Monday, April 26, 2021
It's Monday, April 26, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
President Biden Officially Recognizes the Massacre of the Armenians in 1915-1917 as Genocide: What’s the Historical Background to This Story?
One of the most horrible events of a very horrible century took place between 1915 and 1917. It was the murder, the massacre of what's estimated to have been between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians in what was then the Ottoman Empire, now, generally, the nation of Turkey. But the big controversy of late is over what to call that massacre, and over the weekend, President Joe Biden became the first president in recent years to refer to that massacre as genocide. And this has made international headlines, reverberations all over the world. What exactly does it mean? Why is it important?
Well, first of all, we need to recognize just what happened during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Remember that that empire had spanned centuries and it had spanned much of the globe, especially all the way around much of the Mediterranean Sea. The Ottoman Empire was an Islamic empire. Its capital was what had been the eastern capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople as it was then known, Istanbul as it was under the Ottoman Turks. For centuries, the Ottoman Empire rivaled Christian Europe, Christian, in this sense, as having a Christian national government in most cases, and of course, having a fusion of throne and altar. The majority Christian European civilization had to face a very aggressive Ottoman Empire, and it had to do with matters not only military but clearly, matters theological as well. But the Ottoman Empire was the so-called sick man of Europe by the time you come to the early years of the 20th century.
But then the Ottoman Empire, in an attempt to try to save itself, made one of the most horrible alliance mistakes of the 20th century. It sided with Imperial Germany and with its allies in the war over against the Western nations and perhaps most strategically for the Ottoman Empire, Russia. Russia has been the historic great adversary to the Ottoman Empire. They have rival landmasses. They also have rival theological claims, and Imperial Russia, as we know, was also coming to its end in the Bolshevik Revolution that began in 1917. But during the last years of World War II, Turkey decided that it had to press its advantage or what it hoped was an advantage against Imperial Russia.
It went very, very badly. The Ottoman Empire eventually fell, dismembered at the end of World War I. But during the last few years of the war, strategically, between 1915 and 1917, the Ottomans were concerned that they might have an enemy column within their own population. In this case, it was the Christian population that was mostly identified with the ethnic Armenians, and thus, the Ottoman leaders decided to crush the Christians and send them out of the Ottoman Empire. What they did was to orchestrate a series of what we would now call death marches, sending the Armenians largely into the Syrian Desert and wilderness, and you are looking at a horrific death toll.
But before that took place, there were strategic massacres of young men of Armenian descent, and there was also a strategic attempt to try to remove the Armenian ethnic leadership within the nation. This quickly did become classified and well understood as a theological issue since the Armenians were generally, if not universally, identified as Christians. Most of them, the vast majority identified with what is known as the Armenian Apostolic Church, a church of the Eastern Rite that traces its origins all the way back to the first century, immediately after the Apostolic Age. Then and now, Armenia has been considered very religious. As a matter of fact, looking at one latitudinal study of religion country by country, Armenia ranked in the top two nations in terms of religious identification, belief in God, and religious observance.
The exodus, the forced death marches, and the massacre of Armenians between the years of 1915 and 1917 also led to the fact that there was an enormous pattern of Armenian immigration. Many came to the United States. Others settled elsewhere in the world, primarily in Europe. In the United States where many Armenians settled, there's not only a fairly large population, but they have been pressing on the United States government to officially declare the massacre of 1915 to 1917 a genocide. That's a technical designation. That's the current controversy, and Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire is now outraged that the president of the United States has referred to this massive killing and exodus of Armenians as genocide.
What's going on here? Why all of this about a word? No doubt, there had been crimes that would be now referred to as genocide throughout the centuries of human experience, but the word did not exist until fairly recently. Indeed, it didn't exist in English, nor its cognates and other languages until the end of the Second World War. And by the end of the Second World War, the language of moral outrage referring to this kind of targeted mass killing required some kind of new word to look at the scale of what had taken place in the Shoah, in the Holocaust, and the intentional killing of millions, upwards of 6 or 7 million European Jews in an intentional effort by the Third Reich, by the Nazi leadership to eliminate Jews not only from Europe but also in their global ambitions from the face of the earth. What made genocide different than any other mass murder was that genocide became identified as an intentional effort to try to end an entire ethnicity or a national identity or a religious group.
