Globalization and the Armenian Church

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The Impact of Globalization on
the Armenian Church: An Assessment
by Fr. Vazken Movsesian
Presented at the University of Southern California, 10 June 2005 at a symposium titled, “Globalization and the Armenian Church” on the occasion of a pontifical visit by His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians
View the Entire Conference at http://vimeo.com/15291175
G
ood morning. I’m truly honored to be sharing this platform with such distinguished scholars as Dr. Miller and Dr. Dekmejian. And I am humbled to be offering these comments in the presence of His Holiness the Catholicos of All Armenians. I thank His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan Derderian for the opportunity he has granted me to make this presentation. I do so with a genuine love and respect in my heart toward the Armenian Apostolic Church – a church I have served for the last three decades – and I offer this presentation with the hopes that we can truly evaluate and better serve this sacred institution.
I’d like to begin today’s presentation by reading to you from an article which appeared in this morning’s Glendale Newspress:
As a young Latina girl stood up to receive a blessing from His Holiness Karekin II, the staff at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital drew near to them. It didn’t occur to her that this clergyman had traveled halfway around the globe, from a landlocked country named Armenia, to be here. She looked at him with a warm smile, one which could have melted the coldest heart. But there was no need to soften anything or anyone that day. Amidst the disease and illness, hope and love were radiating. And even though she didn’t understand every word spoken by the Armenian pontiff, she knew exactly what was happening.
His Holiness, in that moment of prayer and warmth successfully harnessed the energy of globalization and presented an opportunity for the Church to work out its mission…
Globalization is a phenomenon that takes on many forms. Its meaning is unclear. We are only beginning to ponder as to how or what its impact on us will be now and in the long run. But there are a few things that are for certain, namely, that there is no turning back the tide and we – the Armenian Church – need to deal with the implication of globalization if we are to remain a viable force in the Armenian nation.  
On first thoughts, it seems like globalization is the ultimate atmosphere in which the Church can live out its mission – ONE world, and ONEKingdom of God under Jesus Christ are the core of the evangelical challenge. Is this not the words of the founder of the Church, “…and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  It was the words of Tim Rice’s Judas, who introduced to the public and thereby popularized the notion of Jesus in a world taken by globalization. In the opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas asks, “Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land? If you’d come today you would have reached a whole nation Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication….”
Globalization is a double-edged sword: Thanks to globalization we can cut through the barriers of our finitude and transfer the message of peace, hope and everlasting life instantly throughout the globe, but it’s at a cost. The other side of the sword can cut apart individuality, options for self-expression and self-determination – ideas which are vital for the prosperity of any nation.
Let’s talk about the Armenian nation for a moment.
For many, this is an open and shut case – its all part of the same equation. The dreams and aspirations of the Armenian nation are melded into the fabric of the Armenian Church. Let’s first tackle the so called “dual mission” of the Armenian Church. A very simple way of understanding this duality is to look at the invention of the Armenian alphabet. (This year happens to be the 1600th anniversary of this invention.) The alphabet was created for one simple reason – to translate the newly adopted faith of the Armenian people into a language that could be understood. Mesrob Masdotz was commissioned by the church not mere to find a lettering system, but to do so for the purpose of translating Holy Scripture into Armenian. As a result, the Armenian people received their Bible along with a means to document and define their language… As was to be expected, the alphabet was used to translate other writings into Armenian. The history of the people was recorded. Subsequently, Armenia went through its “golden era” where volumes were written – poetry, prose, philosophy, social teaching, as a result of this invention – which was commissioned and brought to fruition because of the Church! In other words, Armenian nationalism and culture flourished thanks to this ecclesiastical invention.
Next, I’d like to also bring into our discussion, the Genocide of 1915 – this debilitating and traumatizing event.
The pride of the Armenian Church is to find roots during apostolic times, or even 1700 years ago with St. Gregory the Illuminator. Armenians have, what we may call “national slogans” – among them perhaps the most famous is “First nation to accept Christianity as a state religion” Sure, the Armenian Church has a history of 2000 years but a life, for all intents and purposes, of only 90 years. In the Turkish plan for annihilation, they went for the jugular vein of the Armenian nation, which was the church. What we have today, what we call the “Armenian Apostolic Church” is built on the ruins of 1915. Add to that the 70 years of communism that invaded the land of Armenians from 1920 to 1990 and you cannot possibly begin to fathom the depth of the hurt and destruction on our church. The first generation of clergy that led the church in post-Genocide times did so with nothing short of a miracle on their side. The likes of Tiran Nersoyan, Torkom Kooshagian, Gevork Chorekjian, Yeghishe Derderian, Shnork Kaloustian, and even in reflection Vazken Baljian, rose to the occasion despite the fact that they did so in and through an infrastructure that was debilitated and even destroyed.
