Rob Warner explores whether we should apologise for the mistakes and sins of Christians in the past. Is saying sorry for the Crusades sentimental or deeply symbolic? Is apology a trigger for revival?

When the Pope decided to mark the year 2000 by apologising for past sins of the church, the world’s press sat up and took notice - at least for a couple of days. It’s not just a Roman Catholic thing: Lynn Green of YWAM has been leading a team on a journey of apology to Muslims for the Crusades and a group of British Christian leaders recently visited Dresden to apologize to Germans for the fire bombing of their city. Apologising for the past has become almost fashionable: Tony Blair apologised for British treatment of the Irish in the era of potato famine, and world war 2 veterans have attempted to secure an apology from the Japanese for their inhuman treatment of prisoners of war.

The Pope inevitably faced criticism for his public confession. Some felt he had not gone far enough, and wanted specific apologies for particular failures and abuses in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand, some Catholic advisers were reportedly hesitant about any kind of public apology for the sins of past centuries. They expressed concern that such apologies could put the church in a bad light at a time when Western popular media blame the church for many kinds of social tension, division and prejudice. These advisers preferred a spin doctor approach, only accentuating the positive. But once we accept that an apology is needed, it ought to be given without delay.

When I was a young teenager, most of the jokes we told were about four kinds of people: Jews, Black people, the disabled and women. The social conditioning was powerful and clear: if you are white, able bodied and male, it’s OK to look down on other kinds of people. These attitudes become deeply engrained, and sometimes it’s only a public apology that can begin to eliminate this poison from our system. Deep down there’s a part of me that is at home in instinctive prejudice, and I need to keep on evicting it from my inner life.

Apologising for the past is by no means a straightforward cure-all.

There is a danger of historical distortion.

Looked at from today’s perspective some actions may seem indefensible which were considered entirely appropriate in a different historical setting. A vital distinction must be made between a limited number of universal moral absolutes and the secondary ethical preferences of any particular moment in time. We should not presume to condemn past generations according to the prevailing value judgments of today. That would be a kind of cultural imperialism, producing false feelings of superiority and complacency: “They got it so wrong, poor benighted fools, but now we have come of age, achieving a moral superiority over all preceding generations.” God preserve us from the pharisaical arrogance of religious and political correctness!

There is a risk of sentimentality.

Sometimes people get a good feeling through making apologies that cost little or nothing. We may feel we have done our bit by saying sorry, without taking any kind of responsibility to make amends. If faith without works is dead (James 2:17), confession without action is cheap. In a sentimental society, the rush to get a good feeling without doing anything is a common attitude that is really no more than self-indulgence.

There is a risk of confusing apology with repentance.

We can apologise for the past, but we cannot repent on behalf of previous generations. When Nehemiah prayed for his nation (Nehemiah 1), he confessed their national sins, identified with his nation in their moral bankruptcy, and prayed for God to have mercy. But he did not repent on behalf of the nation. He couldn’t, having neither the right nor the opportunity so to do.

I was taking part in a March for Jesus and standing next to some German church leaders. I apologised for our blanket bombing of their cities and they apologized for the atrocities of Nazism. We embraced and prayed for one another’s countries. Schoolboy anti-German prejudices - all our comics used to glorify “killing the Hun” - were blown away by the reconciling love of Christ.

There is a risk of presumption.

I could apologise as an individual to those German Christians. But I had no authority to make a national apology. None of us can legitimately speak on behalf of the nation, nor on behalf of the Christian churches, unless that authority has been duly granted. And Christian will sometimes disagree over whether an apology is appropriate. I deeply regretted the statue to “Bomber” Harris being installed in London, since he instigated the fire bombing of German cities. Fellow Christians could see no more problem with his statue than that of any other wartime leader. Although I would have like to apologise on behalf of my country, there was no national consensus to legitimize such words. The strongest response I could realistically make to German friends was to express my personal regret at such a commemoration.

There is a risk of endless repetition.

I felt inwardly liberated after my time of prayer with those Germans. But what if they have to repeat a ritual of mutual apology with every foreigner they ever meet? At what point does someone have the right to say, “That’s history and it’s been dealt with. It should not be dredged up any more.” For how long will Germans far too young to have had any part in Nazism still be made to carry a burden of national guilt? When do we let the past be the past and move on? How many times will we make them go through the hoops of repeated confession and apology? True reconciliation means we must reach a point where we choose to leave the past behind.

There is a risk of over-stating the results of an apology.

I remember one Christian convention where an overseas speaker explained that confession of sin was the decisive weapon in spiritual warfare. We confess, Satan is defeated and God can move in revival power. It all sounded very exciting. He even had diagrams to show how spiritual warfare takes place, and testimonies about how it had worked in other countries. People rushed to the microphone to make their confession, looking for revival to sweep the land before breakfast. I only had one objection to the presentation: so far as I could see it was devoid of biblical basis. The defeat of Satan is found in the cross, resurrection and authority of Christ, not in our actions (Colossians 2:15). We cannot force the sovereign Lord’s hand in revival, no matter how well intended our actions. Even so, the Pope apologised and the world went on its way. When Jesus commended confession, forgiveness and reconciliation, he presented these virtues not as means to an end, but as good in themselves, directly expressing the character and priorities of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 5:23-25; 6:14-15). We need to mend relationships and seek to heal longstanding divisions simply because Jesus has called his disciples to the royal way of love.