But where did the word come from? The word at the end of World War II was coined by Raphael Lemkin. In 1944, he wrote a book entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Referring to the crimes already then becoming known, the crimes of the Third Reich, he put together a compound phrase that included “geno” meaning race or people, and then “cide” as in the act of murder. So, genocide, alongside words such as suicide and homicide, refer to a form of death. But genocide refers to something very specific. The United Nations Genocide Convention, which was adopted in 1948, defines genocide technically as "acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group." Those four groups and those four groups alone constitute what is defined as genocide. An effort to try to eliminate in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.
When you're looking at the 1915 to 1917 assault upon the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire, you are looking at ethnic and religious definitions here. So, two of the four in the official designation of genocide by the United Nations Genocide Convention. There have been further definitions. There have been additional treaties having to do with genocide, but the definition is still basically the same. The question is why did it take the United States until 1921 to designate the massacre of the Armenians as genocide? Why is this definition controversial as applied in this case, and was President Biden actually the first American president to refer to the Armenian massacre as a genocide? Many in the mainstream media apparently think so.
A report by two reporters for The Washington Post, John Hudson and Kareem Fahim, in Sunday's edition to the paper indicated, "President Biden recognized the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as a genocide Saturday, a designation that US presidents long avoided for fear of damaging the US-Turkey relationship." The article cited the president as saying, "The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today." The president went on to say, "Let us renew our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world, and let us pursue healing and reconciliation for all the people of the world."
Was this the first of the term genocide as applied to the Armenian massacre that began in 1915? No, President Ronald Reagan during his years in office had also referred to the Armenian massacre as genocide. But it's a long way from President Ronald Reagan whose term began in 1981 to President Joe Biden whose term began in 2021. That's about 40 years. Why in those 40 years did American presidents not refer to this massacre by the Ottoman Empire as the genocide of the Armenians? The answer was it was politically inopportune.
The Importance of Moral Clarity: Why We Must Call Evil by Its Right Name
Now, that gets to a very basic and very important, indeed, unavoidable issue for Christians. One of the things we need to recognize is that in a fallen world with all the moral confusions of our age or frankly, of any age, you're looking at the fact that it becomes very difficult in the world of international relations and international diplomacy to speak the truth. And that becomes very clear when you consider that during The Cold War and far beyond, Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, also an Islamic country by the majority of population, and now in some sense, officially by political declaration, the fact is that Turkey has been a key ally to the United States, absolutely essential, as a matter of fact, at many points during the 20th century and particularly during the Cold War.
More recently, in decades that ended the 20th century and began the 21st, Turkey, a member of NATO, after all, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey had sought to enter the European Union and Turkey had at least some real hope of doing so. It would have been to Turkey's economic advantage. But the rest of Europe considered Turkey just too out of step. And once again, as Christians, we understand that even though it was impolitic to say so, theology really does make a difference. The theological heritage, at least of Europe, is explicitly Christian even if the Europeans now, especially the European elites, are embarrassed to admit that.
But when you're looking at Turkey, you are looking at the fact that it is identified with Islam. It has a very different understanding of justice, a very different understanding of many basic issues. The distinction was simply too much for the European Union. This led to an alienation of Turkey once it was refused the entry into the European Union. Remember, by the way, that Turkey spans both Europe and Asia, as had the Ottoman Empire. But in more recent decades, Turkey has emerged as a country with a resurgent Islamic identity and with the strong man as its president. President Erdoğan has also changed the relationship between the United States and Turkey, and Turkey has been, for example, purchasing missiles from Russia that are incompatible with its role as a NATO ally and treaty obligate.
Once President Biden had made his statement on the 106th anniversary of the onset of the massacre, the foreign minister of Turkey responded, "We entirely reject this statement. We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past. Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice." And then, of course, most of the media are noting that this development comes amid what The Washington Post refers to as worsening relations between the United States and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over Turkey's purchases of Russian military equipment, human rights abuses, and interventions in Syria and Libya.
