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Should Christians Apologize?

2008 May 8
by Julie Clawson

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.


73 Responses leave one →
  1. May 12, 2008

    I respect Ben and think well of him and his lovely family whom I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with. Their warm hospitality and generosity blessed me deeply.

    To see his name slandered publicly by someone who has never even met him is outrageous and messed up.

    This woman is out of control…

  2. May 12, 2008



    At least I’m not running for office =).

    You’re totally kewl.

    I can ride my bike with no handlebars. no handlebars. no handlebars.

    We killed 20 little children in Iraq last month–you and I. One of them, a two year, was named Ali. He was gorgeous–the way that only two years olds can be. He was an early walker. He could already recite one verse from the Koran. We bombed his house twice about 2 weeks ago (It’ll be two weeks on Tuesday). One of us just flew a plane over and pushed a button and bombed it. And a bit later the other one of us flew over again, during the middle of the rescue opeartions, and pushed a button, and bombed it again. We killed 30 people–including most of Ali’s family.

    I think we should apologize. I’m not a Christian, but I definitely think we should apologize. ‘Cause we acted like assholes.

    What do you think? I think we’re out of control. Have been for a while now. (I’m thinking 5 million dead in Vietnam in the 60’s and 70’s, another at least 1 million dead civilians in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador in the 80’s, and at least a million dead civilians in Iraq in the 00’s).

    Let’s find some way to effectively apologize. In the “I’m sorry” sense.

  3. May 12, 2008

    Oh, Liz … I haven’t been ugly and vicious. I’ve been forthright and called a spade, a spade. But … I haven’t used any scatalogical language. I haven’t demeaned anyone’s character. I’ve simply called out bad attitudes and actions. Sometimes that’s painful for those who are acting badly. I’m very comfortable with who I am and what I’ve said here.

    You might want to google the term “relational aggression,” and pay particular attention to how the aggressor behaves when you’re reading up on that.

    Beyond that … I’m done with this conversation.

  4. May 12, 2008

    thank you sonja. That was helpful. =)

  5. Liz permalink
    May 12, 2008

    so its perfectly Ok to call someone a “nitwit” as long as the shoe is on the right foot. I have to wonder Sonja, if your “ex church” business went down like you claim. I love how people leave churches in a snit because they have authority issues and then cry “abuse” It really is demeaning to people who truly have been abused, such as kids who were molested by priests. I just have this feeling that you are one of these whiners who got into a snit when things didn’t go their way.

  6. Liz permalink
    May 12, 2008

    you know what Sonja…I said something real nice to you, complimented you on your quilts and all and you just call me names. You really are a piece of work.

  7. Liz permalink
    May 12, 2008

    well gee Sonja..I googled “relational aggression” It doesn’t really fit me. However, if you are such an apologizer, I would think you would want to apologize to me for any way in which you might have contributed. Or does that only apply to countries that hate the US that you figure “must” have had a good reason to hate us or they wouldn’t have hit the twin towers. If I were nasty first.
    And I thought you emerging types LIKED bad language. makes for a more “authentic” spiritual experience if you pepper it with the word f***. Or is that only when it suits you. I believe telling me to not let the door hit me in the rear wasn’t terribly Christian, Miss YOU owe me an apology. The mea culpa first must only count if you are an enemy of the US. Not in everyday personal interactions.

  8. Liz permalink
    May 12, 2008

    i want to ask you something Benjamin. This is a serious question. What would you do if some guy broke into your apartment and meant harm to your wife and kids. lets also, hypothetically say, since i am sure you would not own a gun, and usually it is stupid for people to try and “play hero” against a criminal. But lets just say that you study martial arts and have reached a high enough belt rank that you know, in theory, you could totally and completely put this guy out. lets conveniently ignore the fact that martial arts also teach to use no more force than neccessary and assume that for whatever reason, you know that you will have to use enough force to seriously injure or possibly kill this guy. What do you do? Do you let him kill, rape and God knows what all else your wife and daughters? Or do you counterattack and hope for the best? I really want to know the answer to this. I am not going to talk back to you because I think the answer to this is going to settle some stuff for me in my mind. I just really want to know.

  9. May 12, 2008


    Because of your immense unkindness toward me, as well as your ongoing lack of response to my own questions, I’m not going to respond to the horrific and traumatic hypothetical you pose. But here’s a reciprocal hypothetical for you. This is a serious question.

    What would you do if a group of highly placed powerful people in the U.S. government arrested the person you loved most in all the universe, and tortured and mocked him or her over the course of about 12 hours, and then crucified him or her naked on the mall on Washington D.C., and left him or her there to die the torturous death of the victim of crucifixion, and you had the power to stop them, and more than just stop them–you had the power to unexist them?

    What if you could trade some specific amount of your own suffering for the guarantee of an end to all suffering? How much would you be willing to trade? What sort of security would you want on the guarantee?

    I know I wouldn’t be willing to trade very much at all. How do I know this? I know this by taking a wee peek into the amount of suffering I could currently alleviate by making a few simple changes, which I generally fail to make. My history seems to indicate that I’m unwilling to make many changes until I grow to love myself or another enough that my or their pain becomes more horrible than the pain of making the change. Which in a sense makes me very much part of the human race.

