Randy Pausch regularly instructed his students that they should be ready to apologize (The Last Lecture, with Jeffrey Zaslow (New York: Hyperion, 2008), p. 160). Nobody is perfect. More often than most of us like to imagine, we wrongly offend another person and owe them an apology.
Apologies can sound more like an attempt to blame the other person for our fault or an attempt to bargain with the person. Author Sandy Tolan remarks that apologies have three elements: acknowledgment, apology, and amends (The Lemon Tree (New York: Bloomsbury, 2006).
Acknowledgement necessitates telling the person we offended that we accept responsibility (the blame) for our actions. The apology itself is the expression of regret, genuine contrition for the offense caused or given. Atonement is an effort to set the situation right, e.g., by making restitution when appropriate.
I find apologies by people for historical events for which the people offering the apology had no direct responsibility bemusing. An essential element of a genuine apology is acknowledging blame, i.e., taking responsibility for one’s actions.
I deplore the slavery that figures so prominently in American history. Slavery is unambiguously and completely morally wrong. Some of my North Carolina forebears fought for the Confederacy. My Maine forebears fought in the Union Army to end slavery. I did neither. In all fairness, I can accept neither blame nor credit for what my forebears did. My forebears had no way to consult me, and, if I’m any indication of who they might have been, they seem unlikely to have even attempted such a consultation. Instead of apologizing for past events, people in the present need to accept full responsibility for the events of the present, e.g., the continuing problem of racial discrimination.
National apologies for past events, events that transpired before anyone alive today was even born (e.g., U.S. Army massacres of Native Americans) make even less sense. Again, the issue is not what happened in the past but moving forward in the present.
Too often, historical apologies become an easy out: apologize for what happened and move on rather than facing up to the ugly truths of the present, e.g., continuing racism. Atonement, not an apology, is what is required, i.e., setting things right.
Similarly, God cannot set right what humans have put wrong by God's Son dying on the cross (cf. Ethical Musings Rethinking the crucifixion and Why "Good Friday?"). Jesus’ death on the cross declares God's love for us, welcomes sinners into God's loving embrace, and embodies God's forgiveness. But Jesus’ death does not repair broken relationships with our neighbors (only human action can do this) or repair broken relationships with God (God is perfect; the problem is with us). Atonement theology, in its traditional forms, moves the responsibility from humans onto God, making God into a masochist or child abuser. God does not require our perfection but only seeks our openness so that God can embrace us with love, filling us with life abundant.
During this Lent, spend time identifying those people to whom you owe an apology and take appropriate action. Identify those to whom you can rightly make restitution, even if you are not responsible for the original injustice. And identify those parts of your life from which you have sought to exclude God, and then welcome God into them, apologizing to God for having tried to keep God out.