(From an anonymous German traveler, via Project SAVE; Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(April 1915: Armed Ottoman soldiers escorting Armenian civilians through Harput (Kharpert), to a prison in nearby Mezireh (present-day Elâzığ).)
The Armenian genocide's start is rather arbitrarily set as April 24, 1915. That's when Ottoman authorities rounded up and arrested about 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople, and eventually got around to killing them.
Armenians had been rounded up and butchered in odd lots before that, though.
The Ottoman Empire 's 1915 ethnic cleansing wasn't limited to Armenians. The Ottoman government exterminated Assyrians and Greeks whose crime was living in Ottoman territory and having the 'wrong' ancestry or faith.
It wasn't called a genocide at the time. That word first showed up in Raphael Lemkin's book, "Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation - Analysis of Government - Proposals for Redress" (1944). He defined it as "the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group." (Wikipedia)
The Ottoman Empire ended in 1922, with the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate — thanks partly to the Turkish National Movement, revolutionaries who had gotten fed up with the Empire's mismanagement.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and others had established the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in 1920. Successors to this lot are running Turkey today. I'm oversimplifying the situation, of course.
Oddly enough, Turkey's current government — whose rule started in a revolution against the Ottoman Empire's government — doesn't want the wholesale slaughter of Armenians and others called a "genocide."
I don't understand why. From my viewpoint, it'd be like the American Congress taking umbrage at discussion of something done by a British governor in colonial times.
Maybe it's misplaced national pride. I really don't know.
I rub virtual elbows in social media with several folks who have personal ties to Armenia.
One of these folks, Matthew Chinian, posted "My Grandfather's story: 100 years ago he survived the Armenian Genocide" on Tuesday. This is an excerpt:
"...Finally, it was our turn to move over the top of that hill. Now, there was among our company an Armenian priest. ... As the Circassians were riding up to push us up the hill and over, to our death, we begged the priest to give us Holy Communion. Having no bread for the purpose, he blessed a handful of sand and, as he muttered the litany of the dying, gave us a grain of that sand to swallow, as we knelt before him. As we swallowed the sand, the Circassians pulled up short, astonished at this display of faith. Then, to our amazement, they too fell to their knees and told us that they were only soldiers doing the bidding of the government. They earnestly asked us to understand that they were opposed to all this, but they had no choice but to obey. 'We are not guilty!' they cried.There's a great deal more. I recommend reading what Mr. Chinian posted: and taking a look at his art, while you're there.
"After this touching act of piety and contrition, the savages jumped up, took their rifles and began mowing us down....
"...I could hear the Arabs telling one another that this place belonged to them and that they did not want us to stay there. I raised my head through the hay and said, in Arabic, 'Brethren, have pity, where can we go?' They remained unmoved. One yelled at me, 'Get lost. It is of no concern to us.Go wherever you wish, but you can't stay here!'...
"...Sometime later, a band of Arab urchins came on us from nowhere and began to pelt us with stones. ... I do believe that those brats would have finished us off right then and there if an Arab Sheikh hadn't come up and asked if we could weave cloth. My friend answered that he had apprenticed as a weaver. I knew Arabic; he did not, so I was his interpreter. In Armenian, I told my friend to tell the Sheikh that since I was his brother I would have to come with him or else he would not go with the Sheikh. But before my friend could say another word, the Arab asked if I would like to come along with them. Naturally, I said I would.
"The Arab took us to the bank of the Khaboor river and hid us there until all gendarmes and Circassians had left the area. He told us that he had to do this because 'the gendarmes would have killed both of you on the spot if they had seen you.' When we came out of hiding, the Sheikh took us to his tent and gave us Arab clothing...."
(From "The Cilician Armenian Ordeal," Paren Kazanjian, Published by Hye Intentions, Inc, Boston MA (1989); via "My Armenian D.N.A.: My Grandfather's Story." Matthew Chinian)
Words like "obedience" and "authority" have taken a beating over the years. Variations on "I was only following orders" in trials following the 'Thousand Year Reich' (1933-1945) didn't help. My opinion.
Growing up in the '60s, and a broad stubborn streak, left me with a certain attitude about "authority." My wife pointed out that I had no trouble with legitimate authority. It was pompous nitwits and outright villains who claim that authority that bother me. She's right, and that's another topic. (September 14, 2014)
As a Catholic, I must respect authority: and accept responsibility. We all have responsibilities: children, parents, subordinates, leaders. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1897-1904, 2199)
As a citizen, I have a "duty of obedience" to honor the authority of my nation's leaders. (Catechism, 1900)
"It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one's country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community."So — if someone from the government tells me to kill my neighbor, it's okay? Probably not.
This is where it gets a bit complicated. My faith requires accommodation of pacifists, but doesn't demand strict pacifism. However, "legitimate defense" doesn't extend to killing someone for having the 'wrong' ancestry. Not even close. (2263-2267, 2310-2311)
Let's take another look at the last part of that paragraph:
"...Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community."Here's where it gets interesting.
