In this short clip Harry Kurkjian recalls Armenians who were about to be killed crying out in despair, “Where are you God?” “Why are you punishing us?” As the first nation to convert to Christianity in 301 AD, the events of 1915 raised a fundamental theological problem for Armenians. If God is good and all-powerful, why was he not intervening on their behalf? The problem of theodicy, as theologians refer to it, is an issue that surfaces in nearly every genocide, driving some people to completely abandon faith in God. Indeed, the “God is Dead” movement arose after the Holocaust as Jewish theologians struggled with this problem of God’s goodness and the deaths of six million Jews.
Genocide raises profound philosophical questions of meaning and these are echoed in Harry Kurkjian’s memory that Armenians were also asking if God was punishing them for some reason. How else could a Christian reconcile the slaughter of Armenians with belief in God? Nevertheless, in the face of seeming theological contradictions, Kurkjian says that he witnessed a priest offering potential victims the Eucharist (communion) before they were to be killed. While Kurkjian does not explore this issue in his interview, subsequent generations of Armenians have referred to victims of the genocide as “martyrs” since in some instances they had the option of not being deported if they were willing to convert to Islam. Currently, the identity of Armenians continues to be enmeshed with the Church and, especially, the Apostolic or Orthodox wing of Christianity.
Author: Donald E. Miller is Professor of Religion at USC and Director of USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. He is the author with his wife, Lorna Touryan Miller, of two books on Armenian-related topics: Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide (University of California Press, 1993) and Armenia: Portraits of Survival and Hope (University of California Press, 2003). Donald and Lorna are currently writing a book on the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda.