The Case for Conditional Forgiveness

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March, 2007

Bishop’s Homily Inappropriate at Dink Memorial:

The Case for Conditional Forgiveness

By Lucine Kasbarian

Published in the Armenian Weekly; republished in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator with permission.

On Sunday, March 4, I attended a memorial service for slain journalist Hrant Dink. On this solemn occasion, it was a comfort to gather with fellow Armenians to remember and honor a man who paid with his life for daring to speak the truth, and at the same time to sing time-honored sharagans — that were preserved at the expense of our martyrs — as a way to pay our respects. The vastness of St. Vartan Cathedral in New York City, the sea of silent mourners, the pageantry of the ceremonies, and the exquisite renditions sang by the Cathedral choir moved me to tears. I was deeply gratified to attend a program organized by both Etchmiadznagan and Giligian Sees, and to witness both Primate and Prelate preside over a jointly held event. During the Badarak, Surpazan Khajag Barsamian delivered a beautiful sermon, describing Hrant’s life, work, hopes and dreams. The Hokehankisd was equally moving. The congregants joined the choir for a final, tender, melancholy Hayr Mer.

And then, pun intended, it all went to hell. The guest preacher for the church memorial service, a Reverend Canon Francis V. Tiso of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke on a highly appropriate topic: Forgiveness.

Best as I can recall his words, Bishop Tiso asked, “How can [Armenians]— a deeply Christian and victimized people with a past and present yet to be resolved — forgive Dink’s assassin? How can we reconcile ourselves with the idea of forgiving transgressors...when the church requires unconditional forgiveness...even when the offenders do not ask forgiveness?”

At first, I was pleased to hear Bishop Tiso’s premise, and that he had chosen to address this topic. I had hoped this day would come, and had even asked Armenian clergy to discuss forgiveness in their sermons in the weeks following the Dink assassination. In my opinion, broaching the subject of forgiveness is one of the greatest conflicts we face as Christian Armenians who have endured genocide and dispersion.

What I did not expect was for Bishop Tiso (who proclaimed himself relatively uninformed about the Armenian condition), to speak of forgiveness following a crime, but without discussing the nuances of forgiveness, nor the nature of the crime. Does Christian doctrine require that we think in absolutes? How do we consider forgiveness when the perpetrator denies the crime? How do we consider forgiveness when the perpetrator continues to enjoy the fruits of his crime — in this case, our own lands and culture? How do we consider forgiveness when we struggle with the devastating after-effects foisted upon a destroyed civilization? How do we consider forgiveness when our ancestors’ tormented spirits visit us in our dreams? What does it mean for the victims when crimes go unpunished...at least in this corporeal life?

Are we to understand that Bishop Tiso, in the discharge of his religious duties, grants absolution to sinners without their having to confess their sins? Are these presumably Christian virtues Bishop Tiso is preaching, and is he giving the Turks a pass because they are not Christians? Am I expecting too much from church leaders?

What seemed to bother me was the extent to which the Bishop enthusiastically undertook his task. He preached not only about Christian forgiveness, and how the victims must forgive their victimizers — even if the victimizers do not ask forgiveness, nor repent, nor atone. He took it a step further: He said the victims should ask their victimizers for forgiveness for the victim’s own sins! He used the example of the Irish Republican Army, who sought to redress unpunished crimes perpetrated by English conquerors-colonizers, and in the process, killed innocents. Tiso said to us, “Forgive that which you see in yourself.” Was he trying to tell us that it was the Armenians who carried out genocide against the Turks? Was he referring to acts of retribution? I did much soul searching, and concluded that an Ogun Samast does not equal a Soghomon Tehlirian—who was carrying out a court-ordered death sentence of a genocide mastermind who fled to avoid execution.