But, finally, even as we recognize, as Christians must recognize, the moral salience, the moral importance of calling crime, calling evil by its right name, we also recognize that sometimes that becomes not only controversial but difficult. What word, what language is adequate to express evil on this kind of scale? That's what tested virtually all human languages by the end of the Second World War and by the knowledge of the Holocaust, which included not only the intentional effort to eliminate the Jewish people from the face of the earth, that effort undertaken by the Third Reich, but also other forms of ethnic cleansing, other forms of genocide as well. The word became necessary. But perhaps even more hauntingly, we recognize that even as from 1948 onward, there've been international conventions against genocide, genocide in various forms has continued.
If only you could look at genocide rightly defined as horrible acts that took place in the 20th century, and the genocides against the Armenians and against the Jewish people were not even the only genocides of the 20th century. What we are facing here, quite honestly, is the fact that it's one thing for the majority of nations on the earth to come up with a treaty against genocide, calling it by its name, identifying it by definition, and pledging to oppose it and to prevent it, but it's one thing to adopt a treaty, it's another thing to actually stem the tide of evil and even stop genocide before it has happened.
Sadly, in far too many cases, the nations that have tried to uphold a ban on genocide have had to deal with the aftermath of yet another one. Using the right language, we have sometimes controversial, but in the end, understanding that in a fallen world, these kinds of horrible acts are more easily banned by treaty than they are in reality. That's a very sobering fact, and Christians have a doctrinal explanation for that fact.
Manhattan Decides to Look the Other Way on Prostitution: The Revolution in Morality Reaches “Sex Workers”
But next on a different moral scale, but as Christians understand, still very much on a moral scale, recent headlines in the United States raised some fascinating moral questions. For example, the current district attorney in Manhattan has announced that prostitution will no longer be prosecuted there within his jurisdiction. Jonah E. Bromwich of the New York Times reported, "The Manhattan district attorney's office announced last Wednesday that it would no longer prosecute prostitution and unlicensed massage putting the weight of one of the most high-profile law enforcement offices in the United States behind the growing movement to change the criminal justice system's approach to sex work."
Now, notice something very important. We're talking about moral language. Notice that in one lead paragraph here in this article by the New York Times, something was redefined by being renamed. At the beginning of this one paragraph, the issue referred to was prostitution, but by the very end of the same paragraph, it has been renamed as "sex work." That's not incidental, and it's not accidental. It is a strategic effort undertaken to normalize prostitution and other activities identified with sex work. The argument has been made that it is wrong to criminalize consensual acts between adults. But as we have seen, and as we must see, consent is not an adequate sexual morality. Far from it. We are looking, as Christians understand, at what has been often referred to as the world's oldest profession, that is yes, sex work and sex workers, but specifically prostitution, overwhelmingly, female prostitution, but increasingly around the world, male prostitution as well.
But what you are looking at here is one of the most influential jurisdictions in the entire United States, we're talking about the district attorney of Manhattan making the declaration, even as he is preparing to leave office, that would be DA Cyrus Vance Jr. that he is no longer going to prosecute prostitution cases, at least when it comes to consensual activity. The next paragraph in the article says, "The district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr. asked a judge to dismiss 914 open cases involving prostitution and unlicensed massage, along with 5,080 cases in which the charge was loitering for the purposes of prostitution."
The next paragraph just makes it more interesting. Listen. "The law that made the latter charge a crime, which had become known as the walking while trans law was repealed by New York State in February." So, there, you're looking at a subset of the prostitution trade. You're looking at a subset of what's here being defined and redefined as sex work. You're looking at the fact that the Manhattan D.A. says he is not going to bring criminal charges against the women predominantly, but against anyone who is actually found to be involved in prostitution on one side of the equation. He did not say that he was not going to bring criminal charges against those seeking to secure such services. Almost immediately after the D.A. made his announcement, there was a backlash from the left, from those who are trying to normalize and legalize the entire enterprise by saying that if any kind of criminal charges are going to be brought on one side of the equation or the other, it would still lead to the fact that there would be stigma and increased danger in the entire business of prostitution.
