Diocesan Primate Bishop Daniel Findikyan took part in an online forum on “Racial Injustice and Responsibility,” which sought to explore a very timely social issue in the context of the Armenian American community.
The St. Leon Church of Fair Lawn, NJ, sponsored the event in association with a host of Armenian organizations, to examine the legacy of racial violence and inequality, and the responsibility of perpetrators and non-perpetrators alike. The event took place on the evening of June 23, over the Zoom video conference platform.
Ara Araz organized the forum of distinguished panelists, which included Dr. Jermaine McCalpin (chair of African and African American Studies at New Jersey City University), Dr. Michael Rothberg (Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies at UCLA), and Kohar Avakian (Ph.D. student in American Studies at Yale).
Moderating the discussion and fielding viewer questions were Henry Theriault (president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars) and Marc Mamigonian (director of academic affairs for the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research).
Following an invocation in which he prayed for peace and asked God to “Listen to the cry that rises from every corner of this fragile earth, from our human family torn by violent conflict,” Bishop Daniel offered brief opening remarks endorsing the intent of the forum.
“Racism is an issue that we should not be talking about only in these recent weeks of unrest,” he said, “but it’s something that should be at the core of every sermon of ours as clergy; it should be part of our regular discourse … particularly in the Armenian Church, because we have been the victims of racism … and because our creed, our faith, holds that racism in any form, differentiation among the creatures of God, is completely incompatible with the very core of what we believe.”
Making Common Cause Against Injustice
A live audience of more than 460 viewers watched the now-familiar gridded video-conferencing screen, as each featured speaker offered a concentrated 15-minute presentation.
Prof. Rothberg elaborated on the theme of hisbook, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators, arguing that the categories of victim, perpetrator, and bystander can only give an incomplete account of a person’s connection to injustices past and present. In subtle and structural ways, he suggested, the consequences of injustice filter throughout a society; even those that may feel no personal or group involvement as either a victim or perpetrator can still be implicated in a prevailing system of inequity. He related this both to the contemporary American scene as well as to the history of Armenians in Turkey.
Kohar Avakian offered insights from her ongoing doctoral study of racial formation in the Armenian diaspora, enriched by personal testimony as a woman of multiracial background raised in the Armenian Protestant community in Worcester, MA. Her plea to viewers was to look at questions of Armenian identity in new ways and from novel perspectives, including the “broader contexts of settler colonialism, slavery, and Asian exclusion.”
Prof. McCalpin’s talk drew on his voluminous research on the Armenian Genocide and the transatlantic trade in Africans. He revealed that his own experience and his study of the words of Rev. Martin Luther King—that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”—first inspired him to investigate, and then advocate for, the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. He noted that issues of justice, truth commissions, and the question of reparations forge compelling links in the ongoing discussions of slavery in America and genocide in Ottoman Turkey.
“The same thing that we have been fighting for in this country for almost 401 years, is the same kind of recognition that Armenians have been fighting for, for the last 100-plus years: that is, to ensure that the injustice they suffered is not denied by the perpetrator,” he said.
Challenging and Prophetic
During the concluding segment, wherein audience members were able to submit questions, Bishop Daniel was asked about the prevalence of racism in the Armenian community, and whether the church has an obligation to address it.“Tragically, racism is alive in the Armenian community,” he said, and cautioned against “a kind of narrowly defined Armenian identity.”
Speaking from personal witness, he drew a parallel between victims of racism, and those people who have been made to feel excluded within the Armenian community, for having a dual ethnic heritage, for not knowing the Armenian language, or on the basis of factors like economic class and educational attainment. “We are too ready … to define one another based on these kinds of distinctions,” he said. “It’s simply incompatible, if we are to consider ourselves Christian. It simply cannot be.”
To conclude the event, Bishop Daniel expressed thanks for “An evening that has been informative, surprising in ways, challenging, and indeed prophetic.” In thanking the participants for their continuing work, and the audience for their interest, he said: “We are the soldiers on the ground—all of you are—and we’ve been given some marching orders tonight. And I can say as bishop of this Diocese is that we’ve got some marching to do…. My prayer will be that God will be with all of us.”
The two-hour program was recorded and may be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. Click here to watch.