Should Nations Repent?

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>There is certainly biblical precedent for doing so and not just with the story of Israel, God’s covenant people. Read Jonah, where a whole nation takes the king’s lead, donning sackcloth and “crying mightily to God – turning from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.” (3:8) If both individuals and nations can sin, it seems obvious that both individuals and nations can repent. Who would want to deny that there are both personal and systemic realties to rebellion, disobedience, and sin? Though contemporary Christianity likes to focus on the former, a careless dismissal of the latter can have devastating consequences.

In today’s issue (February 28, 2008) of USA Today, this issues comes to a head in our American context: “Legislators to push for U.S. apology for slavery.” The article begins by noting that there is a push for the nation to follow the lead of five states in the union that did something over the past 12 months never done previously: “expressed regret or apologized for slavery.”

It may come as a shock to some that the U.S. has never issued an apology for the heinous evil of slavery, an institution that was as good for building wealth (our nation still reaps the benefits of an economy jump-started on free labor) as it was destructive and injurious to our soul, our common life, and our best ideals.

The article went on to say that “the Senate has no record of any prior effort to apologize for slavery” though the nation did officially apologize for Executive Order 9066 that placed Japanese-Americans in interment camps during WW II, compensating each survivor with $20,000 according to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The U.S. also officially apologized in 1993 to native Hawaiians for over-throwing their kingdom in 1895. As for Native Americans, advocates for apology worked long and hard and when it finally did come a few days ago it was more than a little lackluster.

I am aware that there are numerous voices that believe that democracy, like love, is “never having to say you are sorry.” Though I would readily admit there is an important difference between “repentance” and “apology,” as a Christian, a parent, and a spouse, I also would never want to underestimate the importance of an apology that comes with hat-in-hand humility declaring that institutions, governments, and human authorities are not beyond reproach. An apology may not be enough, but it certainly sounds like a beginning, especially to disciples of Jesus who are called upon to practice difficult things like forgiveness.

Even as I write this post, I can hear the objections, many of which echo the words of Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity:

the success of the Obama candidacy underscores the irrelevance of an apology … haven’t we already moved beyond it? … an apology is counterproductive, it taps into white guilt and helps perpetuate social programs the civil rights establishment likes, such as racial preferences and ultimately reparations … [an apology serves] no legitimate purpose since the villains and victims are long since deceased … [this would only serve to] keep racial wounds alive.

Such logic might work well in some circles, but it shouldn’t carry much weight with Christians who believe in doctrines like original sin. I recently heard Bishop Carder share a story about how he explained vicarious sin (and salvation) to a church member who didn’t understand how he might somehow be complicit in such evils as racism and sexism. The man was insistent that he had never used racial slurs or demeaned a person because of their race or gender – “not even once.”

Bishop Carder asked him: “Why did Jesus Christ die on the cross?” “He died to save me from my sins,” came the reply. “If that is the case, do you think you are responsible for Jesus death in some way? Surely you don’t think you had anything to do with crucifying Jesus, do you?” asked the bishop. The man paused a moment and finally concluded: “Well, yes, actually, in a way I do; in a way, I think I did crucify Jesus because of my sin.” “Then,” replied the bishop, “you understand vicarious sin.”

In just a few weeks, the church will begin to once again walk the via dolorosa as we journey past Palm/Passion Sunday towards Good Friday. One of the great spirituals we sing, especially this time of year, is “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The question doesn’t make much sense if we reduce our understanding of sin and salvation to personal experience alone. Scripture teaches us that the effects of both sin and salvation are not limited to “what we know” in terms of personal eyewitness accounts. Were we there during the Middle passage? Were we there when free Africans were ripped from their homes and carted off like chattel? Were we there during lynchings, family separations, and Jim Crow? For Christians at least, regardless of the date of our birth, the answer should be obvious.

Should the U.S. apologize? I hope and pray we do and that we go even further in the days and years to come. Such a position may be controversial, but I am convinced it is also deeply Christian.

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