Should Christians Apologize?
Over at the Justice and Compassion blog Pam Hogeweide posted her thoughts on the Seeds of Compassion event. While I continue to be amazed at the resistance in the Christian community to even talking about compassion with others, I was intrigued by a sub-conversation that arose in the comments to that post. One commenter in particular expressed her opposition to the idea that Christians should be apologizing for evil done in our collective past. The reasons for her opposition are summed up as follows –
1. People of other religions are jerks too. Why should Christians apologize if others are not expected to as well. She wondered why “Christians [are] the only ones groveling around and begging forgiveness for the disrespectful behavior of only some of the members of their religion?”
2. Christians really haven’t done all that much that is bad. Or at least all the good we have done outweighs the bad.
3. People shouldn’t have to apologize for stuff they were not personally involved in. She wrote, “if YOU have not partaken in toxic Christianity, then I am not sure you need to apologize for something you didn’t do. It is not YOUR fault that others calling themselves Christians have acted like jerks.” For her, “an apology implies some personal culpability.” As an example she wrote, “As a white person, it is not my fault that black people were treated unfairly a century ago. I would take that further even and say that as a white person growing up in the SOUTH, it is not my personal fault. I do not owe black people an apology. (actually, the government is still trying to weasel it out of me via affirmative action: I said I am sorry with the fact that my law school admission doesn’t count as much as if I was certain minorities, whether I wanted to or not).”
Of course others on the thread attempted to engage with her often to no avail, but her perspective haunted me. While she didn’t cross into MD territory and say that we need to be jerks for Jesus, the utter lack of ability to expression compassion for the other surprised me. Her first objection, revealed more of a sense of entitlement than love. Sure I can admit that other religions have done evil as well, but I will not refuse responsibility for my own religion until I feel like other people have taken responsibility for theirs. If I always waited for others to seek forgiveness before I forgave, would I really be extending forgiveness or just gloating in their groveling? I though similarly about her second objection. I don’t think evil is graded on a sliding scale. No amount of good negates the need to take responsibility and apologize for wrong actions. The call for an apology (or the act thereof) is not intended to silence or ignore good done. I’m not a fan of “yes, but” apologies (from my toddler or from adults). Trying to evade responsibility and escape needed amends by attempting to paint oneself in a better light cheapens the apology. There is a time and place for lauding accomplishments, just not as a means of avoiding an apology.
But it is the third excuse that really bothered me. Even if it is true that someone is entirely innocent of wrongdoing, the group they have chosen to associate with is not – and that is how those who have been hurt by that group (or just outsiders in general) will view that individual. Either that individual can act arrogantly and deny responsibility or they can accept what full membership in that group entails – both the good and the bad. Christianity’s main themes are those of mercy and forgiveness. We are willing to accept the “unfairness” or original sin, but are too prideful to accept the unfair baggage our religion carries. It just doesn’t make sense, especially not to the outside world curious about who we are.
That said, I find it hard to believe that any individual Christian can ever truthfully claim to not have partaken in wrongdoing or toxic Christianity. (just like no white person can ever truthfully claim to not have participated in racial injustice in some form or another). Beyond the fact that just the act of denying responsibility for Christianity’s evils appears as self-centered toxic Christianity to many, most Christians today are living the benefits of Christendom – benefits that came at the expense of others. American Christians are living with the wealth and resources of “Christian” operations like Manifest Destiny and attempts to “Christianize and civilize” other nations (mostly as an excuse to rape their land of it’s resources). The denominations and doctrines we bicker about exist because they were the ones willing to slaughter and torture dissenting viewpoints. Ministries and churches are built (and get rich) on messages of hatred – give money to help Israel kill those Palestinians, or to make sure our students don’t know gay people exist, or to support the IRA, or even fund corrupt dictators and conflict diamond schemes in Africa. It’s hard to be an American Christian and not be connected to some group involved in such things. So even if you have never Bible-bashed, manipulated someone to say a prayer, or burned someone at the stake most Christians are receiving the benefits of toxic Christianity. There is no out of sight out of mind excuse than can work. The connection to wrongdoing is there and if we have compassion at all for those we have hurt, we will take responsibility to apologize if not make amends.
In a way this is about getting over “me-centered” Christianity. One’s faith isn’t just an individual thing, disconnected from history or the rest of the world. We are part of a community of believers and (like it or not) we need to be willing to fully be a part of that community. Recognizing the faults present there is a necessary first step to helping make things better and to understanding why others view us the way they do. Sure it can be uncomfortable when someone lays the blame of say the Crusades or hurtful statements by Dobson, Robertson, or Driscoll fully on you. But it seems more in line with the way of Christ to admit such things are wrong and apologize for them instead of getting angry and attempting to defend yourself or them. Of course, I haven’t always done a good job at this, but it is a habit I am attempting to develop. I’ve discovered that choosing to identify with a community can be a struggle, but it also is vital to growing a deeper and more holistic faith that focuses on loving God and others and not just myself.