While the Genocide by the Turks and the atheism spewed by the Soviet state were visible and concrete forms of persecution, at least they were perceived as the enemy, but, globalization comes in stealth fashion. It threatens the very essence of the Armenian Church because it threatens the very cause and reason of the Church’s existence, namely the Armenian people and the Armenian nation. This is what we are concerned with today – the people – the nation – this is who is being victimized by globalization and unless we – that is the Armenian Church – know how to harness the energy of globalization, we will find ourselves on the losing side of the battle.
At just about every Armenian Church function, someone inevitably will recite or sing Vahan Tekeyan’s ode to the Armenian Church. Written as a poem, it metaphorically places the Armenian Church in a unique spot in the process of salvation. It talks of the Armenian Church being a secret road to heaven. The poem conjures many romantic images for the reader – images that at one time would spark love and respect for the Armenian Church. Yet the Armenian Church has become like grandmother’s home – a place that you feel comfortable, a place that will offer safe haven, but not necessarily a place you’d want to live. You love her, she loves you, but her home is kind of dusty, has its rules and despite all the pleasantness of the company and good food, it’s just not YOUR life, its not where you’re going to live and define your being.
We know and hear the statistics. As is the case today, the Armenian Church has one of the lowest per-capita church attendance rates of all churches and even national-churches. In a study by Garbis Der Yeghiyan conducted of all Armenian Churches in the Southern California area – including Apostolic (Etchmiadzin and Antelias), Catholic and Protestant – on any given Sunday church attendance is just 1% of the population.
But on the other hand, never has the potential been so great as it is right now. There is a tremendous spiritual void in the lives of people that is being filled with religion of the variety of levels that have been fashioned by globalization. Because the opportunities are there to peer into the traditions of others, we are picking and choosing the best of all worlds – and truly finding options that can elevate the self. While outwardly this sounds healthy, it signals a decay in the collective – that is society. The collective can be compromised, so long as the individual is saved.
Many years ago when I went to Armeniaone thing which struck me as peculiar was the manner in which envelops were addressed. Imagine two brothers writing to each other – one in the US and one in Armenia


ENVELOPES IN USA
John Garabedian
123 Main Street
Hollywood, CA 90027
USA
ENVELOPES IN ARMENIA
CIS
Armenia, Yerevan
456 Abovian Street
Karapetyan, Hovhaness


Whereas we here in the United States and the West are familiar with the name of the individual being on the top of the addressing sequence, the reverse is true in Armenia, where the country and state were on top. It was a subtle difference, in that subtlety  a set of values was being projected. Without running the risk of boasting the virtues of communism, there is something to be said about the sense of community that is being lost at the cost of individuality. Thanks to globalization we have created a society and a world that is self-centered rather than community centered. And so – anything and everything necessary to keep the PERSON ON THE FIRST LINE is permissible.
We are familiar with the term “Cafeteria Catholic” which evolved from the phenomena of Catholics who were comfortable in church skin even if there were holes that were left open. For decades, since the invention and marketing of birth control pills, contraception has been used despite sanctions against it by the Church. Likewise, there are Cafeteria Christian – especially today – ones who can pick and choose according to the comfort level within the framework of the gospel. Hence, someone who is against same-sex marriages and stem cell research can feel comfortable being referred to as a Christian even though they’ve ignored the Matthew 25 imperative to feed the hungry, visit the prisoners and help the indigent.
Definitions are garbled because of globalization. Absolutes are gone and all religions are seen as paths to the same end, no matter how destructive or unproductive they may be. We have heard many times the justification given to various forms of religion, by saying all paths lead to the same place. We all remember President Bush’s statement following the 9/11 disaster, when he equated Allah with the God of the Jews and Christians, without giving any consideration to theology or dogma. And while the idea of a universal creator or divine architect which runs across many countries, continents and nationalities may be politically correct, it personifies a god, rather than discussing the essence of a life force which is common among all human and natural life.
