Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Voice Was Heard in Ramah

(As some of y'all know, I was at the 26th annual meeting of the Northwest Association for Theological Discussion this week in part to have the humbling honor of presenting a formal response to a presentation made by Noemi Ban, a Jewish Holocaust survivor (and to the introduction of her by the Rev. Gary Shoemaker, a friend and colleague of mine).  I composed this response largely drawing upon my identity as an Armenian-American, as I tackled issues of both life experience and Biblical theology in my paper about the 21st century consequences of 20th century genocides such as the Armenian Holocaust and the Jewish Holocaust alike.  That paper is reprinted here in its entirety.  Though it tackles a profoundly depressing subject, I consciously try to end--especially in the part about Scripture--on a note of extreme hope and faith in the enduring nature of God Almighty. -E.A.)

"A Voice Was Heard in Ramah: Growing Up a Child in One of Rachel's Diasporas"


I am a product of genocide.  During the First World War, a very young, recently married couple, Krikor and Satenig Mouradian, managed to flee their home in modern-day Turkey in order to escape from what became known now as the Armenian Genocide, the first “modern” genocide of the twentieth century, a century that would go on see several more such “modern genocides” in Cambodia, Rwanda, and, of course, the most widespread of them all: in Nazi Germany.

Krikor and Satenig fled the Ottoman Empire (as Turkey was known prior to 1918) for Russia, but Russia being what it was, with the fall of the Czarist monarchy and the rise of Bolshevism, it was readily apparent that America might be a safer, more stable final destination.  And thus, fleeing essentially as refugees, Krikor and Satenig made their way across the entire breadth of Russia, to Vladivostok and the Bering Strait, where they illegally crossed over the Pacific Oean to Seattle and the lower continental United States, where they eventually settled in Detroit, Michigan.  Krikor and Satenig went on to have three children, one of whom was my grandmother, Marianne.  Her daughter, Cheryl, met my father Gordon at the University of Michigan.  Had my great-grandparents not had to flee their ancestral homeland to survive, I would not be here.

I offer this by way of opening not to be macabre, but to state a reality: my existence—and the existence, I would imagine, of many “hyphenated” Americans (ie, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, etc.)—comes with a profoundly emotional duality: our cultural identities that we should be proud of were decimated, and our identities as Americans carry a particular dimension of tragedy because they came by way of being forcibly taken here as slaves, deported as unwanted untouchables, or fleeing here (mostly illegally) as desperate, displaced refugees.

My words here are a part of my life’s attempt to reconcile the two in experience and in Scripture.

Part I: Experience

I was struck most powerfully by Gary’s description of Noemi Ban as someone who “incarnates a surprising sense of hope, love, joy, and even laughter in the midst of the horrific memories that she’ll never be able to exorcise.”  I cannot say that I would be capable of such a state of grace myself; indeed, writing some time ago, I said that the very same circumstances that my great-grandparents lived in may well have caused me to topple and fall were I in their place.

What I can say, though, is that a survivor’s memories can be carried in hope, love, and joy from generation to generation.  My family still has the fake passports that Krikor and Satenig used to smuggle passage to the United States.  We have photos of them at the corner store they opened in Detroit as their means of livelihood.  And I was still told stories of them around the dinner table.  However, the meal around that dinner table was almost always American, not Armenian.  And the stories were always told to me in American English, not in Armenian or either of its dialects.

In other words, even though the future generations of my great-grandparents were able to be birthed, we were birthed not as native Armenians, but as something else entirely.  Even though my family had escaped the physical danger of genocide, our culture was still at risk of drifting away through assimilation.  And that, too, in a way, serves the ends of a genocide’s perpetrators.

I have come to believe that part of the heinousness of genocide is in how exponential its consequences are: we know not what the twelve million victims of the Nazi Holocaust would have done with their remaining years of life, we cannot tell what their children might have grown up to be, we have no way of divining how much more humanity would have benefited from their blessed presence upon God’s creation.  In this way, the world experiences the loss of untold future generations of thinkers, chemists, engineers, writers, visionaries, and so on.

But culturally, we experience the loss of those thinkers, chemists, etc., belonging to a particular culture and social location as well, even if their families do survive.  I am an American pastor, not an Armenian pastor, and considering one of the stated goals of the Armenian Genocide was the eradication of Armenian Christianity, this is something that I must wrestle with.

For this reason, I believe very strongly in the importance and mission of genocide survivors like Noemi who have taken to the speaking circuit to educate others.  Eradication of a culture neither begins nor ends with the attempt at physical extermination or the forced assimilation that follows.  Just as efforts such as pogroms and discrimination were made in both the Ottoman Empire and Nazi Germany to eliminate their “undesirable” populations of Armenians and Jews prior to their respective Holocausts[i], so too have efforts since been made to denigrate, minimize, or even outright deny the experiences that peoples have suffered at the hands of their oppressors.

