2015, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, marked a major change in the collective Armenian understanding of the Genocide. That year, as part of the centenary commemorations, in a major ceremony jointly presided over by the Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II, and the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, Aram I, the Armenian Apostolic Church declared all of the victims of the Armenian Genocide to be saints, victorious martyrs and witnesses of Jesus Christ. Using a formula adapted from commemorations for St. Vartan and his Companions, the Church declared that the martyred saints had died “for faith and for the fatherland.” This is a dramatic shift in the way we conceive of the Genocide, both as historical fact and in our current attitudes towards it. As the title of a pamphlet by our Primate, V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, puts it, by canonizing those who died, they have undergone a transformation “from victims to victors.”
Canonization of the victims of the Genocide as victorious martyrs upends the historiographic consensus. If history is study of the facts and narratives of the past, then historiography is theoretical reflection on how we make history and on the existing historical writing about a given topic. There are moments of overlap between history and historiography, but in general we can consider questions about “what happened” to be the stuff of history, while historiographic reflections relate to the way historians construct narratives, the things they emphasize, the kinds of data to which they look. Canonization of those who died in the Genocide does not disrupt historical details, for instance that on April 24, 1915 over two hundred Armenian intellectuals were rounded up in Istanbul or that there was a heroic defense on Musa Ler ending in the rescue of Armenians by a French warship. Rather, canonization touches fundamental historiographic questions: do we describe those who died as victims? How do we understand their actions? What role did conversion have in survival? Ultimately, canonization disrupts an important and foundational aspect of the Genocide, that Armenians were killed because they were Armenians. To canonize those who died is to insist that they were not only killed—or even first and foremost—because they were Armenian, but that they were killed because they were Christians who professed their conviction in the saving grace of God’s Word become human, even unto death.
In canonizing those who died, the Armenian Apostolic Church thus made a historical and historiographic argument. We have previously discussed relations between time, prophecy, and history, the idea that a certain kind of “homogenous, empty time” goes hand-in-hand with ideas of progress and the ability to “make history.” These are all historiographic points. Martyrs are always typological figures: the ultimate martyr is Jesus Christ, whose martyrdom and resurrection sets the contours for all subsequent Christian martyrs. Typological thinking explodes historical time, allowing for resonances that would be unavailable otherwise. We see this in the liturgical resonance with Vartanantz commemorations: by connecting martyrdoms across millennia, the meaning of the Genocide changes.
This is not inconsequential. Central to the scholarly discourse on the Armenian Genocide is that it was borne out of late nineteenth and early twentieth century discourses about race and nationalism. Genocide, sharing a root with the word genetics, itself directly reflects the biological and racial component of group identity that was the grounding for the nationalist aspirations of the Young Turks, aspirations shared by many at the time. While the UN definition of Genocide encompasses religious and linguistic identities, the word genocide itself discloses the racial and biological logic at the heart of Genocide. To say that Armenians died as witnesses to Jesus Christ makes a historiographic claim that we should look at the Genocide not only through the logic of race, biology, nationalism, and progress, but through the lens of suffering, passion, conviction, and ultimately, salvation.
|From Victims to Victors: The Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide||A short booklet written by our Primate, V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan. In the pamphlet, Fr. Daniel presents an overview of martyrdom, a theological justification for the canonization, and some of the ramifications for our worship and thinking that follows.|
|A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility||By Taner Akçam, a Turkish citizen and leading scholar of the Genocide. Akçam provides painstaking detail of the mechanics of the Genocide, with the intention of demonstrating conclusively Turkish responsibility.|
|The Burning Tigris: the Armenian Genocide and America’s Response||Peter Balakian’s excellent introduction to the history of the Armenian Genocide and America’s response. It introduces much of the international political context for World War I, the Genocide, and the proposed American mandate for Armenia under Wilson.|
Martyrdom is a very different historiographic frame from nationalism. Taking the Armenian Church’s canonization seriously disrupts much of the historiographic assumptions of Genocide scholarship. Perhaps this is not what the Armenian Apostolic Church intended to do when it canonized 1.5 million Armenians as martyrs, but it entered a debate about history. Yet if we take the assertion of martyrdom and sainthood seriously, we open up a whole different set of questions and even ecclesial and ethical relationships. For martyrdom is intrinsically purposeful. Part of the difficulty of the veneration of martyrs in the 21st century is the difficulty we have of making sense of suffering as having any purpose whatsoever. This is not to glorify gruesome suffering for its own right, but simply to note that pain and suffering can be directed toward an aim or have a purpose. Suffering is not inherently meaningless.
Such an understanding of suffering not only problematizes modern ideas about agency and history, it also asks the Armenian Christian to approach the events of the Genocide and their own relationship to this definitive event in Armenian history differently. This is not to deny the importance of Genocide recognition or to diminish the political activity in which many engage. It is rather to insist that a political response to Genocide or a philosophical response to catastrophe (as the Armenian philosopher Marc Nichanian would put it) do not exhaust meaningful ways one can approach the Genocide. Meditation on martyrdom, difficult as it is for the 21st century mind, leads the Armenian Christian to the ultimate model of martyrdom, Jesus Christ.
It can also reorient our ethical responses. Martyrdom is action in seeming passivity. It is conquering in the guise of defeat. It is the ultimate fulfillment of Christ’s injunction to “turn to the other cheek.” One of the most radical and difficult of Jesus Christ’s ethical teachings, “turn the other cheek” asks us to love in the face of hate. It insists that even those who hate us are still our “neighbors,” made in God’s image. Martyrdom is the fulfillment of this ethical teaching of Christ. To orient to the Genocide through the lens of martyrdom is to contemplate a challenging ethical injunction where previously we have thought about governments and the facts of history. Again, this is not to deny the importance of advocacy or a political approach. It is to recognize that an ecclesial and ethical road is opened up through martyrdom.
In the service for the canonization of the martyrs and the hymns for the saints’ day established with their canonization, we have the beginnings of this new orientation to the Genocide. A new orientation to Armenian Christian history. New possible ethical responses to the most definitive and horrific event of Armenian history. As we commemorate the Genocide, the insistence on those who died as victorious martyrs for Christ in the Armenian Church can be a source of renewed energy and possibility in our response to Genocide.
|The Historiographic Perversion||One of philosopher Marc Nichanian’s treatments of the Armenian Genocide in historical and philosophical context.|
|New Saints: Canonizing the Victims of the Armenian Genocide in the Armenian Church||A short reflection on the process and meaning of the canonization of the martyrs.|
|Order of Canonization of the Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide||The publication of the service conducted on the day the martyrs were canonized, including encyclical letters from Catholicos Karekin II and Catholicos Aram I.|
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