There’s no turning back the trend. For the first time in history, sitting in a chair in the United States, you can chat with members in a variety of traditions, you can contribute to their causes, comment on their teachings and if the spirit moves you, kneel and offer a prayer in any language your keyboard and/or voice recognition software allows you to do so. And if the resources are available, you can meditate in the Himalayas, whirl with the Dervishes, hang with Rastafarians, get a Scientology reading – all while racking up frequent flyer miles that can be spent on gifts celebrating the Birth of Christ in December or January.
In 325, the Church Fathers met in Nicea and formulated a creed which became and continues to be the defining proclamation of a Christian. That is, without making a value statement, the Nicene Creed articulates the basic faith of what is to be called a Christian. Anyone who deviated from the points of the Creed was unable to be considered a Christian. Today, the Creed is still at the center of Church teaching, along with an anathema against all those who might profess otherwise. The lack of enforcement of those anathemas coupled with the tide of globalization has weakened the institution. In a sense, we are ‘augmenting’ –if you will – the creed of the Church with a host of doctrines that feel right and even appropriate. I saw a humorous bumper sticker the other day which expressed this very eloquently: “Your dogma ate my karma!” Think about it… That’s a bi-product of globalization.
So along with Cafeteria Catholics and Cafeteria Christians, we find a new phenomena in the Armenian community is “Cafeteria Spiritualist” and this is spreading rampantly. This offers everyone the best of all worlds. The phrase, “I’m not religious, I just believe in God,” characterizes this movement. Because spirituality is a need and a desire of the human heart and spirit, it needs to be fulfilled with the energy and juice that comes from beyond. A quick peak in Armenian newspapers will testify to this, and readers find no incongruity of a paper which may don the image of the Catholicos on its cover and inside be filled with ads for psychics and paranormal phenomena.
And this incongruity increases exponentially. On something as devastating and destructive as the Armenian Genocide, a vast majority of Armenians today will argue for recognition of the Genocide. We will lobby, write, sing, write and even pray for justice. Meanwhile we see no incongruity in staying silent as the killing in Darfurescalates. Just as Armenians were quiet during Rwanda and Cambodia before that.
The economic and political ramifications of globalization have put the United Statesand its large allies in behind the steering wheel as globalization drives forward. Our need to be justified and accepted by world powers is important for the political wars but they wear away at the psyche of the Armenian people and nation. Yes, the very people our Church is suppose to serve and free from the bonds of dependence on their path to self-determination are now DEPENDENT on others. So where is the process of self-determination for the Armenian nation? Every April 24 we march out on streets demanding recognition and the insult is added to the injury when the responses come back in the negative. Meanwhile, a Church which is based on the concept of justice and equity, which should be striving for the perfect stands dormant as the death continues to mount in other countries – all suffering from the same fate of Armenians.
Our children are seeking answers to the difficulties life is hurling at them, at an enormously accelerated rate. Money, materialism, prosperity have all been equated with happiness according to the trends of globalization. And the church does no service to the youth by only accentuating these patterns of conformity and greed. Sexuality is the nothing new, but the confusion that is being thrown out at them with intolerance and groups that are hiding behind the Bible rather than professing the truth of a loving God. Finally, ethically, all paths do not lead to the same place. This is not meant as a prejudiced or judgmental statement, merely a statement of fact that concepts of good, love, devotion, commitment, truth and justice are truly worthy of our pursuit. This is what I meant by harnessing the energy of globalization.  We have the means to present a message that is in the Armenian Church but is unknown to the world.
Some 10 years ago, while serving the Armenian Church community in San Jose, we shared our church building with a congregation from the Indian Orthodox Church. (The Indian Orthodox Church is in communion with the Armenian Church, and traces its Apostolic roots to St. Thomaswho evangelized in Indian in 52A.D.) With the blessings and permission of our Primate, this congregation would celebrate the Divine Liturgy at our parish’s altar. When their Catholicos came to visit, in a gesture of appreciation they invited me to the celebration. At the gathering, the Catholicos asked me to have a seat next to him. I was surprised, honored and humbled. But what he had to say changed the way I understood our role as members of the Armenian Church.