    Aslan says “No one is allowed to no what ‘would have happened'”

    And Corrie Ten Boom’s father says “When do I give you the train ticket, Corrie?” to which she replies “Just before we board the train, daddy”. Which in a sense means noone is allowed to know what *will* happen, nor even what they *will* do. We can of course dream about what we would do. I wonder if Corrie occasionally wished she could have crushed with mighty power the evil unkind guards who oversaw her time in Auschwitz? I bet she did. But I bet she didn’t go with that. I bet she was glad when the thought retreated, to come and attack again at a later time. I wonder if some part of her reveled in the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann in 1962? I rather suspect that some part of her did, and that she realized that this part of her was not the best part of her, and fought it. Of course that is all speculation.

    Is there some third way, or must be choose be either the victim or the perp? Some wise person said to me, the last time I asked that question online, that the truth is we are constantly doing both.

  10. liz permalink
    May 12, 2008

    I don’t really get the relevance of this question Benjamin? But I will answer anyway: no question if it was my kids or my husband or my closest friends. Honestly, I don’t know I would do it for a stranger or someone I disliked. But thats the difference between God and I. At least I am honest. I have actually gone through a lot of years of emotional hell for those I love. I don’t really care to share my story, but I have faced it, not physical harm but much emotional pain. The wellbeing of those I loved was more important than my emotional pain. I have been courageous, I have done the right thing. You really don’t know how you would respond until it comes on you. It was all god. my strength came from him. I chose to do the right thing and god gave me strength and did it through me. Thats all I will say. And yes, if it meant killing someone else to protect my child or my husband I certainly would hope I could do it. What then would be the greater evil: watch my loved one die or kill some scumbag? No question there. I can’t say I wouldn’t be a chicken because I am far from the bravest person in the world but at least I hope that is what I would do.

  11. May 13, 2008

    I’m coming to this conversation a little late. I read your post via Thom Stark’s fine little blog. Anyway, I was wondering what is your role in the church? I agree entirely with your overall point. We as Christians ought to be the first to apologize and repent for the sins of our past. It does bother me, however, that you seem to refer to Christianity wholesale as “toxic.” If it wasn’t for the “toxic” faith of the church in history then we wouldn’t have any semblance of what it means to follow Jesus. We literally wouldn’t be able to do it. So, I guess I’m questioning the severity of your criticism against the church. I welcome a response and for you to check out my blog where I’ll be starting a similar thread on race and reconciliation.

  12. May 13, 2008

    If it wasn’t for the “toxic” faith of the church in history then we wouldn’t have any semblance of what it means to follow Jesus. We literally wouldn’t be able to do it.

    Hey Tyler–welcome to the conversation. You ask reasonable questions =)

    I’m wondering if you can elaborate a little on this theme? Would you say that Jesus was “toxic” in the sense in which Julie is using the word? Or the early (book of Acts) church was toxic in that sense? Or are you talking post Constantine? Or are you saying that since the only way we could *receive* Christianity as transmitted through people over 2000 years is through toxic people, since people are in their nature toxic?

    Or am I totally misunderstanding you altogether?

    ‘Cause it seems kind of circular to say “Well, we wouldn’t be humans if we weren’t toxic, therefore we shouldn’t criticize ourselves too harshly for being toxic.” Although there is a certain truth to that. Overzealous self-criticism is hardly any more productive than overzealous other-criticism, I suppose. Progress not perfection–is that what you’re saying?

  13. May 13, 2008

    Tyler–by the way–and I realize this is way off topic–but I see you are reading watership down. Isn’t it just magical? It’s one of my all time favorites =).

  14. tim permalink
    March 15, 2009

    very true

  15. Adam permalink
    October 1, 2010

    I think that even though people have been jerks we are still called to apologize even if we are not the ones to blame for the situation. In the article it says that if it’s not our fault we shouldn’t have to apologize but I think that if you are called to be a christian then you should apologize.

  16. Tracy permalink
    August 9, 2011

    When I read websites or blogs by American Christians sometimes I’m really worried about the infestation of the evil one and his power in the U.S. When you write liberally without reference to and clear informed knowledge of the Bible, you are sometimes helping the enemy to occupy more of the minds of your fellow American neighbors.

    As a Christian, our primary wisdom comes from the Lord. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7) If you claim to be a Christian, you should not criticize a fellow Christian publicly or raise personal opinion about the Christian faith without consulting God first (praying to Him) and using Scripture.

    For, “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.”Ecclesiastes 8:1

    Our sense of righteousness, unless driven completely from the Holy Spirit is ALWAYS false pride.

    “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, James 1:19 For man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”James 1:20

    The problem of America is that we learn about God’s righteousness and read about it. We live a good life and soon we think we have pretty good values, and then we go on proclaim what WE think is right or how society should change and now even what our religion should do….this is foolishness. Not everything we think good pleases God, for “good” is not a freestanding absolute. Rather it only happens when it is willed by God to happen. This means, sometimes even I do something good it can have results because it doesn’t stem from the Lord or my obedience to Him personally. It’s always about my relationship with Him and love. Americans feel very comfortable writing things, making movies of things and singing things that come from a personal perspective. This is potentially why there’s a decline of faith and righteousness and love, because these good things DO NOT grow from good people. They come from GOD ALONE. That’s why this whole discussion is a trap for believers to enter a rivalry debate and end up standing on opposite sides both displeasing God and fail to deliver the truth.

