The Armenian church should call for national reconciliation

Posted on December. 30. 2021

BY STEPAN PILIGIAN | The Armenian Weekly

There’s a popular saying in American culture that when you are in a state of crisis, you call for “all hands on deck.” Essentially, it refers to employing all available resources to mitigate the challenge. We have had more than our share in recent Armenian history. One of our finest examples was the time of May 1918 when the fate of the Armenian nation and its population lay in balance. Anything less than a full commitment would have resulted in a very different outcome. The Armenian people ravaged by genocide, disease and starvation defeated a professional Turkish army attacking from the west to not only preserve Armenian statehood but very likely our presence in the highlands. The tragic earthquake of 1988 witnessed a resurgence of pan-Armenian humanitarian and philanthropic support that was unprecedented and established the relationship of the diaspora with a soon-to-be free homeland. The Artsakh liberation movement was the essence of unthinkable sacrifice and unity of thought as Armenians brought the call for self-determination to the world stage. The Artsakh struggle has exposed the criminal aggressors and connected the Genocide to our current struggle for justice. A genocide denied has led to continuous attempts at extinction. In an “all hands on deck” mentality, no one gets a pass. We all have a role and a responsibility to contribute to the solution. Perhaps more importantly, the peer pressure of holding each other accountable is what can be the difference between success and failure. In that sense, some healthy conflict can be unifying.

The last few columns have been devoted to some of the underlying threats and root causes of our current challenges. The focus has been on resolving what we can control and what shortcomings are contributing to our current crisis. The Armenian church as an institution continues to be the most important and common thread across the homeland and diaspora. Unfortunately, it has not used its inherent influence to bring our people together. As a Christian institution, the Armenian church’s primary purpose is to bring our people to their salvation through the teachings of Jesus Christ according to the traditions of our church. The theology has been developed and refined over the course of many centuries, but the foundation has always contained the core values of Orthodox Christianity. The church teaches values such as love, forgiveness, reconciliation and humility. In recent offerings, we have stressed the importance of pan-Armenian unity to address the crisis of sovereignty that Armenia faces. The faces of corruption, political turmoil, revenge politics and egos have prevented reconciliation and a stable Armenia. With our enemies continuing to take advantage of our weaknesses, this is an unacceptable status. The church has been essentially absent publicly from this dilemma. The work of the church and the needs of Armenia are perfectly aligned, yet the church does not seem to be focused on the issues of reconciliation and national unity. Advocating for the traditional themes of peace in the homeland and compassion is not enough. Our healing must begin from within, and the church must utilize its mission to provide much needed leadership. They must speak directly to the cause of forgiveness and reconciliation. These are the social components of stability that the church can advocate.

Let’s start with a grounding perspective. This is not an attack on the church as an institution but rather a plea for the church to shed its aloof and politicized behavior that prevents it from taking on its core purpose. Patronizing the church during these difficult times is not helping the growth of this important institution. Constructive criticism is important and necessary if the church is to fill this void. For the church and its leaders, it matters little who the secular and government leaders are. The mission of the church should always be above reproach from politics, personalities and policy. The church should be standing tall and speaking to the faithful. Who better to advocate for national reconciliation and unity based on respect, love of the nation and internal peace? The institution that we call the church has asked for and received a special relationship with the homeland as the national church. What value does it have if it is not in turn used to help the nation? In my view, it raises the bar on the responsibility to support the faithful with more humility, more leadership and speaking out on the issues that plague Armenia. The church continues to be shockingly reserved on the issue of domestic violence against women. This is a human rights issue and a national disgrace. It goes against the values of our society and the core mission of the church. This problem should be discussed in our churches both here and in Armenia. Taking a clear stand and providing continuous direction for our people is one of the ways for the church to lead and be respected by our people. I am certain there are pockets of compassionate work by church resources. It must become a highly visible theme for the church. It exists to serve the spiritual and national needs of the Armenians and to relieve suffering. Most of us love our church and want to see it take on the challenges that cause suffering within our nation. The church as an institution has been the beneficiary of incredible respect yet falls short in returning that in the form of leading. This is an opportunity for everyone to grow stronger.

It has always perplexed me why the church does not take a more assertive role in speaking out on important issues that are aligned with Christian values. There is no greater authority than the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. Is it fear of an earthly institution? Has the church lost touch with the purpose of service, or is it too removed from the suffering? During the last few weeks, the church in America (all sides and all denominations) came together under the umbrella of “Armenian Churches Together” to appeal to President Biden to end military aid to the rogue Azerbaijani regime and save Christian lives. Whether or not they are successful is almost secondary to the encouraging work of the church to address these issues. This must continue at all levels. This effort addresses a matter impacting Armenia in our domestic policy in America. There is ample work for the church to do in Armenia itself. At this moment in time, the church would be best served with less focus on the administrative management of recent years and more public leadership on the issues facing the homeland. If it is a matter of bandwidth, the diaspora has room for self-management. If it is a function of control, then perhaps it is time to reassess how to use the limited resources of the church. A powerful voice needs to speak for the reconciliation and unity of our people for the sake of our nation. The vacuum created by the political gridlock can be filled by the church leadership. For those who say this is not his style or his concern, my response is that we must have higher expectations of our leaders and of our most important institution. 

There is a flip side to this logic. For far too long, the “respect” factor has been a one-way street. The church insists on the institution being respected by the faithful by blurring the lines between our faith and the evolution of the institution. Our Lord receives our love through worship based on our faith and theology. The church has to earn respect and credibility. This explains why we experience periods of both progress and decline. Our people are crying for leadership. During this period of fear, anxiety and uncertainty, the church has both the opportunity and responsibility to calm the fear, reduce the anxiety and answer the uncertainty. Asking for peace and prosperity is admirable, but have we asked for forgiveness from each other? Will the church ask our political elite to reconcile and forgive as a Christian nation? If this is considered naïve and outside the realm of politics, then what is the value of declaring that Armenia is the first Christian nation or that we ask the civilized world to save Christian lives? If the church is in the business of salvation through the teachings of Jesus Christ, how do we reconcile relative silence on the destructive discord in the homeland?

We have four hierarchical Sees, and they are all relatively quiet on the social and political internal challenges facing the nation. The Constantinople seat has been reduced to subordination to the Turkish government. A capable leader in Antelias is somewhat neutralized by the hierarchical presence of Holy Etchmiadzin on matters internal to Armenia. The Patriarchate in Jerusalem is struggling to survive the politics of the region. Holy Etchmiadzin as the Mother See has been consistently silent on important social issues and has thus far been reluctant to take a stand that is both patriotic and Christian. I pray that this happens. This is the leadership crisis that plagues our people and keeps real solutions out of our grasp. The question remains: who will answer the call in this hour of need? In the days before Sardarabad in 1918, the Catholicos Georg V ordered the bells of the churches to be rung as a public expression of “all hands on deck.” It was a call to the soldiers, farmers, professionals, teachers and townsfolk to unite for the cause of Armenia’s survival. The bells of our churches ringing in 1918 is the metaphor for 2021. Every institution must do what it is capable of completing to forge national reconciliation. The church expects a great deal and must be willing to step out of its current comfort zone to carry the message of hope. We must insist, with a pure heart, that this call for action become a priority for our church.

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