(Catechism, 2239) [emphasis mine]
Authority doesn't come from having a bigger gun, more votes, or a seat on Supreme Court.
Human laws are legitimate, right, only to the extent that they follow ethical principles which don't change. Murder was wrong before Hammurabi's day, and always will be. (Catechism, 1902-1903, 1954-1960)
I'm an American living in the early 21st century: so I drive on the right side of the road, file tax returns by April 15, and wear footgear in certain buildings. Those aren't unchanging principles. They're rules we've made to help us deal with our circumstances.
I've talked about positive law, human rules; and natural law, eternal ethical principles; before. (August 29, 2014)
The Circassians who said "we are not guilty" were in a difficult position. They had been told to kill those Armenians, and would probably have been punished if they didn't. On the other hand, at some level they realized that what they were doing wasn't right.
But saying that "they had no choice but to obey" wasn't accurate. We are all rational creatures, with free will: able to decide what we do, or do not, do. (Catechism, 1730-1738)
They apparently decided to ignore their conscience, and follow orders they knew were unethical. I hope I'm never in their position: having to choose between doing something I know is wrong, or being punished by a civil authority for doing what is right.
If that happens, I hope that I'd have the guts to follow my conscience. My obedience to civil authority is important, but does not outweigh my obedience to God's. (Catechism, 2242)
Many folks targeted by the Ottoman Empire were Christians — but don't expect a diatribe about folks who aren't like me. I'm a Catholic, so I must love God, love my neighbor, and see everyone as my neighbor. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:43-44, 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-27, 29-37; Catechism, 1825)
That doesn't mean I must approve of everything my neighbor does. Genocide is a very bad idea, and we're not supposed to do it. Ever. (Catechism, 2313)
"Circassians" is what we call the Adyghe and Kabarday people. Russia dumped many of these folks into the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Circassia is a nation that's not there any more, in land north of the Caucasus mountains.
I sympathize, a little, with folks who want to re-establish their ancestral territorial holdings.
But I'm also an American, descended from folks who came from Norway, Ireland, and Scotland. I'm not sure where I'd wind up in if I went 'back where I came from.' It would depend, I suppose, on how far back on the family tree I went.
What we're learning of humanity's past tells me that many of my ancestors left our homeland some 60,000 years back — promptly having kids with Neanderthals and other, earlier, pioneers. (February 6, 2015)
It's far too late for all of us to go back to eastern Africa: and in my case, impractical. Somewhere along the line, my ancestors lost our natural skin tone. Like other folks with northwestern European ancestry, I'm prone to sunburn. We've been away from home for a long time.
Getting back to the Circassians, my guess is that the Ottoman government regarded them as 'foreigners,' too: so they may have feared that they and their families would be targeted if they didn't kill the Armenians.
That doesn't excuse what they did: but I have no idea how their particular judgment went. I'm not allowed to judge them. It's the old "love the sinner, hate the sin" thing.
"...judging others leads us to hypocrisy ... a person who judges gets it wrong...because he takes the place of God, who is the only judge: taking that place is taking the wrong place!..."
"...although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God."
"Stop judging, that you may not be judged."
(Jesus, in Matthew 7:1)
Much of today's trouble around the eastern Mediterranean stems from a domestic dispute in the late Bronze Age. (Genesis 16:1-12, Genesis 21:2-14)
That, in turn, goes back to the tragic mistake our first parents made. I've discussed original sin, Catholic style; consequences; and personal responsibility; before. (February 1, 2015)
Humanity's sad heritage pretty much guarantees that we won't live in a perfect society any time soon.
But I must do what I can as an individual, and a member of my culture, to make things better. (Catechism, 1928-1942)
I can't end world hunger, establish a lasting peace in the Middle East, or cure the common cold: obviously. But I can pass along the idea that loving my neighbor, and seeing everyone as my neighbor, makes sense. We've been doing that for two millennia now.
There still isn't an "international authority with the necessary competence and power" to resolve conflicts without war, or stop genocides before they start. (Catechism, 2307-2317; "Gaudium et Spes," 79 § 4)
But these things take time. It was 19 centuries before a significant fraction of folks in a few countries started acting as if owning other people wasn't right.
Maybe, just maybe, sometime around the 38th century, enough people will decide that loving neighbors — all neighbors — really is a good idea: and we'll cobble together an approximation of Tennyson's "Federation of the World." (September 7, 2014)
Meanwhile, like I've said before, we have work to do.
More of my take on love and neighbors:
- "Death at Garissa University, Sin, and Consequences"
(April 12, 2015)
- "Boko Haram: Slavery, Death, and Love"
(January 18, 2015)
- "Caesar, Civilization, Dealing With Change — and Building a Better World"
(August 31, 2014)
- " 'All are Equal Before God' — Rights of Humanity and a Right of the Aggressor"
(August 24, 2014)
- "Strangers and Standing Orders"
(July 6, 2014)