    The Bible says, “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.”Ecclesiastes 8:17

    The important things we must understand and remember is:

    1) Evil and good cannot be defined if detached from God. Apologizing and not apologizing are both meaningless unless either is willed by God. If God says apologize for faults your neighbor has done, then by all means do it. If you don’t do it, you are not doing right. If God doesn’t say it, you should ask in prayer and see how the Holy Spirit leads you. By no means should you write to others and suggest that it is a righteous thing in your opinion without referring to Bible. In fact, the Bible doesn’t say we have to apologize for sins other Christians have done, let alone apologize for Christians.

    We don’t owe anyone anything other than God. He’s the one that we constantly owe things to.

    Christians are a Church, the Body of Christ, a Bride washed clean and fully accepted by the Father, NOT BECAUSE OF WHAT WE HAVE DONE, but WHAT JESUS HAS DONE. He is our head and our righteousness. We do not apologize for God’s Holiness and Righteousness. It takes a lot of self righteousness and internal pride to dare to say we should apologize. At NO TIME and NEVER did the Bible ever say our faith is based on deeds.

    Titus 3:5 He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,

    So it is through CONFESSING TO HIM that our sins are taken. Our work is to return to Him daily and let Him take our sins away and let His love pass through us to others. To the world and to death, and even to the Heavenly Father we have already become clean because Jesus has already given His life which covers all those who believe. It is HIS WILL and HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS that exist. Apart from what He thinks is the right thing to do, there isn’t any right thing to do, if you can understand what I mean.

    The Bible says to confess YOUR sins only to Christians, those already saved and to God. You can even confess the sins that your country has done to GOd (Daniel 9:20 )You should also confess to whoever you have personally wronged. Because nonbelievers have selected a path to be enemies of God. If you serve God, you do not bend to the enemy’s servants. Now, you may still love them and help them, but you certainly don’t apologize to them, of course unless you have personally done something. NEVER does the Bible say confess or apologize for Christianity to non-Christians.

    “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. “James 5:16

    2) If you proclaim that something is a right thing to do, first refer to God’s will, not yours. Because it leads to self righteousness, which start of f good but lead you to the ruins like the Pharisees.

    3) PLEASE check clearly what you are talking about, when you make huge statements like Christianity should apologize to other religions. Do you even know what other religions are? They are false gods and idols that God says He hates!

    Exodus 23:32 Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods.
    Exodus 23:33 Do not let them live in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.”
    2 Corinthians 6:17 “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”
    Deuteronomy 7:5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire.

    Mecca and all of that stuff are idol worship constructions. In the Old Testament God commanded Israelites to demolish the other religion’s idols and have nothing to do with them. In the New Testament God is simply letting His Son Jesus save us out of this world of idolatry and sins. It’s a spiritual salvation as well as physical. That’s why we are both to have nothing to do with them physically and spiritually or mentally. God’s gospel is now spread to gentiles, but it doesn’t mean we are all the same. The point is Jesus is our Lord. And now we are trying appease the world by apologizing for our faith?! You might as well follow them.

    Don’t you understand the original sin wasn’t about doing a wrong action? It was about shifting our attention and submission to God to ourselves, our desires and whoring ourselves to the enemy? It was never about the THING, only about God and Me. If you start to focus on the world and what meets the eye, you will have many ideas, but they will all be wrong in the end. You can go and save all lives, apologize to everyone, do all good deeds. In the end, you are god and you die. The meaning Christianity is not to get along with everyone…it’s to love God, and from here a love which is obedient to God flows to your neighbor. It’s never about a person looking at the world and deciding for themselves what is right to do. That too, is a trap.

    The only we can truly truly love others is not through action or heart, as people always say. It’s through a relationship with God and a close study of His Word and a close following of His Spirit. From there, He will instill in your true love that is not self-righteous, and not of human origin, which always lead to demise.

    “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”Psalm 46:10

  17. Ellen permalink
    April 11, 2014

    I think that when a person commits a wrong, offense or hurt against another person, he/she should apologize. It does not matter what religion any person is, apologizing should be a universal practice. When someone apologizes for soemthing done wrong, it does help the hurt person to heal better, and it is also will help to maintain a trust in any relationship you might have with any person. All too often I have been around some Christians who believe that they don’t ever owe an apology because to them it is enough that God and God alone forgives them. Needless to say, most of these Christians did not care about how other people saw them, as long as got away with what they did. I used to go to a protestant church, but converted to the Catholic Church. I like that in the Catholic church that they believe that you have to repent to be forgiven. It may be interpreted by different religions, but how do we REALLY know that when we die what God will say about our trangressions? It may be that if we really did all we could to make amends to those we have hurt, then we are really forgiven; whereas the person who doesn’t give a crap about how his actions affect others may not be forgiven so quickly, if at all.

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