For more than a dozen years I have taught a course titled “Eastern Christian Encounters with Islam”. The course aims to show the complicated history between Eastern Christians and Muslims in such countries as Syria, Egypt, Armenia, Russia, and elsewhere. There is much nonsense talked about Muslim-Christian relations in those and other places in the ancient and modern world, with apologists on both sides trying to tell us that either those relations are nothing but bloodshed, martyrdom, and violence; or peace, harmony, and universal friendship. The truth, of course, is far more complex and messy than that.
Pride of place in the course is Armenia. Armenia’s singular status reflects my own quirks: to read my two books Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (2011) and Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (2019) is to see that I have something of an unrequited love affair with the Armenian Church and her eminently sensible structures which have much to offer the larger Church.
But I also have a deep sense of the pain endured by the Armenian people, and not only in the 1915 genocide which President Joe Biden recognized yesterday in an official statement. For nearly fifteen years in teaching my course, I have pointed out to students how every recent presidential candidate has campaigned on recognizing the Armenian genocide as such, but once elected proceeds cravenly to capitulate to Turkish demands not to do so. It is to his considerable credit that Biden has stood up to Turkish bullying on this point.
No serious scholar or sane observer believes Turkish denials and obfuscation of the events of 1915 for which the evidence—including scores of letters, articles, and photos of mass graves, of priests hanged, and of women crucified naked—is massive and overwhelming. As I always tell my students, anytime any government anywhere wants to criminalize speech (as the Turks have done, banning the use of the term “genocide” in Turkish media, classrooms, and elsewhere, and prosecuting people who do use it), you should automatically suspect that they may have something terrible to hide.
For all of its terrors and horrors, however, 1915 was far from a stand-alone event. Most immediately it was preceded by the Hamidian massacres of Armenians in the early 1890s, which both foreshadowed the genocide of 1915 but also echoed other massacres stretching back to the eighth century. This longer history is well covered in The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924 by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi (Harvard University Press, 2019).
As the late Eli Wiesel once recognized, modern Armenia is like modern Israel in that both see the origins of their national life in trauma and catastrophe. For a half-century now and more, scholarship (much of it reviewed here) has been unanimous in recognizing the well-documented events of 1915 that led to approximately one million Armenians being killed, and, in the same period and region and for the same regions, several hundred thousand Greek Christians and Assyrian Christians as well. In total, close to two million Christians—Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians—were killed in Anatolia and Armenia in the spring and summer of 1915. Still others died even five years after the Great War ended with the forced population exchanges of 1923.
But these genocides have continually been denied officially by the Turkish government as the successor to the Ottoman Empire. For Armenians, such a denial is, as Wiesel once put it, an “insult to memory.” Why is it important for Armenian memory that such events be recognized?
Before the pandemic hit last year, I was to have been at a conference last June in the Czech Republic of Eastern (primarily East Slavic) Christians where I was asked to lecture on the theme of traumatic memory and its transgenerational transmission. There is not just the memory of Soviet persecution and slaughter, which we Ukrainian Catholics know only too well, but also of course the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian genocides. My lecture drew on my clinical training in traumatology to argue that trauma needs to be discussed carefully as a necessary first step to healing.
Such discussion needs to use the right terminology if it is to avoid further hurt. Imagine if Catholic churchmen today, instead of speaking about the sexual abuse of innocent and undeserving children, started suggesting—as, analogously, some extreme Turkish nationalists have done about 1915—that the children basically made the first move and practically begged for the assault, and thus bear the responsibility for their rape and molestation. It is important to call things by the terms used by those who endured them if only as a measure of basic respect and dignity. So Armenia rightly insists on the term genocide, which was coined in the 1940s by Raphael Lemkin to describe a deliberate, systematic killing of an entire people for reasons of race, religion, and/or ethnicity.