These efforts continue to this day, with varying levels of subtlety.  Professors with tenure at universities such as Princeton, Georgetown, and Louisville have made their names in no small part by denying the veracity of the Armenian Genocide in the face of staggering academic evidence to the contrary[ii].  The “Armenian lobby” in Washington, D.C. is at times mentioned in the same breath as the “Jewish lobby,” [iii] as though, in the offensive stereotype of old, Armenians could, like Jews, pull the strings of power from behind the scenes like a malevolent puppeteer. 

So, much like Noemi (though on a far more modest and micro scale), I have had to engage in educational efforts with the people whom I meet to explain to them exactly who I am and why my family had to make its way to the United States.  But unlike Noemi, I cannot truthfully say that I have always done so as compellingly and effectively as she might ordinarily have.

And also unlike Noemi, I take on my educational efforts—such as they are—at least in part as a cultural stand-in, someone for whom the history of my people is precisely that: history.  It is not something that I myself lived, nor is it something that I can bring the full force of my being to today, because who I am by now has been far more influenced by America than by Armenia.

I am not simply the product of genocide.  I am one of its farther-flung consequences: a descendant of its victims who experiences a tremendous disconnect from the culture that should have been my heritage by birthright.  A genocide does not only end the culture of the people it murders—it is also quite capable of instilling a new culture into a survivor’s descendants.

Part II: Scripture

In attempting to describe the Biblical dimensions of the experiences of victims of genocide, I most frequently reach for two distinct passages: the Exodus story of the Israelites under the rule of Pharaoh, and its New Testament mirror: the Massacre of the Innocents ordered by Herod the Great in Matthew 2 after the birth of Jesus (just as the Pharaoh orders the massacre of the Hebrew boys at the time of Moses’ birth).

The Exodus story holds tremendous theological value for me not only because of its fundamental message of liberation for God’s children, but also because of the status of Moses, whose own name is Egyptian in origin[iv], despite he himself being Hebrew.  Just as Moses was approached by a God whom he did not fully know on the basis of this unknown heritage, so too can I empathize with being called by a God with whom I was at one time unfamiliar and told, in no uncertain terms, to preach the message of liberation for God’s people.  And part of that liberation has been the understanding and claiming of my own heritage as a child of genocide—as a child of Rachel.

The circumstances of Jesus’ birth harkens back to this Mosaic heritage in two ways—firstly, His descent into—and ascent from—Egypt mirrors the descent and ascent of the Israelite people that began with Jacob and concluded with Moses and the Exodus.  But secondly, when Matthew conveys his accounting of the Massacre of the Innocents, he terms it the fulfilling of the prophecy found in Jeremiah 31:15, in which the prophet writes:

The Lord proclaims: a voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and wailing.  It is Rachel, weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because her children are no more.  (CEB)

Theologically and historically, the children of Rachel—as conveyed by Jeremiah—are the Israelites who have had to suffer the destructive conquest and brutal exile under Babylonian rule.  As conveyed by Matthew, though, Rachel’s children “stand for Israel, which is seen in its continuity through all generations and in the solidarity of its lot (exile and present event).”[v]  In other words, Rachel’s children are all Israelites, past, present, and future…including the diasporas that would be formed centuries after Jeremiah’s tenure as a prophet.

Politically and culturally, though, there have now been a great many other diasporas induced by oppression or outright genocide.  The world now has a patchwork array of ethnic diasporas, not only the Armenian and Jewish diasporas, but also the more modern diasporas of, say, Chileans and Cambodians fleeing the brutal regimes of Augusto Pinochet and Pol Pot, respectively.

Rachel’s children have become increasingly diverse.  And while diversity in most circumstances is a commendable thing, when it comes to victims of genocide, we ought to be able to mean it when we see it happen and say “Never again.”  Many people said this after the Jewish Holocaust. 

But then Cambodia happened.  And then Rwanda.  And then Darfur.

Indeed, there is not only two ways in which the circumstances of Christ’s birth parallel His Israelite ancestry—there is at least a third: the perpetrator of the atrocities that surrounded Him. Herod the Great was the alter ego of the Pharaoh of the Exodus.

And so, too, then, are the dictators and war criminals of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the alter egos of Herod.  I can scarcely improve upon this comparison in how the Presbyterian pastor Thomas Long puts it in his commentary on Matthew:

If we have seen Herod’s hatred before in Pharaoh, we know that we will see it again and again.  Pharaoh, Herod, Hitler, Stalin—the chronicles of human history are full of dictators who believe they can secure their power through murder and genocide.  This text stands as a confident word that the despots of this world come and go, but that God’s will outlasts and overrules them all.