How far back in time do we need to travel in our willingness to apologise?

Is there a cut off point for realistic apology? Go back far enough and everyone will need to apologize to everyone else for cudgeling by our cave ancestors. When I visit Scandinavia, I share in jokes about the Vikings, but I have never felt the need to extract an apology from present day Scandinavians for their ancestors’ pillaging, raping and looting. It’s too remote in history for today’s generations to be implicated any more.
Whose perspective on the past is decisive?

If you are the Pope, perhaps that’s relatively straightforward. But for the rest of us, we bring one opinion among many. At the time of Mrs. Thatcher’s downfall I heard of two prayer meetings in lively evangelical churches. One in Berkshire expressed national repentance at the rejection of God’s handmaiden. One in Yorkshire expressed national rejoicing at God’s rejection of the iron maiden. So who needs to apologise? Perhaps life is sometimes more complex than we like to think. And God must be very patient.

Above all, there is a risk of concentrating so much on past sins that we forget to examine the sins of today.

At times it may be necessary to deal with the distant past. But our primary concern should be the present. It’s doubtless good and helpful in the right setting to apologise for the abuses of the Crusades. However, for many Arabs a far more pressing issue is the devastating impact of present day Western sanctions on the children of Iraq. We need to be self-critical not only about past centuries, but also about the church today. Just as institutional racism was found in some parts of the Metropolitan Police Force, there is much institutional sin in the church today. To name but a few, the church is sometimes racist, sexist, ageist, has marginalized singles, excluded those with disabilities, been over-dogmatic, authoritarian, cynical, sectarian, biblically illiterate, and has indulged in gossip and party spirit. These things are often tolerated, pass unnoticed, or have even be approved. Such abuses need to be exposed and uprooted.

I was leading a church in South East London where 20% of the congregation were African-Caribbean. The church included people from 25 denominational backgrounds and 35 nationalities, and we were exploring how to make the transition from being a white church that welcomed others to a multi-ethnic church. We provided training sessions in race awareness to combat institutional racism, and were trying to ensure that all our teams and ministries were effectively integrated. We wanted to celebrate and enjoy our ethnic diversity and spiritual unity in Christ. I gradually discovered a history of implicit racism on the part of some church members. And so we produced a liturgy of reconciliation. In a special service, I apologized on behalf of all the white members of the church for our racist attitudes past and present, and an African-Caribbean elder made a generous and gracious response. It was a landmark moment in which we embraced more deeply our new identity as citizens of heaven. Just as Paul wrote of Jews and Gentiles in Christ, the dividing wall between black and white has been broken down.

The Pope has much to teach us about public apology. I hope many non-Catholics will welcome and applaud his willingness to apologise, and that other denominational leaders will be prepared to follow his lead. And I hope the next Assembly of UK Evangelicals in 2001 will be marked by an historic act of public confession. In order to embrace a new sense of biblical vision and identity for the 21st century, evangelicals must be willing to confess and apologize for our faults and sins, excesses and prejudices, both past and the present.

I was taking part in a TV debate with a Jew and a Muslim. When I explained that apologising for past abuses was one way Christians were marking the millennium, the interviewer asked if I would apologize on camera to the Jew and Muslim. No problem. “I deeply regret the many ways in which Christians have failed to express the love of Christ, particularly in persecution of the Jews and the Crusades against Muslims. I am sorry, and want to tell you that the life and teaching of Jesus is much more attractive than his church has often been.” Now it was their turn. At first they refused. Under pressure, with the cameras rolling, they finally agreed to say something. Both were reluctant and begrudging. One of them put it like this: “If we have ever done anything deserving of an apology, then I apologise for it.” Hardly an enthusiastic confession. This set me wondering. Is there something at the heart of Christianity that can make it easier for Christians to apologize? When our faith begins with repentance and undeserved grace, the suggestion that we make mistakes, and that our churches also make mistakes, seems much more palatable than in a religion of works. (And, of course, I knew that no Christians would start a holy war against me because I had apologised to the infidel.) Maybe apology can be a powerful expression of Christian witness. When we are weak, and willing to admit it, the grace of Christ can shine through. We may sometimes be mocked for our apologies, but the early church martyrs were frequently mocked and in the weakness of their witness many new converts were added to the church.
Christians need to be self-critical. The Christ of the Gospels is both for us, declaring the forgiving love of God, and yet against us, bringing God’s judgment upon our selfish living and cold-hearted religion. The Pharisees thought sin was someone else’s problem. The teaching of Jesus invites us to recognize sin deep within ourselves (Mark 7:18-23). And this sinful nature will inevitably be expressed in the life of our nations and churches.

Sometimes we need to say sorry for the distant past. But it’s even more important to apologize for the sins of to day. A sentimental movie once claimed that love means never having to say you’re sorry. Absolute trash! True love means we have to learn the importance of saying sorry. For Christians, both as individuals and as churches, it’s not only good to talk, it’s often vital to apologise.