Make no mistake. Forgiveness is a topic long overdue for discussion. But were the words delivered by Bishop Tiso the very words that urgently needed to be said? How do we reconcile the tenets of Christian forgiveness with conditional forgiveness in the realms of human rights? This was a lost opportunity to distinguish between the two. True, Christ preached forgiveness. But did he turn the other cheek on every occasion? No! Christ also challenged hypocrisy with direct action...such as when he drove the money changers from the temple, and accused them of turning his house of prayer into a den of thieves. Let us not forget that in the gospel according to Matthew, Christ said “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” Was Christ granting these transgressors forgiveness for their sins? Depending upon interpretation and circumstances, a wise Christian will know when and where to apply forgiveness.

What also bothered me was that Bishop Tiso did not give the impression that he considered the Dink assassination a truly heinous act. In fact, his overall tone seemed to downplay the distinctive nature of the Armenian Genocide and emphasize that mass killings are a fact of life; that genocides and related tragedies happen all the time, and to all cultures, and creeds. “Do not the Muslim Turks resent Christians for the Crusades,” he asked? He named several ethnic groups, including Tibetans and Iraqis, who have suffered great loss. I noticed that Bishop Tiso did not mention the victims of the Holocaust nor how Israeli agents abducted Nazi Adolf Eichmann in South America and brought him to Israel for trial and execution. Nor did Tiso mention the activities of extremist groups who used the Holocaust as a springboard for terrorist acts designed allegedly to justify future security of the Jewish nation. Bishop Tiso did not touch on how the Holocaust is said to be so unique that its devastating effect on an ethno-religious minority cannot be diminished. He did not discuss whether or not the Jews forgave the Nazis prior to the Nuremburg trials. Is the Jewish case different because Bishop Tiso feels the Jews are not bound by Christian doctrine?

Much good could have come from Bishop Tiso’s presentation. In fact, it has given me added impetus to propose that the Armenians, along with the Pontic Greeks and Assyrians, adopt a doctrine of “conditional forgiveness” towards Turkey for “conditional genocide acknowledgment”—a doctrine to be taught in our Etchmiadznagan and Giligian churches, our community organizations, and at home — if we are not doing so already. Otherwise, what is to stop transgressors from committing such sins again? Indeed, is not Turkey perpetuating the Genocide by denying it to this day?

I will not speak for the entire congregation, but I can say that Bishop Tiso’s sermon did not comfort me, nor those sitting in my pew. The couple beside me agreed that Bishop Tiso’s remarks about unconditional forgiveness were unacceptable. A congregant in front of me uttered, “Where do such words hold water other than from a pulpit?” I am told that people walked out during Bishop Tiso’s remarks. After the program, an Armenian educator asked rhetorically of me, “Are we to peer inside the windows of our own confiscated homes as outsiders, at those who raped, stole, pillaged, and now own these very homes and our country and enjoy our air and our hearths, and ask THEIR forgiveness?” A friend in attendance later remarked that she liked Bishop Tiso’s homily, but noticed how “everyone else present did not.” She said she “saw much anger amongst our people...which means that Hrant’s message was lost on many.” Was not Hrant’s death proof enough that his dream of brotherly love contained fatal flaws? How can we accept the concept that we are expected to love those who hate us, even when those haters violently act upon that hate?

If Bishop Tiso meant to grant me solace, he did not. If he meant to help me resolve and reconcile, he did not. If he meant to help me find closure, and to honor Hrant’s mission, he did not. Why did Bishop Tiso preach as he did? Who directed him to do so? Did our clergy know what Bishop Tiso would say, and were they in a position to review his remarks beforehand?

When it was all over, I berated myself for not hissing the Bishop during his sermon. But Armenians are bred to be polite, perhaps too polite. Having found Bishop Tiso’s remarks unbearable, I left the premises. In doing so, however, I was deprived of hearing what I was told later were highly inspirational remarks delivered by Surpazan Oshagan Choloyan at a brilliantly produced Program of Remembrance, and which followed the church memorial.

In the final analysis, why are we Armenians being castigated for our words, while the Turks are being exonerated for their deeds? If my words here have offended readers, or the memory of Hrant Dink, perhaps Bishop Tiso will approve of your forgiving me, even if I do not confess to wrongdoing, nor regret what I have said.