy reflected a respect for organizing the “unaffiliated” churches. As the infrastructure here matured and migration from Antelias jurisdictions in the Middle East occurred, a genuine loyalty to the See of Cilicia emerged. The Diocese meanwhile was driven by its traditional affiliation with the Mother See, although few had an actual relationship with Holy Etchmiadzin due to the political climate in Soviet Armenia. Different versions of our recent history have become our reality. I remember conversing with several fellow delegates at the diocesan assembly just a few years ago. We were talking about the split of the Diocese in the fall of 1933 and the events that happened. I will never forget the astonishment of one veteran delegate who revealed that he recently became aware that it was the pro-Etchmiadzin delegates who walked out of the Assembly in 1933 to the Hotel Martinique. That gathering was later sanctioned by Holy Etchmiadzin over the delegates who remained in a purely political move. This honorable man looked at me and said, “and we have been calling the Prelacy people the ‘separated brethren’ for years when it was us.”

Perceptions become reality in a separated state. When we lose track of the core mission (the teachings of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ according to the traditions of the Armenian Church), we substitute it with subordinated values. The result is an unnatural state. Our misguided loyalties help confuse our direction.

The existence of the Republic of Armenia has made our common interests more visible which has been applied to our intra-diaspora relations. A sovereign state has been a rare gift in modern Armenian history. It is an opportunity on a world stage to display our core values. Visitors to Armenia marvel at the incredible history, warmth of the people and the very essence of our civilization. Yet many are puzzled why a nation with education, strong values and an active diaspora has struggled to shed the remnants of its Soviet past. The inability to utilize its human capital effectively has been both troubling and frustrating. There are those who believe that our lack of collaboration is as much part of our culture as our faith and language. In my view, this is the downside of a nation run by a series of organizations, parties and other partisan interests. It is similar to the Armenia run by nobles and princes during the centuries of subordination to foreign powers. It builds a survival state that also reflects a subordinated and victim mentality. Our “decentralized” society prevented extinction but also limited collaboration. Our Armenian world was defined as the organizations and groups we were affiliated with. In Armenia, the citizens were left to the ability of the Soviet carryovers and a motivated but inexperienced infrastructure. With the exception of a few umbrella groups for fundraising, the diaspora relations with Armenia (post 1991) were a free-for-all of countless organizations establishing their presence. They are all well-intended but reflect our disunited culture. After 30 years, we are still talking about how to organize the diaspora more effectively to assist Armenia. Armenia is in desperate need of experienced professionals, yet we continue to underutilize these assets. The causes—mistrust, power and fear—are all part of this culture of discord. 

The stakes haven’t been this high since those fateful days of 1918-21. In our current reality, the rare gift of a sovereign nation is on the table. Do we have the will to overcome our history of a troubling lack of collaboration? Do we really see the larger picture, or will we continue to view this situation through a cynical lens and business as usual? One hundred years ago, marriages were prevented because they weren’t from the same region or village. In the diaspora, you didn’t talk to someone because they were a Ramgavar or Dashnak. Eventually that evolved into whether you were from the Prelacy or from the Diocese. Now we have transitioned to the homeland or the diaspora. What will it take for us to realize that our survival as an ethnic group and a sovereign state will rely on our ability to capitalize on our collective resources and to accept each other as brethren? It doesn’t need to be perfect. Democracy can be a messy process. Diversity of thought is an advantage, but we need to be on the same team. It is time to reduce our dependence on needless power plays, endless squabbles and divisive interaction. It is a drug that offers short-term relief to our egos but has disastrous consequences for our nation. The natural state of a common vision of a prosperous united Armenia is a better alternative. I pray that we have the will to embrace this future.

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