“The doves will fly again.”
These words, accompanied by a reference to Genesis 8:4, were superimposed on a photo of We Are Our Mountains, a monument made of volcanic rock depicting a tatik (grandmother) and papik (grandfather). This 1967 statue near Stepanakert is easily recognized as the symbol of the Armenian heritage of Artsakh, better known as the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh–a region most Americans probably could not point out on a map. Today it is a bloody battlefield as Azerbaijan and Armenia fight over the land.
The conflict over which country has claim to Karabakh began a century ago, after the fall of the Russian Empire, and resurfaced after the fall of the Soviet Union. The history and politics embroiled in this battle are far more complex than I can explain or even comprehend. However, I understand the pain, grief, and discouragement of my people.
I am a Canadian-born Armenian who lost great-grandfathers in the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians living in Turkey between 1915 and 1923. Historically, Armenia has lost not only a great number of people, but much of the land that once belonged to it. An ancient nation that was once a great empire has been reduced to a fraction of its original territory–which once included Mount Ararat, the resting place of Noah’s ark.
The long caption accompanying the meme I saw on Facebook said that “defenders are holding firm to the land of Noah.” In 2013, I stood a few miles from the Armenia-Turkey border, gazing at Mount Ararat in the distance with tears in my eyes. What a loss to the country that was the first to adopt Christianity as its state religion, and one of the first to translate the Bible.
My family has been doing missions work in Armenia since my father’s first trip there in 2008. We have many loved ones there who have been checking in with us, almost daily, during the current crisis. Most of our friends and family members in Armenia have been living in dire straits for years. COVID-19 made things worse. Not being able to work means no rent money, no groceries, no medicine, no bus tickets. Could things get worse? Yes. Much worse.
One of my father’s cousins already had a son in the army and now her son-in-law, with a newborn at home, just got drafted. We have already heard from a few friends about the deaths of family and church members, as young as 19 years old, who were sent to Karabakh to fight. This is the world we live in–where people in power play political games while civilians lose their lives.
I’ve observed four reactions to this war:
Apathy: Information and entertainment overload, combined with the illusion of importance and busyness, makes me want to remain in my safe bubble, living in denial that other people are suffering. When I pay attention and learn of their plight, I need to do something, which disrupts my comfortable existence. Having connections outside of my safe space keeps me from slipping into apathy.
Despair: Whenever we get a new report from Armenia, my mother’s eyes fill with tears and her posture gives away her worry. Sensitivity toward others should rouse our emotions, but a soft heart should never give way to panic and fear. My mother turns to prayer and asks how she can help, but we’ve seen others break down emotionally or make rash decisions that could endanger lives or result in the mismanagement of resources. Trusting God to intervene and guide keeps fear at bay.
Bitterness: As Christians, we must forgive our enemies. But even among Armenians who know this, there is residual bitterness toward Turks for past and present injustices. I see it all the time in social media posts and comments: anger that goes beyond loyalty to our land and culture. Given our painful history, this is understandable; however, there should be no room in a Christian’s heart for hatred.
Compassion: My friend Emma, who can barely make ends meet in Yerevan, especially when her paychecks are delayed for months, lost her mother a few months ago. She has difficulty walking because of a botched surgery and is visually impaired. Yet Emma is taking in refugees from Artsakh–mothers with small children who have no place to go–or finding other host families for them. Emma has been following Christ for only about seven years and has no church family to disciple or encourage her, yet she serves each person she meets as if he or she were Jesus Himself.
More than a Hashtag
Whenever there are natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or gross injustices, the immediate response around the world seems to be reduced to a hashtag, some variation of either #prayfor[country] or #[group]livesmatter. At first glance, these seem like appropriate responses; however, I wonder how helpful they are, ultimately.
Pray for what? Pray how? Why? Do we see God as a cosmic genie who will grant our wishes on call? Do we expect God to bring about world peace or to free us from problems and pain? Do our prayers make us feel better about ourselves because we’re not as bad as those evil oppressors? (I can’t help but think of the Pharisee who thanked God he wasn’t like the tax collector mumbling a prayer a few feet away from him.) Does the Bible even tell us to pray for peace? What do our prayers say about the state of our hearts?
I’ve been asking myself these questions because I need to know how to pray about this war, which hits so close to home. As an Armenian Christian, do I expect God to protect Armenia because it is a Christian nation? Do I believe Armenians, as individuals, are more innocent than Azeris–more loved by God, more deserving of His protection? Do I pray for God to bring harm to the Azeris and Turks? Do I pray for God to end the fighting? Do I pray that Armenia wins the war? Do I pray for God to protect all the soldiers? Do I pray for God to save all the Armenians in Karabakh? Do I pray for world peace?
These conundrums drive me to John 17, the perfect example of intercessory prayer.
Before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus prayed for himself, for his disciples, and for all believers. His prayer addressed specific needs and his requests were aligned with God’s Word and will, not with his own desires or those of the people and culture around him. He did not pray for the whole world (v. 9) but for his followers, for their unity (vv. 11, 21-23), for their joy (v. 13), for their protection from the evil one (vv. 11, 15), for their sanctification (v. 17), and for their witness (vv. 21, 23). He prayed for Christians to be united–not so that their lives would be comfortable and problem-free, not so that they could resist persecution, not so that they would agree on political and social issues, but for one purpose alone: that the world will know God’s love and that he sent Jesus (John 17:23).
This purpose should be central to every prayer, every action, and every word of every believer. Nothing more and nothing less. Whatever we do must be in the name of Jesus, not in the name of our country, race, religion, or political party. Jesus never asked his followers to pray for or promote world peace. He said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34), and “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division” (Luke 12:51). In Matthew 24:6-7, he told his disciples not to be alarmed by the reality, even the necessity, of war. We may not be called to pray for world peace, but we are called to live peaceably (Hebrews 12:14), to have peace in the Lord (John 16:33; Romans 5:1), and to point others to the Prince of Peace (2 Corinthians 5:20).
I need to first pray that my heart is right with God and that I am ready to love my neighbor and my enemy, no matter the cost to me. I need to pray thoughtfully and sincerely for specific people I know who are affected by this situation. I need to pray for believers in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey to remain faithful and courageous, and for believers in the West to wake up and recognize the spiritual warfare going on every day, right in their own homes and communities.
Wars like this one have been happening for millennia. We can’t stop them. But we can be salt and light to the world around us and respond to such situations with a Christlike manner: with wisdom, compassion, love, and mercy.
Ann-Margret Hovsepian is a freelance writer, author, and illustrator in Montreal, Canada. She serves at Temple Baptist Church and Joseph Hovsepian Ministries.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.
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