Friday, July 09, 2004

Farewell to Armenia

Well, I've spent about two and a half weeks here, now, and feel that I'm ready to go. I was almost resigned to the fact that the Armenia project would turn out to be somewhat of a failure. Far be it from me to have a defeatest attitude, but after almost two weeks' work, we had well under half of our target sample met. Well, we had an emergency damage-control meeting on Wednesday with the local staff. After getting dressed down pretty well by the local staff for my unreasonably high expectations, we changed our strategy, a little bit. Nigina and I hit the local bazars, and walked around personally to where the clients work. We dropped off our questionnaires, and came back later to collect them. We were able to survey significantly more clients using this method, and then the questionnaires that we handed out on previous days started flowing in. As I sit writing this blog, I have a stack of 302 completed questionnaires sitting on the table in front of me. Things usually work out pretty well, if you honestly give them your best shot. In spite of the mistakes that we initially made, we gave this project our best work, and we were able to be successful. I've now got a full weekend of data entry and analysis to be ready for a presentation, first thing in the morning on Monday. We'll then hop on a bus for Tbilisi at 11am. We'll spend the night in Georgia, and fly out early the next morning to Baku.

I wish that I had some fun stories to tell about Armenia. The truth is, I've spent my time in offices morning to night since I've been here. The office staff hasn't quite endeared itself to me the way the Tajik staff did, but I realize this is partially because things are so busy here that few people really have time for small talk or to get to know the American. I have spent a bit of time talking to a FINCA employee in the individual loan department named Suren. I've been to lunch with him a few times, and travelled to a few outlying regions with him. He's a somewhat reserved and thoughtful guy who I can relate to pretty well (I'm flattering myself to suggest that I might have a degree of reservation or thoughtfulness...).

I was mainly thinking about a conversation that I had with him, the other day, as we sat munching some mystery meat 'hamburgers' in Yerevan's proud adaption of McDonald's called 'Queenburger.' Suren has been a little curious about Mormons and what-not, as I've explained my experience with the Russian language and my associated missionary work. Like all Armenians, Suren is very proud of the ancient history of his culture. For the last 2000 years, this history has been closely associated with the Armenian Apostolic Church. This church has provided a uniting and distinguishing influence on the Armenian nation that most definitely served in preserving the culture from disintegration over the centuries. Like many Armenians, Suren is worried about the invasion of dynamic foreign churches, such as mine, that might have a destructive influence on Armenia.

This got me to thinking about what it is that makes cultures unified, and what provides culture. I have no doubt that the Armenian church has been a focal point for Armenian culture for centuries. I could be influenced by good old-fashioned American libertarianism with this thought, but I have a feeling that Armenians should be proud of their ancient christian faith because they consistently chose to keep it in spite of the pressure of Islam around them. For one reason or another, Armenians believed that it was important for them to remain christian.

Now there is all kinds of proposed legislation in Armenia, as well as other countries in this part of the world to stem the tide of non-traditional proselyting religions. There are two main things about this sort of legislation that bug me:
1) Is a religion that has to rely on state enforcement really in a position to have a positive influence on its members' morality? If a religion believes that they have the mandate of God, should they not believe that this mandate will stand for itself in the market of ideas created by other faiths?
2) Where, exactly, is the principle behind restricting religious worship? Will a government argue that they can suggest that it's dangerous for society for people to believe a certain way? Perhaps they'll suggest that it's dangerous for people to talk about religion. I honestly don't see how someone can provide the moral justification for doing this; sure they can strong-arm citizens into behaving a certain way, or they can restrict the entry of foreign religious proselyters. These are merely bully-tactics, and I don't see the principle that governments apply to back them up.

