Monday, April 24, 2017


As I was unlocking the church building yesterday morning for worship and Sunday School, one of the guitarists in our worship band came up to me and, completely unbidden, began raving about a movie that he had seen the day before--The Promise, about a war romance that buds as the First World War rages and as, within its violent confines, the Armenian Genocide snuffs out the lives of 1.5 million men, women, and children in the first genocide of the 20th century.

I told my worship musician that I hadn't yet had a chance to see the entire film, but that I was very glad that he had gone to see it and that I hoped he would take its message and lessons to heart. Because those lessons--that the Armenian Genocide was real, that it really did happen, and that it created an entire diaspora of millions and millions of people who have spent the past century crying out for a crumb of recognition or justice--have yet to really sink in for vast swaths of the world, including here in the United States.

But as The Promise was being released in the United States, over in Jerusalem, something remarkable was happening: in the archives of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Turkish historian Taner Akcam discovered a document that he called the "smoking gun" for the argument that the Armenian Genocide was indeed perpetrated not by rogue soldiers or civilians, but by the order of the government of the Ottoman Empire (what would become the modern nation of Turkey) itself.

Akcam's smoking gun may not change anything right away, but were it to do so, even over time, it would be a great testament to a historian whose body of work has been genuinely heroic. Imprisoned and threatened for his work (that has largely, but not exclusively, focused on World War I and the Armenian Genocide), Akcam had to seek asylum in Europe and eventually relocated to the States, and at every turn has shown uncommon courage in a field that is perhaps more associated with boredom than hair-raising attempts to silence you.

Even emotionally, there is a great deal of courage in his work. It is difficult to admit that your ancestors were a part of a massive crime against humanity that resulted in millions of deaths--just look at how difficult it remains to come to a full reckoning of the United States' own treatment of its African slaves and its indigenous peoples over the course of our own history.

Moviemaking has a role to play in such recognition--Hotel Rwanda (directed by Terry George, the director of The Promise) seared the Rwandan Genocide into our memories. Edward Zwick's Glory immortalized the heroism and dignity of the black Massachusetts 54th regiment in the face of constant racism from not only Confederates but also Union soldiers. And Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List--which, for my money, is one of the very best films ever made--stands as one of the most compelling memorials to the Holocaust I have ever seen.

All deserve to be remembered. All deserve to be honored. If I do not likewise honor the memory of the souls killed in the Holocaust, or the Rwandan Genocide, or the Trail of Tears, then what good is my memory of my own people? My responsibility as one of millions of landless Armenians around the world is to honor them, and to honor others who have suffered what nobody else should ever have had to suffer.

The Promise, then, even if it does not rise to the all-time greats list that Schindler's List has, represents a sincerely and wonderfully made first wide-scale effort to maintain the memory of what has been done, and what has been left undone, to my people.

I'll be watching The Promise today, on Genocide Remembrance Day. I have my reservations about the film--namely the casting of non-Armenian actors in Armenian roles (with all due respect to Oscar Isaac, who is otherwise a laudable actor)--but the fact remains that this is the most "mainstream" film that includes the Armenian Genocide, and the first film that has been widely available in the United States since Atom Egoyan's 2002 film Ararat (there have been a number of European-made films since 2002, but few, if any, were distributed to any great length in the United States).

The message of The Promise, though, isn't just about the genocide--it is about doing right by others as a general rule to live by, which is why the filmmakers are donating 100% of the film's proceeds to global charities such as the Elton John AIDS Foundation. And to raise awareness--I know its such a cliched term in our era of clicktivism and silly bracelets, but here, it fits--the hashtag #KeepThePromise has been trending on social media.

That awareness is very much necessary, as Christian Bale, one of the actors portraying the three protagonists in The Promise, is quick to note in interviews that he had no notion of the Armenian Genocide before The Promise--and, indeed, often so too are his interviewers quick to admit a similar lack of awareness themselves.

This should not be so.

There are a great many doorsteps at which to lay culpability for this lack of awareness--the absence of a good World War I curriculum in our history classrooms, the despicable effort in pockets of academia ranging from Princeton University to Louisville University to use faux-intellectual disinformation to discredit the scholarly consensus, and just plain old-fashioned lobbying against the truth in the halls of government. It takes time and effort--a great deal of time and effort, in fact--for the work and research of someone like Taner Akcam to erode and chip away at such systemic forces.

But if, as GI Joe says, knowing is half the battle, and if, as Jesus says in John 8, that you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free, then at least seeking an awareness, whether it comes in a classroom or a movie theater, is worthy of our praise.

So if you do go to see The Promise, my sincere and profound thanks to you. All I ask is that you emerge from the darkened theater prepared to keep the promise--to keep in your heart what you have learned, and to share the story with others.

In so doing, we will be set free. Of that, I am certain.

In memory of the 1.5 million men, women, and children murdered in the Armenian Genocide. As of this writing, its status as a genocide has yet to be acknowledged by the United States of America and is officially denied by the republics of both Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Longview, Washington
April 24, 2017

Since I began The Theophilus Project in the autumn of 2011, I write on or around April 24 every year in memory of my own family, whose patriarch Sarkis Mouradian (my great-great grandfather) and his son Madiros, died in the spring of 1915 as the genocide began. You can find more of my work on their behalf and in their memory here:

2016: "Red Sunday"
2015: "100"
2014: "A Voice Was Heard In Ramah"
2013: "Being Ethnic"
2012: "Armenia Remembered"

The Promise promo poster image courtesy of IMDB

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