Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director, Massachusetts Council of Churches
Thursday April 23, 2014, 7:30pm
She spoke truth. With the clipped diction of a Boston Protestant from a certain social strata, the 75-year-old suffragette and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe climbs the stairs to the podium at Faneuil Hall. Just over a mile from here, on November 26, 1894, the Boston Armenian Relief Committee gathered. Julia, the same woman who finds the words to write the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and writes provocative essays asking “Is Polite Society Polite?”- that very same Julia- struggles to find words to name the emerging horror.
“I could not stay away from this meeting. My heart was here, and I came, not so much to speak, as to hear what is to be done about this dreadful trouble. For something must be done. I have to pray God night and morning that He would find some way to stay this terrible tide of slaughter….”
Let us pray… Holy God, give us the word that we need to hear this night. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, Oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.
To be set free from that which binds us, we must speak truth. To heal, we must name things for what they are. Tonight, in this church, we cannot but speak truth.
Jesus knows that to be released from our torment, we must call a thing what it is. As his ministry of healing expands in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and the disciples travel across the River Jordan to country of the Gerasenes. There, among the tombs in the graveyard, removed from the land of the living, is a man tormented, possessed. Mark takes pains to describe a tortured man, pitiful to look upon: his wrists bruised and raw where the chains have held him; his shoulder bones pointed under the taunt tent of his skin; his eyes wide to look upon someone, anyone who might be able to heal him, to free him.
In polite society, it is awkward to speak seriously about one overtaken by an evil spirit, the stuff more often of horror films and novels. Our ancient forbearers in Jesus’s time lived with a strong belief in unclean spirits, evil powers that can overwhelm and overtake a person. We know how evil can burrow in and take hold of a person, a people, a nation. We know of evil so entrenched that we cannot free ourselves.
The possessed man shouts, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”(Mark 5: 7). Jesus, looking upon this tormented man, demands, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit.” Nothing. Silence. There is a pause, a break in the action. The man is not released, the torment remains.
How is it that Jesus, Son of the Most High God cannot remove this unclean spirit? Then Jesus asks, ‘What is your name?’ ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’
To be free from that which binds us, we must name a thing for what it is. The Geresene man cannot be free until the unclean spirit is identified, named, known for what it is.
To be freed from torment, to be released from evil and received back into the community of the living, we must call a thing by its name, An illness cannot be treated until it is known; a sin cannot be forgiven unless it is confessed; an evil spirit will not be released until it is named. So we name the evil that has possessed us, and we demand that all others do the same. We will not mince words. We will not keep polite society by whispering instead “Meds Yeghern.” We will not use euphemisms to speak of “the Armenian Question” as if there’s something left unanswered. We will name the evil that has overtaken this body, the body of Christ. We will name this evil for what it is: genocide.
Because, nothing, nothing short of this naming will suffice. Nothing short of this truth can free us.
Speaking the truth is not simply a political necessity, though our government needs to speak the truth of the Armenian Genocide. Speaking the truth is an historical necessity, a moral necessity, a spiritual necessity. His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians writes, “our souls resound with a powerful call for justice and truth that will not be silenced.” The Turkish scholar and journalist Cengiz Aktar wrote, “The Armenian genocide is the Great Catastrophe of Anatolia, and the mother of all taboos in this land. Its curse will continue to haunt us as long as we fail to talk about, recognize, understand and reckon with it.” Like the Geresene man tormented by the unclean spirit, our world will be haunted as long as we fail to name and reckon with this great evil. What we do not name, we risk repeating.
We gather tonight to speak truth, to name things for what they are, perhaps even to be freed from that which has tormented us.
My dear Armenian sisters and brothers: You have been carrying this truth alone for too long. The burden is been heavy. Your backs are bent and weary. Your soul’s weighed down.
Tonight, the wider Church embraces you. Tonight we draw near, side by side with you and help to shoulder the load. For this is our burden to bear as well yours. The Armenian Genocide was not simply a crime against Armenians. It was, it remains a crime against humanity.
Do you remember the protests, a hundred thousands in Istanbul’s streets after the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated? The people carried signs saying, “We are all Armenians.” “We are all Armenians.” Image via The New Yorker
Tonight, we are all Armenians. This night and from now on, we all assume the burden to carry with you this history, this memory, this genocide, this story of resurrection, this truth.
Like Julia Ward Howe we come “not so much to speak, as to hear.” As the wider Church embraces you and your newly sainted martyrs, we vow to listen as you speak the truth. You need not remember these martyrs alone. We will stumble in our speech, wrapping our clumsy tongues around unfamiliar names, but you will teach us. And our God, who desires unity among us, desires truth between us, will be pleased.
Over the last century, too many names have been lost. Too many names changed in desperate hope that a less Armenian sounding name might protect against unspeakable crimes. Too many names of murdered men never carved into a gravestone. Too many names lost somewhere in the parched desert sand as desperate mothers try in vain to call out the names of dying daughters.
Too many names known to God alone.
But tonight, this night, the ancestors you prayed for are now the saints we pray to. We name them truth. We name them not just your grandmother or your great uncle, but now we name them martyrs and saints. And we speak their names together.
(Today, your martyrs become saints, for all of us)