A failure to recognize the events of 1915 in these terms means, in the words of another recent book on the subject, that those events remain Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks and a Century of Genocide by Vicken Cheterian (Oxford UP, 2015). A failure to see 1915 as a genocide means that it is much easier to dismiss responsibility, blaming it on just a few rogue soldiers rather than—as we know—an organized and systematic campaign advocated and approved at the highest echelons of the Ottoman Empire.
As every Catholic in the confessional knows, there can be no healing and reconciliation without first confession and admission of responsibility. This is why our own abuse crisis is still ongoing: too many churchmen today act like the Turkish government, trying to pass off abuse as “just a few bad apples” rather than a systematic and structural problem. Wounds remain open while those bearing them and causing them both remain in denial. That is true of individual souls as of whole churches and entire empires, past and present.
In a landmark book published twenty years ago, two American psychiatrists, Jacob D. Lindy and Robert Jay Lifton argued in Beyond Invisible Walls: the Psychological Legacy of Soviet Trauma (2001) that
trauma operates on many levels and its complexities defy our ordinary categories. It lacks the structure and limits of a discrete disaster such as an earthquake….The effects reverberate over years or even decades….What we are discussing here is on the order of a sustained catastrophe that never goes away.
I have seen this clinically in my patients. The nature of trauma is that it can be profoundly disruptive, disorderly, and destructive of psychic structures and inner peace. It keeps its own timetable and schedule. Sometimes it operates chaotically but wordlessly, perhaps especially in those who are scarcely aware of what was endured by their family in the past. Sometimes all we have of trauma is what the Anglo-American psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has famously called the “unthought known.”
But other times we have plenty of concrete evidence: Since the 1990s we now have convincing clinical evidence published in international scholarly journals showing that demonstrable traumatic sequelae can be and are passed down to at least two succeeding generations: in other words, if my maternal grandmother was in Auschwitz, then both my mother and myself can be profoundly affected by that even if we were not alive at the time. This has also been demonstrated for the descendants of East Germans, Ukrainians, and Poles terrorized and traumatized by communism, and of course Armenians and their genocide.
This must not, however, incline us to despair. Armenians have survived for centuries, enduring trauma after trauma, and yet they are alive when some of their ancient adversaries are not. Though I do not want to speak for them, permit me to suggest that perhaps part of the reason they have endured and survived so much trauma comes precisely from their Christian faith, which contains precisely the sorts of resources for healing that modern clinicians since Judith Herman’s landmark 1992 book Trauma and Recovery have all advocated for: to overcome trauma, one must, first, find a safe place in which, second, to tell the story of that trauma before, third, being sent back healed and grateful to a renewed life.
This threefold pattern has been articulated especially well in a new book by Heinz Weiss, Trauma, Guilt, and Reparation: the Path from Impasse to Development, which I recently reviewed elsewhere. That pattern, I suggested on CWR last year, is precisely what Armenian Christians, like all Catholic and Orthodox Christians, do every Sunday in liturgy: we gather in the safety of our churches to tell the story of a traumatized innocent man who is tortured and executed before being resurrected. We are then dismissed to take this story of his triumph over death out into the world as good news.
The English Catholic scholar Marcus Pound’s book Theology, Psychoanalysis, and Trauma (SCM Press, 2007) reminds us of the biblical etymology of the word, which is not at all a new one but expresses a concept with which the biblical writers were thoroughly familiar: “Trauma implies a break, deriving from the Greek τραῦμα, to wound: ‘He went up to him and bandaged his wounds’ (Luke 10:34).” Pound rightly reminds us that every celebration of the Eucharist is a re-narration of trauma: it is, after all, the Last Supper of a condemned man. But the liturgy also, of course, ends with hope and the triumph of the resurrection. This, Pound indicates, is a model for us, what he calls a “liturgical therapeutics”
Liturgical therapeutics can remain incomplete or even ineffective if the surrounding political and cultural context remains hostile and in denial. It helps, then, that the US government has taken this small and overdue step. In the rebuilding of shattered lives, those seeking healing are helped when people around them cease to live in denial and instead call things by their rightful name. Let us hope and pray the Turkish government soon sees sense and does likewise.
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