In the September 2015 issue of Christianity Today Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra writes a column that asks a question I have been asking for years. The column is titled “Sins of Our Fathers,” and subtitled, “Should denominations apologize for acts they didn’t commit?” My position, for as long as I can remember ever considering the question, has always been no. I have usually referred to them as generational apologizes, when one generation apologizes for something a previous generation committed. I can see no point in it, no real substance or merit. In my mind, such apologies are hollow words. Dictionary.com defines apology as, “a written or spoken expression of one’s regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another.” I think that is a solid definition for apology, and that is exactly why a generational apology is, in my mind, worthless. For me to apologize to someone or to some group of people for something that happened to their ancestors before I was even born is as meaningful as Person A apologizing to me for something that was done to me, or said about me, by Person B. It might be a nice sentiment, but it ultimately does no good, costs nothing and therefore means little.
Zylstra’s column is centered around a vote held at this year’s general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Ligon Duncan III, the chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, and Sean Lucas, a church historian, introduced a resolution that would apologize on behalf of the PCA for “involvement in and complicity with racial injustice” during the civil rights era. Duncan said the motion grew out of the relationships and friendships he has developed with African American pastors. According to Zylstra, supporters of the motion said it would be “an essential step toward reconciliation in a time of growing diversity.” The motion was deferred by a vote of 684-46, and it will come up for consideration again next year. But even if it passes, what good will it do?
I respect Ligon Duncan and I have learned from him in the past. He said, “When you become friends with a person who has experienced oppression, and you begin to love that person, you begin to care about the things that have hurt their heart.” I believe those are sincere words, and I agree with them. My position, however, remains the same. Caring about someone, empathizing with them, even wishing that something had not happened to them or expressing sorrow that it did happen are all fine, all understandable and all appropriate. They are also all different from apologizing.
If I become friends with a woman who has been raped, and she entrusts me with that fact, do I apologize to her on behalf of the male race for what happened to her? I would not. And while I do not know for certain, I think she would find it hollow and contrived if I did. I did not perpetrate the attack, so how could I sincerely and meaningfully apologize for it? I do not and cannot speak for the entire male race, so what good would that do? Even if I knew the specific individual responsible for the attack, I could not apologize for him. I do not see these generational apologies by groups or churches as any different.
In this specific case there is a bit of difference since there are still individuals alive who experienced the racial injustice of the civil rights era. This makes it different than other similar motions passed by groups, including the PCA, on slavery, since there are no individuals still living who experienced the forced slavery that ended more than a century ago. However, any motions or apologies should still only come from the individuals or churches who were involved in order to be meaningful. Interestingly, Zylstra reports that some PCA pastors question the need of Duncan’s motion because the PCA did not even exist as a body until nine years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed. This raises a valid point, one that serves only to reinforce my position. Alex Shipman is the leader of the PCA’s African American Presbyterian Fellowship and to this point he argues that while the PCA did not exist, many of its member churches did, and some of them, he said, barred African Americans from joining their churches and did nothing to bring about an end to Jim Crow. Fine. Then those churches should apologize if there is going to be any apologizing done, not an entire body like the PCA, with the vote being made by hundreds of individuals who had nothing to do with the attitudes and actions of those churches and who may not even have been alive at the time.
Apparently some individuals were shocked that Duncan’s motion was delayed by such a resounding vote. “There was a sense of, ‘Why would you want to drag your feet on repenting?'” Duncan stated. Hmmm… I am not a member of the PCA and I was not at their general assembly. But at least one reason someone might want to drag their feet springs immediately to mind: how can I repent of something I did not do? To use a definition again, Dictionary.com defines repent this way: “to feel sorry, self-reproachful, or contrite for past conduct; regret or be conscience-stricken about a past action, attitude, etc.; to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one’s life for the better; be penitent.” I cannot be conscience-stricken over something I did not do; I cannot be disposed to change my life for the better when what I would be changing from is not something I have ever done. When I watch movies or documentaries, or when I read books, that deal with slavery, with the way Native Americans were largely treated by the United States government, of the Holocaust, of the way many African Americans were treated in the American south, I do feel remorse, I do feel anger, I do feel sorrow. I will not, however, apologize for any of it, because I cannot.
Simon Wiesenthal addresses with this dilemma in his book The Sunflower. In it, Wiesenthal, a Jew, recounts being asked by a German soldier who was near death to forgive him for what he had done to the Jews. Wiesenthal’s book is excellent reading, and it includes thoughts on this matter from some of the world’s leading thinkers. Wiesenthal’s own conclusion is that no one has a right to forgive for others. I read Wiesenthal’s book as a high school sophomore, and perhaps his conclusion has influenced my own thinking, I do not know. What I do know is that he and I are in agreement: no one has the right–nor, I would add, the ability–to forgive on behalf of anyone else.
Alex Shipman references biblical examples of the people of Israel confessing the sins of their fathers. Daniel 9 is one example given by PCA pastor Lane Keister. he also acknowledges, though, that Ezekiel 18 provides an example of the opposite, making it “clear that each person is only condemned for his own sin.” I think there is a difference between confession and apology. I see no problem with a person or a group acknowledging that the actions or attitudes of previous generations were wrong. If any church stood by and condoned Jim Crow laws or segregation, that church was wrong. I will acknowledge and confess that in a nanosecond. That wrong is not on me, though; I hold to guilt nor blame for it. Neither can I apologize for it, nor will I. Such apologies, whether from me or any other person or group, are useless, pointless and meaningless.