This theological conviction can be seen in terse form in Matthew 2:19: “When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared…” 

Herod is dead, but the Word of the Lord continues. 

Herod is dead, but the messenger of the Lord is still appearing, speaking, guiding, protecting. 

Herod is dead, but the mercy of God is everlasting.[vi]

A genocide may attempt to wipe out an entire culture, but those who perpetrate it, be they kings or strongmen or dictators, will also one day join their victims among the dead.  It is an almost perverse irony: those who tried to kill off my family’s culture, and in a minor way succeeded by causing their descendants—myself included—to be raised not as native Armenians but as something else, a hybrid, a hyphenated creature that is neither entirely one or the other…those who attempted this ended up meeting the same violent fate as their victims.  Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Pol Pot, the Ottoman Empire triumvirate of Enver Pasha, Talaat Pasha, and Djemal Pasha: all of them died violently, and in some cases by self-inflicted violence.

Their fates are all true-to-form examples of the sobering truth that Christ reveals to us in Matthew 26:52: “those who use the sword will die by the sword.” (CEB)    Yet in spite of the gravity of this teaching, we continue to use the sword against one another to this day, often on the basis of culture or ethnicity or race or origin.  We still continue to scheme of ways to extinguish the ever-elusive boogeyman of the “other,” whoever that may be to us.

And so in the midst of this hurt that I carry as part of my birthright, my beacon (I dare not say incarnation) of hope is this: that God’s redemptive power transcended death once already in the form of the Resurrected Christ, and that maybe God can transcend the deaths of genocide’s many victims, Rachel’s untold children who are no more, in the form of another resurrection one day.

After all…Herod is dead, but God still remains.  God always remains.


I would like to conclude my remarks by speaking briefly to Gary’s own experience that he conveys of being “born too late to have any firsthand knowledge of that dark period, and having received nothing more than a cursory education about the Holocaust through high school.”

Just as the education that many of our nation’s children receive in our schools about the Jewish Holocaust is profoundly lacking, the education our same children receive about any of the other modern genocides—not only of the Armenians, but of the Cambodians, Tutsi Rwandans, or even the Darfur Sudanese—border on nonexistent.  Like Gary, my own formal education on genocide (as opposed to around the family dinner table) had depth only in my post-secondary education.

This should not be so.

Part of the implicit bargain struck by being a member of society and civilization is an obligation to educate one another as a preventive measure against injustice.  In this singular capacity, we as a people are failing.  While the most compelling education on genocide may well come from the Noemi Bans of the world, they ought to not be the exclusive source of comprehensive teaching, if for no other reason than, as it is written in Ecclesiastes, time and chance happens to us all.  The very youngest survivors of the Nazi Holocaust will soon be turning seventy.  There will come a day, almost certainly in my lifetime, when we can no longer rely on their in-person conversations and dialogues to educate ourselves about the very worst things that humanity is capable of doing, and I wonder how we will go about educating each other then—or if we simply won’t anymore.

I have largely composed this response blind: while I have Gary’s paper, of course, I lack the foreknowledge of exactly what Noemi may share with us, and how it will impact each of us in—presumably— both unique and universally profound ways.  But I have no doubt that her words will educate us.  The verve and emotion that first-person accounts are fraught with tends to remain with us as individuals, of that I am certain.  But less certain is whether such testimonies will remain with us on a systemic level, on a societal level, on a soul-sized, worldwide level.

To paraphrase Georges Santayana, we who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.  If we choose not to educate ourselves about our collective past, we forever run the risk of allowing the world to create another Adolf Hitler, another Herod the Great, another Pharaoh of the Exodus.

And we will forever run the risk of creating untold more Rachels who cannot be consoled because we have destroyed their children.

Such a future, I adamantly believe, runs completely contrary to everything about God’s will for us and for this world, this fearful and wonderful creation, with which we have been bestowed.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Corbett, Oregon
February 4, 2014

[i] Taner Akcam, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, Metropolitan Books, 2006, 24.
[ii] Richard Hovannisian, Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide, Wayne State University Press, 1999, 224.
[iii] Guy Taylor, “Armenian Genocide: the Lobbying Behind the Congressional Resolution,” World Politics Review, October 30, 2007.
[iv] Concordance to the New American Bible, Catholic Book Publishing Corporation, 1970, 461.
[v] Rudolf Schnakenburg, The Gospel of Matthew, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2002, 26.
[vi] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 22.

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