A root cause of much of the conflict that has always marked civilization is the abuse of power. Oppressing one another seems to be in our DNA. The religious among us would say it’s in our sin nature to use and abuse others.
“You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them,” Jesus warned his disciples in the book of Matthew, as he made the case that this was not to be the way of life for his followers. “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”
Nevertheless, there always has been and always will be conflict. So what do we do about it?
Humanists and religionists alike have a vested interest in seeking peaceable solutions to war and strife. Our future existence as a race isn’t a concern to lightly brush off, says the humanists. Christ’s command to love your enemies is reason enough for the religious.
But how does one move from enemy to friend, or at least, to non-enemy? Through repentance and forgiveness. This, too, is an age-old reality. When one truly repents through a sincere apology and commitment to not repeat the offense, and when that apology is received in an open and sincere manner where forgiveness is granted, then a powerful, life-giving moment has occurred. It can serve as a building block for long-term peace and lasting reconciliation.
This occurs as individuals reach out to one another. Individual apologies and personal expressions of forgiveness are essential ingredients to remedy much of the brokenness our society experiences. This, in a nutshell, is the answer to one of the world’s biggest problems. Sincere repentance and genuine release of grievances between people in conflict is what the world needs.
There is a growing trend in recent years, however, that I believe short-circuits this process. It is the practice of one person apologizing on behalf of an entire identity group’s past hurts and abuses.
We’ve seen it with regard to Columbus Day celebrations, where officials apologize to the ancestors of native inhabitants, and even vote to change the name of the holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day. We’ve seen calls for a national apology, and arguments for reparations, to the ancestors of the millions of slaves brought to this country. Recently, in a spiritual Me Too moment, the drummer at a Beth Moore conference “knelt before the audience, [and asked] forgiveness for past hurts by men.”
Many more examples come to mind. This trend will likely continue. However, I don’t think this kind of surrogate mea culpa accomplishes what the person apologizing, or the group receiving the apology, thinks it does. When one person acts as a representative of his or her party and apologizes for their group’s past sins and oppressions, it may make for a feel-good moment, but it does little to solve long-held grievances between the two parties.
It’s simply ineffective for authentic, long-term healing. Repentance and forgiveness are moral decisions made between individuals. A group of people can’t reciprocate with integrity when a representative apologizes on behalf of someone else. The injured group can’t actually forgive the representative, because he or she was not the injuring party.
A proxy confession may be emotionally satisfying for the moment, but nothing substantive has taken place. For true reconciliation to occur, one must take responsibility for one’s own sins, apologize for that, and the receiving party must forgive and release his or her personal grievances against that person. This is the first and best option in healing brokenness, and the remedy for long-held conflict. Individuals must seek reconciliation, not groups. (For what are groups, except collections of individuals?)
Questions arise, however: What if one asks for forgiveness and the injured party does not grant it? Or, what if the offending party never apologizes? Can healing still take place? Yes, healing can still take place.
Let’s look at each scenario. If I know I’ve wronged another and repent and seek forgiveness from that person, seeking restitution if necessary, that is solely my role and responsibility. I have no control over the other person’s response. I’ll do my best at that point to live peaceably with that person, knowing my conscience is clear. I will have done what the Apostle Paul states in Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
Now if I’ve been hurt by someone and that person never apologizes, or is unable to because he or she is dead, then the responsibility falls on me to forgive that person. Yes, I must forgive that person whether or not he or she apologizes. For what’s the alternative? Perpetual anger and hate? That, as we know, is a root cause to the age-old reality of conflict that we are trying to remedy.
Unfortunately, this is where the perpetually angry and aggrieved in our society are. They are stuck on hurt and can not find it within themselves to ask for or receive forgiveness. Sadly, there are people who do not want to forgive or be forgiven. This reveals another reason why apologizing for the group is ineffective. There are probably some (many?) in that group that don’t want anyone apologizing for them; they don’t want someone representing them. In fact, they may not think they’ve done anything wrong.
For instance, President Trump recently apologized to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on behalf of those who caused him “terrible pain and suffering.” I doubt very much that many who sought to ruin Kavanaugh’s reputation through baseless repetition of unsubstantiated accusations are sorry for their words and actions.
Fortunately, Kavanaugh has taken the higher road and done what we are to do in similar situations. He’s forgiven his accusers and has let it go, holding no bitterness, although those who injured him did not seek his forgiveness. This is the pattern to follow if we want lasting reconciliation and a return to civility.
If we’ve been on the receiving end of hurt, we must eventually find it within ourselves to forgive. If we’ve been the ones who have hurt others, we must stop and seek forgiveness. If we are unable to do this personally, then we do it internally. We must find it within ourselves.
The best option, of course, is one-on-one reconciliation. Representative apologies all fall short. Without personal, individual encounters with those with whom we clash for the purpose of apologizing and forgiving, there will remain an endless series of admissions of group guilt that ultimately accomplish nothing.