The Indian Catholicos took off his pontifical ring, handed it to me and asked that I read the inscription inside. To my amazement, I saw Armenian letters spelling the name ‘Vazken I’. Quickly, the pontiff explained to his community (and to me) that this was a gift to him from the venerable Armenian Catholicos Vazken I. “We in the Indian Orthodox Church,” he explained, “have always enjoyed Christianity and a uniquely high status in India. We have been respected by the Maharajas, the royals and elite. We have never known Christianity without joy and celebration. But the Armenian, they have never known Christianity without suffering and hardship. They have struggled and suffered to maintain their faith. We can learn a lot from the Armenians.”
At that moment I felt a very clear mission for the Armenian Church on the world scene. Imagine that, the Armenian Church was unique in its suffering. But that suffering is much more than a reason to attract the pity by others, rather it is our compliance with Divine Teaching, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
A change in metaphor – from victim to victor – can be a pivotal point for us in the Armenian Church.
When His Holiness reached out to the little Latina girl, he did so as a partner in her suffering. He harnessed the energy of globalization.
We no longer need to be victims in the new metaphor. Rather as victors, the Armenian Church has a much larger role in the life of nation – it becomes pertinent and therefore a viable option for the congregant. It takes on a new purpose and stature in the history of the world.
It is interesting to sit through the Armenian Church liturgy, and then through the various hours (jamerkootiun) of worship and count the number of times the phrase, “Khaghaghootiun Amenestzoon” (Peace unto all) is repeated. It is disproportionate to the number of times that it is used by other churches. Isn’t it strange that a people that have only known hardship and suffering, who have been raped and pillaged would dare to offer PEACE to anyone? Could it be that the peace that is being offered is much more than a physical peace, but truly a tranquility that surpasses all words and understanding?
And what do we do when we spread this peace – we replace self-centeredness with community-centeredness. There is an opportunity to share – to become a part of a bigger entity, to serve the goals and aspirations of others. One of the hallmarks of Armenian communal life is the table. In Armenia where the Church is flourishing – there is this idea of “sharing the pain.” The Church is “real” when it is working and living. It does so by having confidence and faith in its own teaching.
The way I became involved with the youth in Glendale was about 6-7 years ago when Linda Maxwell called me. She was running Bliss Unlimited and hiring many Armenian young girls and boys. She asked them about the Armenian cross they wore on their necks and none were able to give an answer as to what it meant. They new it had to do with Jesus. When they were asked if they went to church, they replied, yes. What do you do there? We light candles. Why? And so… Linda called me. It should be mentioned that Linda is a practicing Buddhist, but the necessity for her to align her kids with a faith that was understandable to them was at the core of her actions. Linda had harnessed the energy of globalization. It reflected the confidence in her faith to the point of allowing, even inviting, others into her life.
Likewise, the Armenian Church serves the Armenian Nation when it first and foremost accepts its own calling and acts according. To me, the dual nature of nation and Church is expressed very simply: The Armenian Church is a Christian Church with its highest calling to work the message of love and hope as expressed by Jesus Christ. If it does so, the Armenian Nation will and must be strengthen.
Two years ago, a group of young Armenian men and women got together and came up with a new metaphor to express the direction of their efforts. They settled on a name, calling themselves “In His Shoes.” What is unique about this group is that they wish to express the best of what their past has to offer, but they want to do so in a positive light for their peers and friends. The metaphor is simply to stand in the shoes of those who feel pain. And there is no one else better equipped to do so than the Armenians. The Armenian nations has “been there and done that.” And throughout the persecutions and sufferings, it was the Armenian Church which stood next to them as a safe guard, an inspiration and a bastion of hope.
On April 24 this year, this same group of young Armenians went on a march in the desert. They donned a simple shirt with the mathematical equation 7×77. It was in reference to Jesus’ command to forgive those who hurt you – how many times? Seven times seventy seven! By forgiving, there is no room for denial. The Genocide is not up for discussion. And in accepting, the youth have a chance to take control of their destiny.
I bring this up, because we need to harness and use the energies that are part and parcel of our tradition. Globalization is on everyone’s lips. Globalization is destroying the Armenian nation by giving it the false hope and dreams that destiny is real, that its survival is in the hands of others, that self-determination is only an illusion. The Church cannot be a party to such trickery; rather it is called to witness to the faith and tradition that brought it to this crucial juncture in history. In so doing, the Church becomes the viable and essential institution in the life of the community and the soul of the individual.
Thank you.
© 2005 Fr. Vazken Movsesian
USA
www.inhisshoes.com
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