Faithful apologies

What makes Christian conviction turn to apology?

By Bill Leonard

Perhaps St. Paul initiated it, punctuating his apostolic CV with an apology for behaving as one who was “in pious zeal, a persecutor of the church” (Phil 3:6) -- “breathing out threats,” Acts says, against Jesus’ followers. If there was no formal Pauline apology, his continued repentance and the marks he bore on his body for Jesus’ sake apparently carried the day.

Non-negotiable dogmas of faith and praxis in one era can become remorseful apologies in another. Recent Roman Catholic mea culpas abound, evidence of their long history and religio-political collaborations.

By 1965, they finally absolved the Jews when in Nostra Aetate. Pope Paul VI denounced past anti-Semitism, asserting that Christ’s “passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God.”

John Paul II went further, with apologies for Catholic participation in the slave trade (1993), actions against Galileo (1992), religious wars against Protestants (1995), the “historical denigration of women” (1995) and Council of Constance’s burning of John Huss (1415/1999).

Incessant apologies for Church sex-abuse scandals still draw mixed responses from victims. In 2000, the pope led a litany of wrongs that began: "We forgive and we ask forgiveness," and included anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the Inquisition and forcible conversions. Never before had the Roman Church expressed such far-reaching repentance for past atrocities.

Protestants too offer varying apologies. In a 1994 Declaration to the Jewish Community, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America repudiated founder Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic harangues.

“We who bear his name and heritage must with pain acknowledge also Luther's anti-Judaic diatribes and the violent recommendations of his later writings against the Jews,” the statement noted. “As did many of Luther's own companions in the 16th century, we reject this violent invective, and yet more do we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations.”

In 2009, the Episcopal Church renounced the “Christian Doctrine of Discovery” (1496) whereby “Christian sovereigns and their representative explorers could assert dominion and title over non-Christian lands with the full blessing and sanction of the Church.”

Noting its continued “modified” use by modern government policies “that lead to the colonizing dispossession of the lands of indigenous peoples and the disruption of their way of life,” this statement anticipated “a full apology and a healing of the church-indigenous relationship.”

In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention acknowledged “the role that slavery played” in the denomination’s origins, that many Southern Baptists owned slaves, often opposed “initiatives to secure civil rights of African-Americans” and “intentionally and/or unintentionally excluded African-Americans from worship, membership and leadership.”

Thus Southern Baptists “apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; ... repent of racism ... and ... ask forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake.”

In a June 19 essay titled “I Am Sorry,” Alan Chambers, director of Exodus International, an evangelical organization that for years has sought to reprogram gays and lesbians away from homosexuality, issued a bombshell apology “to the members of the LBGTQ Community,” asserting that he was “deeply sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced.”

He continued: “I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly ‘on my side’ who called you names like sodomite -- or worse....

“I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.

“More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection. I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives.

“For the rest of my life I will proclaim nothing but the whole truth of the gospel, one of grace, mercy and open invitation to all to enter into an inseverable relationship with almighty God.”

What makes Christian conviction turn to apology? Sometimes the church is complicit in the corruption of the world and finally repents. Sometimes the world discovers the gospel before the church does.

Sometimes dissenters are silenced, but dissent keeps chipping away at our cherished but ultimately mistaken ideologies. Sometimes ways of following the Bible and the Spirit in one era are impossible in another.

It often takes us a while to catch up with the Jesus Way, but not before we’ve acquiesced to or instigated atrocities, hurt and cruelty, claiming Divine sanction.

Our 19th century southern forebears clung to “biblical defenses” of slavery, not imagining we’d be apologizing for them centuries later. To what do we cling now for which our distant gospel relatives will repent in the 22nd century?

Maybe sooner; God knows.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.