A Week of Remembrance: September 11th, The Gospel and the Greek/Armenian Genocide of 1915-22

This week is week of remembrance.  It is a very sobering week for several reasons.   Within the space of a few days we observe the anniversaries of September 11 and September 14th.

September 11 you know.   It is now a national day of remembrance.  Who can forget the horrific attacks as Islamic terrorists assaulted the United States and the West by taking down the twin towers of the World Trade Center?   It is a day that changed our world.  It was the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, with 2,996 Americans dying in a single day.  Each year when we see the images, we are sobered by the extent of the attack.

But what about September 14th? That is Greek Genocide Remembrance Day.  It commemorates the climax of the Ottoman Turkish assault on the Christian populations of Asia Minor, with the burning of Smyrna.  The genocide was part of a larger Islamic-inspired attack on all the Greek and Armenian Christian peoples of Turkey between 1915-1922. This was the first genocide to begin the 20th century.

On September 14, 1922, Greeks were either annihilated or driven out of Smyrna.  The event is sometimes referred to as the Smyrna holocaust.   Smyrna, you’ll remember, was the site of one of the seven churches in Revelation.  It was the scene of the martyrdom of Polycarp, the early church father and disciple of John.

Why do I care about that day?  Because my wife’s Greek grandmother, at age 12, came to America from Smyrna.  She was a refugee on the last boat out.  Other family and friends were executed.   In the end, about a million Greeks died from the violence.   First, they suffered from economic boycotts, then looting, arson, rape, death marches and massacre.  Some of the women and children who moved toward the harbor were doused with gasoline and lit on fire.  Others were driven into the sea—that was Mary Vance’s story.  Christians who had taken refuge in churches were burned to death as the buildings were locked and set on fire.  Churches that remained had their crosses taken down and crescents put up in their place.

All of this was part of a move to exterminate Christianity from the lands of the old Byzantine empire, to “liberate” Asia Minor from Christian influence and put it into the hands of Islam.

In his book The Lost History of Christianity:  The Thousand-year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and How it Died. (HarperOne,         2008) Philip Jenkins reminds us that much of what we call the Islamic world was once Christian.    He says,  “we have forgotten a world” and tend to assume that the world we grew up in has always been in existence.  Not so, he says.  And he tells the story of the spread of Christianity in the Eastern world.

But Jenkins also chronicles how most  of the ancient Christian communities in the world were all but annihilated.  Sometimes it took place rapidly.  Often it took place slowly by the soft coercion of dhimitude.  There was a “gradual racheting” that progressively moved toward elimination so that in the end, Christianity in that part of the world ceased to exist as organized communities.

He then chronicles the story of the Christian roll back from Persia to Asia Minor to  Constantinople (now Istanbul), to  Armenia, Western Turkey,  and Smyrna.

Things came to a climax with the atrocities of 1915-25.   The Armenian horrors of 1915—only the most glaring of a series of atrocities (1915 was known as “the year of the sword”) where half the Armenian Christian population in the region was killed.             Others were displaced.

Of course, things did not stop after 1925.  They progressed  in the 1930s.   They continue in our own day with the anti-Christian purges of Iran and Iraq.

Christians in Syria and Egypt today remember these events, and wonder about their own future!  For these Christians, the so called “Arab Spring” is more like a Christian winter.

So what does the gospel have to do with all this?  And how does the gospel shape us as we remember?

Well, the gospel does not cause us to forget.  We can no more forget the holocaust of Smyrna in our family any more than we can forget the Fall of Genesis 3 in our gospel preaching.   We can’t forget this tragic history of what Francis Schaeffer called “man’s inhumanity to man.”  We can’t forget the evil of systematic violence.   It is an historic reality—though some still try to deny it.  In remembering, we hope to be wise so that it will not happen again.

Nor does the gospel make us less wary of the nature of political Islam today.  In many parts of the world today, Islam is aggressively moving forward by political violence—we see this all over central Africa, in Iraq, and now in Egypt.  The suffering and persecution of Christian believers in the Muslim world is one of the vast underreported stories of our time.

However, in remembering these things, we remember through the lens of the gospel.  And here is what viewing these things with gospel eyes does in our family.
1          It removes the bitterness and hatred that has been there in the past.   It is easy to be bitter when you have suffered from injustice.  But in our family the gospel has transformed this bitterness.  The pain has been healed. The gospel of the cross of Jesus has brought deep comfort.  We realize that our own sin and the sin of oppressors equally condemns us before a holy God.   And we equally find the grace of forgiveness in the cross of Christ—who died for Greeks and Turks, Muslims and Christians.

2          It transforms our attitude towards Muslim peoples and Turks.  We know that not all Muslims embrace this kind of violence, that many are peace loving people. And because of Jesus’ love for us, we are called in his name and by his strength to love our neighbors whomever they might be.   My wife’s family has extended Christian hospitality to many Muslims in their home!

3          It gives us a heightened sensitivity to other people groups who suffer.  Whether it be the genocides against Jews or Cambodians, Congolese, Sudanese, or Nigerians, in a small way we know something of the horror, and the darkness of dark.

4          It prompts us to speak up for peoples whom the world tries to exterminate.  Religious freedom and justice are important matters when you have experienced their absence.

5          It causes us to wait in hope for the return of Christ—the one who right now is reconciling the world to himself, who is calling people to himself from every people group on the earth.   We, like creation, await the day of redemption.  The gospel has done all this in our hearts and more!

Let me close by relating a recent conversation I had with a Turkish taxi driver in Grand Rapids.  He  was a sudent spending a few years over here, making some money.  He was a nice kid.  The conversation went like this.  I asked him where he was from.  He said he was from Turkey, with some pride.  “Really,” I replied.  “My wife’s grandmother was raised in Turkey.”  Well, this practically made him my best friend.  Until, I added, that, “yes, her family was slaughtered  by the Turks in Smyrna and driven out as a refugee.”

That killed the conversation real fast.  There was an uncomfortable silence.  He knew his history and, I could tell, he wondered where the conversation would go next.  I broke the ice “Don’t worry,” I said, “God took care of her.  Jesus Christ brought comfort and hope back into our lives.  And the love of Christ changed our hearts.  We have forgiven those who did this.  We love  the Turkish people.”

And we do.   But it is not a naïve love. It is an informed love  that has been transformed by the love of Christ. These are the thoughts that will shape our week of remembrance.