The Great Calamity: A Meditation on Genocide, Memory, and Our True Home

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The 24th of April marks the anniversary of the beginning of what the Armenian people call the Great Calamity, and what the rest of the world calls the Armenian genocide. I believe this event is not noticed enough outside of the Armenian diaspora. And, I find in that something deeply disturbing. So, most years I try to hold it up. When I was in the pulpit I visited the subject a number of times. And, now, here, on this blog.

That terrible event visited upon a small nation is sadly, part of a litany, possibly, probably endless, of people bringing terror and death to their neighbors. The Jewish holocaust in the 1940s was the most notorious bead on this string of deliberate and systematic destruction of a people, of a culture, justified because they are the “other,” and therefore are a threat whose destruction offsets the basic morality of every culture. It continues. More recently we have Rwanda and Srebrenica. Glaringly, our own American history is marked by the genocide of the Native American peoples, together with slavery one of the two original sins resting a rot at the foundation of our American nation.

Me, today, I find myself considering the Armenian genocide in particular, and how it is denied. And what that means to us as human beings. It is one of those examples of what happens when we decide “facts” are mutable, we can accept what we want, and deny anything inconvenient.

No doubt our human minds and hearts are complex things. Events happen and we order them, we give them meanings. It’s what we do. In fact the seed of truth in the critique of news gathering is that necessary selection. I believe that at the very center of this is the mystery of our human memory. What we give our attention to and how we shape it creates the narratives of our lives, tells us where we come from and points to where we can go.

An example. My people are the Irish. While my direct ancestors came here at the turn of the last century almost certainly fleeing poverty, the majority of my people came to this nation fifty years earlier, fleeing something even worse, the great hunger. There’s a memory. Fleeing horrors, we came to a country that was reluctant to accept us. Within the mad rush forward of course we wove stories about ourselves. Some of these were useful, others, not so much. For many the stories were little more than maudlin inspirations for tin-pan alley. Green beer once a year is a sorry remembrance of a lost nation.

Other memories were of past deprivation and oppression and out of those came dreams of new hope and possibility. Irish Americans are second to none in our patriotic fervor for our adopted nation and the opportunities we claimed. And, and this is an important point. What we weave together as our stories are always mix of truth and fantasy. And what we deny or forget may be just as influential on future events as that which we remember.

And, it is messy. Over the last couple of years I’ve watched a meme run wildfire over social media which tries to equate the indentured servitude of the Irish, a terrible thing, and American chattel slavery, the conversion of human beings into property. Actually, variations on this meme asserted the Irish had it worse than the Africans. In doing this the authors are clearly trying to minimize the horrors of the enslavement of Africans. Starting from the false equivalency of what happened, a cascade of excuses and denial of the consequences of that evil act follow.

It seems hard to believe this thing, this meme, was created by accident. It is an active act of weaving lies to hide hard facts. Not unlike what we see coming from people who do not want there to have been an Armenian genocide. Instead its a civil war, and, yes, atrocities, but on both sides. Of course, if you go to the old Armenian homeland today, there is that nagging question why are there no Armenians? Why are the old churches nothing but rubble?

Which raises the other issue for us to struggle with, also deeply connected to memory. That is place. What is home? Where is home? In addition to those more ancient homelands, do you come from the rocky soil of New England? Perhaps the plains of the Midwest? Or, like me, that far country of teeming cities clinging to rugged coasts, high mountains in the distance, and a moderate climate? For each of us, no matter how far away our lives may take us, these places have a permanent part in our hearts, and of who we are.

And, in that sense of where we come from, we also have that ancestral homeland. Germany? England? China? Japan? Armenia? And what if our ancestors were kidnapped? There are those who know that bitter question. Where in Africa? Where? Or, what if you know, but if you go to that place and there are only a few stones piled upon each other for you to touch and to recall how your people were shaped, and lived? What if that homeland is now a place where the songs of your ancestors are no longer sung? I think of the native peoples of this continent.

So, back to memory. Back to the power of presence.

People often, I believe, misunderstand the call to presence, to notice this place, to stand here. A person who cannot take memory into this moment is not fully present. And, that’s not the end of it, either. We need to have the cascade of hopes and fears for the future living in our hearts, as well.

This is how it can be so complicated. If there is no memory, and no thought of the future, then there is no present. Not really. Not in a way that counts. Not in a way that allows the pregnant possibility of our existence to come forth.

And living into that possibility is the task at hand. What does it mean to live full, to be fully present?

I find as I consider the great sadness of the Armenian genocide, along with all the other horrors and indignities perpetuated upon people, great and small, I feel a sense of loss that I have trouble describing to you here today. But when we don’t turn away, when others deny, but we know in our hearts, found through presence to what is, the vastness of our true home, things happen. And within that I feel some sense of hope, some sense of that birthing of possibility as presence itself, shining, fully visible.

And, this is the greatest mystery of it all, the one that must inform every other thought we have: at some point we’re all connected, deeply, truly. One family. We are all bound up in these acts of memory and loss, of place loved and taken. These are not empty words: the harm done one, is harm done to all. If we hope to act with grace in this world, if we hope for peace in our own lives, for joy, for authenticity, we need to remember all this; and we need a place to put our feet.

Because, and here is a great secret. This place here is our home. All those places that dream in our hearts, and which we should never forget, bring us in their own good time: here. To this place. To this moment.

This is our home. We are heirs to it all…

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