Apologies are too late

We must weigh how religious tradition leads us to right – or wrong -- actions
September 30, 2005

Robert Odabashian (“Recalling Days of Horror,” July/August) calls for the present-day Turkish government to apologize for the 1915 genocide that literally erased millions of Armenians and relocated millions more. At the time I read his poignant plea, I already was sadly recalling the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 boys and men at Srebrenica during the war in Bosnia.

The Christian Armenians were slaughtered by the Muslim Ottoman Turks; the Muslim Bosnians were cut down by Christian Serbs.

Writing of the Armenian genocide in his book War Is a Force Which Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges reminds us that “atrocities – denied by the perpetrators and sanctified by the victims – leave huge chasms between peoples. They serve to create two distinct and antagonistic histories. It is only with an historical consensus that there can be reconciliation.”

I would add that achieving religious consensus is a key component to healing the wounds resulting from an historical, recurring pattern that pits religion against religion. History attests to the difficulty of such accomplishment, even within a particular tradition.

Recalling one horror brings to memory another. Religious origin becomes an easy descriptor when constructing the ethnic and political identities of perpetrator and victim. Historically, the liturgies and theologies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Abrahamic theism) too often have accompanied the violence of offenders and screams of their victims.

Religious complicity with destructive human behavior is alarming, but the alarm never seems loud enough to slow the dreary cadences of violence. Odabashian tries to be heard. Others have tried and do try.

I used to believe that all Japanese were pagan devils and set out to kill them when I was 17. Years later, when the children of the devils appeared in my college history classes and became my bright advisees, we tried to discuss WWII (“my war”) from a religious point of view. They wanted to know what American Christians thought about atomic bombs and Hiroshima, and why Christian Germany was a nation of anti-Semitic terrorists.

And before that there were the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Native American genocide. Always there was the question: “Was religion a partner to all that violence?” I spent the better part of June 2005 in Iran, one of the nations of the “Axis of Evil.” I went there to be with the Muslim members of my extended family and to take part in the marriage of a beautiful niece.

For my own academic reasons, not anticipating Robert Obadashian’s article, I could not leave Iran without visiting Jolfa, the Armenian district in the city of Isfahan. Like modern Armenia itself, Jolfa is surrounded by Islam, its population of 7,000 diminishing as the young seek jobs in Teheran or find ways to emigrate.

On the walls of the Armenian Vank Cathedral are frescoes depicting the torture of fourth-century St. Gregory the Illuminator, father of the Armenian church. On its grounds is a fine museum with very old manuscripts, Eucharistic vessels and vestments — and a movingly graphic exhibit of the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. Armenians, wherever, remember. Victims usually do.

I wonder what it is to call others to account for their atrocities? Does it do any good to admit to having been the hand of violence — anywhere, anytime? Perhaps the Episcopal Church has sought forgiveness for its generations of silence as African Americans were lynched within an easy walk from muzzled pulpits and segregated altars. Only 10 years ago the Southern Baptist Convention admitted its misguided “Scripture-based” racial policies and apologized for “condoning and/or perpetuating systemic and individual racism.”

Who should apologize for whole histories afflicted with the habits of interpersonal violence among the earth’s humans, be it bashing a homosexual, assaulting a defenseless woman or heaping butchered bodies in Rwanda? What of the thousands of innocents (noncombatants) who make up “peripheral damage counts,” those killed in wars linked to religious beliefs — whether in London, Iraq, Muslim Azerbaijan, Sudan or Israel/Palestine?

Perhaps if we monotheists of all brands can ever set aside our fixation with adjusting and refining our orthodoxies (right beliefs), it will help us turn our attention to evaluating the quality of our orthopraxis (right actions). Perhaps saying we are sorry is a good thing. Perhaps we will take a serious look at the role of religious belief/behavior, tracing its links to economic and political systems — and weighing its affects on the lives of humans in our shrinking global community. Perhaps we can learn to look ahead in order to avoid the need to look back with guilt at careless complicity with violence, at showing disrespect for human dignity.

Perhaps. For now, we can in some way share with Robert Odabashian and Armenians everywhere the painful recollection of a 90-year-old nightmare — and heed his plea to seek new ways for the future. Looking at our own religious traditions, can we ask, “Have we allowed others to use us as partners in violence?”

When we say we are sorry, it is too late.

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