Anyway, I talked about this with Suren. He agreed that even though there might be no philosophical motivation behind certain laws, need demands that some sacrifices be made to protect Armenian culture from potential marauders. I suppose that's ultimately a suggestion that ends justify means, and I don't think that's ever the case. Some people make the same suggestion with American domestic and foreign policies. I don't agree with them, either, but it's hard to argue that things will just work themselves out alright if you impose a policy with the correct underlying principle, and not worry your little heads about all the various 'what ifs.' It seems to me that such thinking usually creates more problems than anticipated, because policies whose only principle is self-preservation are ironically, often groundless and self-destructive.

Anyway, I have a tendency to get up on a soapbox, but I'm always willing to listen to intelligent arguments suggesting that I'm wrong. I think I'm going to miss Armenia, and I feel a little disappointed that I haven't seen as much of it as I thought I would. I can tell my Armenian friends, now, that I've seen their country, and it is as beautiful as advertised.


Anonymous said...

You know, I've had a lot of thoughts about this kind of thing myself. (Many thoughts, few answers...) This kind of hostility to proselyting goes on all over the world, you know. I've seen other variations of "protecting the local culture" (such as "backward Utah polygamist bumpkins," "rich American church," and "white man's religion") and to tell you the truth a lot of the Brazilians that were active members of the church seemed more, well, American than Brazilian. Thinking about it now, though, I think they were becoming part of the Mormon culture, rather than the American culture.

So are we robbing local cultures when we send in the missionaries? Well, I suppose it depends on what part of the culture we're talking about. American Indians have to give up peyote, Russians have to give up vodka, and Brits have to give up their tea. Elder Scott gave a talk about this in 1998 where he talked about a few other things like that. (I tried to provide a link, but it doesn't quite work right when I post it... Just look for "Removing Barriers to Happiness" on

So maybe the fears behind this Armenian law aren't all that baseless-- we do send our missionaries out to make changes in society. But what they don't realize is that the changes we intend to make don't destroy a culture, they take what's good in it and make it better, to paraphrase Pres. Hinckley. Not a very politically correct thing to say, and to be fair I'd have to say they probably also have some things that could make us better as well.

That is all.


Anonymous said...

Reflecting on what Lars said, in response to Jeremy's interesting cultural observations...I think U.S. LDS must always remember that "U.S. culture" is NOT "LDS culture." Supposedly we should be striving to be good "fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God," not necessarily "good Americans" (according to worldly standards of "good"). Indeed, I think we must exercise care to recognize and minimize the "negatives" of American social and political culture on the culture of the Church or on the world at large...

Yes, in all cultures, LDS must "render to Caesar" within the bounds of virtue, but we should never believe that Americans have a corner on the cultural, political, or any other "truth"... Because of the global outreach, LDS should understand almost better than anyone that all people have many truths that can strengthen faith and improve lives. IMHO, that's the power of the Restoration: embracing all truth, no matter where it comes from.

Lars makes a good point about the commonality of the Saints in Brazil according to the standards of the Church, NOT the U.S. It just goes to show that the great stone cut out of the mountain without hands (Dan. 2:45) will continue to spread throughout the earth, sifting and grinding the "chaff" from our individual and national characters until we become unified under the banner of Christ's banner.

The weight of these issues will continue to increase as attitudes polarize in the world and as the Church continues to sift through the nations of the earth. Indeed, what an incredible day we live in now, as evidencied by the upheavals now underway and even with the opportunity for individuals such as Jeremy who are now able to help "make a difference" in countries that were close to the marketplace of ideas up until a handful of years ago. Though slow to our finite view, times are swiftly a-changin'...


Jeremy Little said...

As a general rule, I try to keep Mormon doctrine out of my postings in order to not alienate the non-LDS contingent of my blog visitors. However, it is important to understand our doctrine on proselyting and our perspectives on how local culture does adapt to this religion in different countries. For a good official evaluation of what we're out to do, please read the article at the following link. I'm not going to apologize for the doctrinal insights on this blog when they do appear, because besides the fact that I believe this stuff, it's important to at least try to begin to understand the theology in order to make sense of my and other comments on the site.