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Justice in the Black Garden: a Personal Reflection on the Nagorno-Karabakh War

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

by Brian Gilson

"And will God not bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?" Luke 18:7

"This war is unjust" he said. The man I was speaking to was an American missionary to Armenia. Some earlier interactions had given me the impression that he was simply an Armenian apologist, angrily disseminating Armenian propaganda. After a long conversation, I realized this was an incomplete and inaccurate picture. I came to know him to be a genuine man of God with a real heart and a burden for those the Lord had given him to shepherd. He went on to tell me of the injustice of the repeated attacks on civilian populations in Artsakh (The Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh). He spoke of orphaned children, and of families driven from their homes. He nearly wept as he described a people who simply wanted to live their lives, a pursuit destroyed by the Azerbaijani advance. He continued to tell me of the terror associated with the Israeli drones that the Azerbaijanis were using with deadly effect. As I listened to him, I realized this was truly a man of God crying out for justice.

"Nagorno-Karabakh" meaning "mountainous black garden"

This idea of justice is something that has increasingly been a part of the public discourse in recent years. Most recently this has appeared through the discussion of racial justice associated with George Floyd, the BLM movement, and police reform that has been a defining feature of 2020. Even before that, conversations about social justice broadly have been an increasing feature of public discourse for many years. It can be tempting to think of justice in terms of these most recent contemporary issues, but the reality is that the cry for justice has been a consistent and recurring theme throughout the scope of the human experience. We want justice. We see the strong oppress the weak, we see the despair of the destitute, the anguish of the oppressed, and we cry out for relief from the bitterness of an unjust world.

Indeed, the Psalmist anticipates our cry:

"O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongs—

O God, to whom vengeance belongs, shine forth!

Rise up, O Judge of the earth;

Render punishment to the proud.

Lord, how long will the wicked,

How long will the wicked triumph?

They utter speech, and speak insolent things;

All the workers of iniquity boast in themselves.

They break in pieces Your people, O Lord,

And afflict Your heritage.

They slay the widow and the stranger,

And murder the fatherless."

Psalm 94:1-6

This is the cry of generations: "How long will the wicked triumph?" Our hearts cry out for justice. The very condition the psalmist describes is what we detest, the oppression of the weak. We see during the earthly ministry of Jesus that He dealt rather harshly with the religious establishment that was oppressing the weakest members of the society that they were there to serve. For example, He said:

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone."

Luke 11:42

The problem is, that while we are able to recognize injustice in our world, we also have a very limited understanding of what justice truly is. We humans are limited beings, limited in our understanding, and limited in our wisdom. While we cry out for justice, those things that we propose to remedy injustice often have inherent injustices of their own. Lets not forget that some of the greatest oppressions began as efforts to remedy injustice (Communism springs to mind). True justice is beyond us. It is God alone who is just.

This brings us back to the discussion of Karabakh. While my friend (rightly) bemoans the very real injustice associated with the innocent victims of this war, he seems to overlook the injustice of those previously displaced. I genuinely weep with my new friend for the loss of life and livelihood of so many Armenians, including those who served in his own church. I also recognize the horrible experience of those Azerbaijanis who were driven from their homes by the Armenian army 30 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis (some estimates as high as 1 million) whose homeland is in Karabakh were driven out of their homes and have lived as refugees (or internally displaced persons) for the past three decades.

This, too, is unjust.

They were driven out by an Armenian army that raped, murdered, and pillaged. The Khojali massacre is not something that happened generations previously, but rather, it happened to those who still remember it. The people who committed the atrocities are still living in the homes of those who were murdered, sleeping in the bedrooms of those who were raped. This, too, is unjust. They remember that "Black January" in 1990, when much of Baku gathered to protest the situation in Karabakh (among other things) and the pro-Armenian Soviet government opened fire on the crowd, killing several dozen and wounding hundreds. They remember the Russian soldiers, contractually obligated to defend Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, who instead fought as mercenaries with the Armenians. These are nightmares ingrained into the Azerbaijani collective memory.

To be fair, these events weren't entirely one-sided. Anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku and Sumqayit killed dozens. Neither side is innocent. Neither side is "just." I agree with my new friend: This war is unjust, just as it has been since it began over thirty years ago. I weep with my new friend over those killed or driven from their homes. At the same time, I rejoice with my Azerbaijani friends who are experiencing an answer to their prayers and who are experiencing their injustice finally being made right. Its about time.

To be clear, this is a confusing emotional quandary. Perhaps this brief reflection is my attempt to make sense of it. To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure its working but, then again, I'm not sure it has to. I have come to the conclusion that it is ok to be confused: I will rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep...even if it is at the same time.

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