Reflections on Charleston: the example of Armenian reconciliation

“We have come here to apologize for what our ancestors did, to ask for your forgiveness.”

“We plead with you, if you can, to forgive us and the crimes of our forefathers.”

These are just two of the acknowledgments made by Turk representatives last April at the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia, marking the 100th anniversary of the genocide in which 1.5 million Armenians were killed at the hands of the Turkish government. Officially, the government of Turkey still doesn’t recognize the genocide (nor does the United States), but a grassroots movement is building as reconciliation between the two people groups continues to move forward.

Another remarkable occasion reflected similar themes. Several friends of mine attended a gathering of Christians this last spring in Armenia, at which Turkish pastors asked forgiveness for the sins of their fathers, knelt and washed the feet of their Armenian clergy brothers. The scene was one of deep grief, release and then celebration. The tears flowed.

Here in my hometown of Fresno, California, we have a very large community of Armenians. And in a local Armenian congregation, again last April, a Turkish pastor stood before the church and apologized for the war crimes of his country. Weeping before the church, he said, “I’m asking you, please forgive my nation. Please forgive my nation. They are guilty. They are guilty in God’s eyes. They are guilty in your eyes.”

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Today marks the one-month anniversary of the shootings at the Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. On June 17, nine people were executed by a self-styled white supremacist who intentionally targeted a Bible study at the historic African-American congregation. The nation was shocked, watching reports of a modern-day lynching play out before their eyes on national TV. But while news agencies were quick to sensationalize the event, they quickly moved on to other more titillating news items: escaped convicts, Supreme Court rulings, and Donald Trump. Meanwhile, at least five black churches have been set ablaze by arsonists since the Charleston shooting.

Yet, still, this community continues to rise up as an example of triumph through adversity. Just listen to the words of victims’ family members as they addressed the Emanuel shooter at a court hearing.

“I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. God forgives you and I forgive you.”
-Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll never be the same. May God have mercy on you.”
-Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders

“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love, so hate won’t win.”
-Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons

“I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most—Christ.”
-Anthony Thompson, husband of Myra Thompson

“I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family, is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray to God for your soul.” -Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of DePayne Middleton Doctor

How is it possible that a people racked by centuries of slavery and persecution at the hands of white oppressors can respond so graciously, authentically and lovingly? The people of Emanuel AME are far more Christ-like than most I know who call themselves Christian. And these people will understand the Beatitudes in ways I’ll never be able to, and in ways that the great “Blessed are those” statements were intended.

And then we hear what happened a couple of weeks ago in the same church. It’s equally exemplary. In a joint partnership, the white mayor of Charleston, Joe Riley, and Emanuel’s Rev. Norvel Goff, announced a three million dollar endowment created by anonymous donors to help fund education in the church’s community.

Characteristic of this noble congregation, Rev. Goff offered these words:

“What a tremendous opportunity to show the world once more that goodness of heart overtakes evil, and that we continuously show the world how we respond to the tragedy. We didn’t ask for it, it was a wicked situation, it was a terrorist act of bigotry but through it all we realize the lesson is not in what happened, but how we respond. And as a community we have responded in a very positive way that now ripples throughout this nation if not throughout the world.”

“We can take a tragedy and show that the human spirit can still triumph over evil.”

Amazing. Christ-like. A model for us all.

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Back to the Turkish/Armenian movement of reconciliation.

Following the model of Turkish pastors who humbly confessed the sins of their forefathers and asked for the forgiveness of an entire ethnic group, I believe it’s time for the churches in America to deal with the racism that continues to plague our own country. We cannot wait for government, corporate business, legal and social reforms or other civic initiatives. While those are important elements and partnerships, it is time for Christ’s followers who love mercy and justice to lead the way. I really don’t believe there is any other alternative. Waiting is not an option. This will take a grassroots effort.

A decade ago, very few people, if any, could have predicted a movement of the Spirit that would bring Turk and Armenian pastors together in mutual submission, peace and love. How might God use his church in America to end racism, promote justice and usher in a kingdom of shalom in the next ten years? My fear is that our most influential Christian leaders will lead in the opposite direction, and that it will take a ground swelling of lay-members who are willing to move ahead without them.

What’s needed is a humility on the part of the white church as a whole that I’ve only seen demonstrated in small pockets here and there. It means that our churches will have to put aside many of our plans, our presumptions, our stereotypes, our systematics, our pejorative language, our patronizing efforts of “partnering,” and even some of our received theology. Humble collaboration with the African-American community, especially with black Christian brothers and sisters is what’s required.

I’m not an expert here, just a willing participant, ready to acknowledge corporate sin, seek forgiveness and engage in the hard work of healing. Count me in.

 

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