Now, here's where Christians have to understand we really are at a major moral development. If you look throughout the history of humanity, prostitution has been there somewhere in the shadows. It has been there if unmentioned and it has been wherever you find a market for it, but you have governments that have criminalized it simply because of the understanding of the morality at stake. And you have also had the fact that some governments have looked the other way, sometimes for a long period of time, sometimes during the conditions of something like war and the quartering of soldiers. But the reality is this is new. What we are now facing is the effort to redefine, by euphemism, by changing the name again to sex workers, and the argument made by many of the advocates for the sex workers, as they're called, is the fact that it stigmatizes them and denies their dignity, and even what some are now calling the dignity of their work by calling them prostitutes or by criminalizing their behavior.
Interestingly, one of the persons criticizing the D.A. for not going far enough is someone who is trying to succeed him in office by election. That would be Eliza Orlins. She is running for the office from the left, let's make very clear, that's becoming increasingly common in liberal areas of the country. She has former experience as a defense attorney, which she says, as we saw in cases that were also on the west coast, which she says gives her a progressive edge on others who have generally served as prosecutors. But remember, the D.A. is essentially a prosecutor, indeed, the top prosecutor in the jurisdiction. But she on her own website makes some amazing statements. "Sex work is work. Criminalizing sex work stigmatizes and disproportionately targets people of color and trans women who are already marginalized members of our community. It traps sex workers in poverty and makes them afraid to come forward to report abuse or other violent acts perpetrated against them."
Now, the latter part of that sentence makes some moral sense. There are, of course, vulnerabilities, but it's arguable whether or not legalizing prostitution, or sex work as it's defined here, would actually alleviate that problem. Arguably, it can make it worse. But it's really interesting to notice that here we have the ideology of intersectionality at play. And it's explicit in that paragraph where we are told that it's not just sex work. It's what's alleged here as a systemic injustice of criminalizing sex work in such a way that "stigmatizes and disproportionately targets people of color and trans women." See how the transgender issue worked its way both into the New York Times article and into this statement by a candidate to succeed the D.A.?
You also see the modern ideology very clearly in a sentence in which this candidate writes, "Decriminalizing is the most effective way to protect sex workers from police violence." That term, police violence, is not defined, but there are implications here. And you're looking at the fact that you have the claim that "treating sex work as a crime has been a long-running failure."
Well, as Christians looking at this, we need to recognize that laws against prostitution, making prostitution a criminal offense was done throughout human history on the basis of several moral claims, number one, that a well-ordered society cannot allow a disorder when it comes to sexuality and that it is inherently immoral to allow any form of sex trade. You also have the moral claim that it is injurious to the dignity of women or anyone else involved in this crime to be involved in the selling of sex. It reduces people to sex objects. But one of the most interesting things you see, for instance, in the arguments made by many of the advocates here, but also by this candidate, is that when you are looking at the sex work trade, it should be considered just like any other work, just like any other business. That flies in the face of the historic moral judgment that has been made not only on the basis of Christianity but basically in one way or another, mostly common to all human civilizations, at least over time.
This is a very recent development. This is another part of the revolution in morality that we are facing. Now, it has reached prostitution. Now, we have seen the fact that we have understood several American states in recent years to eliminate what they called morals legislation. Most particularly, they decriminalized adultery. They had moved so far in terms of moral change that it didn't make any sense to make adultery a crime. Furthermore, it was alleged that criminalizing adultery was a religious statement more than an understanding of modern wall. Of course, you're going to see the very same thing. That's what we are looking at here in the calls to normalize and decriminalize so-called sex work.
One last dimension of all of this is the fact that there is an inextricable link between sex trafficking, you could even say the larger crime of human trafficking, and sex work. The argument here is that by normalizing sex work, you will make sex trafficking less likely. Again, I think the argument can clearly be made that exactly the opposite is what is likely to happen because using the word consensual, as we've often said, is just not an adequate morality. What we are more likely to see, sadly enough, would be an explosion of sex trafficking that will go far beyond even those who are of legal age, making it even more likely that two things will happen, that more people will be involved, more people than ever before in so-called sex work, and that you will see the definition of the decriminalized sex work and sex workers expand even further.
What we're seeing here is yet another form of moral insanity. It's becoming fairly routine. Christians must celebrate when any ray of moral clarity shines through, but we have to understand just how difficult that has become in our very confused and corrupted age.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.