Friday, December 23, 2011

I Am a Christian. I'm Sorry.

This evening, I read an essay in Friends Journal entitled, "I Beg Your Forgiveness," by Eden Grace, a seasoned Quaker missionary in East Africa. Eden explained that she felt prompted to ask forgiveness on behalf of her people - Christians - for the ways in which we have not lived up to the faith that we profess. She faulted the Church for our judgmental attitudes, spiritual pride and failure to act for justice. She concludes her essay with these words: "On behalf of myself and my people, I beg your forgiveness."

A short time later, I came across a video of Chris Tse - a spoken-word artist from Canada - reciting a piece which begins and concludes with the words, "I'm a Christian. I'm sorry." In his spoken word poem, Tse goes even further back than Eden Grace, alluding to the Crusades and New World genocides carried out by men who professed Christian faith. 




The video by Chris Tse was posted by a friend of mine on Facebook, and by the time I saw it there had been one comment. The commenter suggested that Tse, if he was truly sorry for the things done in the name of Jesus, should stop being a Christian.

This is what I was afraid of.

While I can resonate with many things that both Eden and Chris expressed in their own unique ways, it makes me nervous when Christians start making apologies to the non-Christian world for the historical and present-day sins that are committed in the name of Jesus. While no one can deny that horrible things have been done in the name of Christianity, I wonder whether it is a good idea to accept all of the blasphemies of Western Christendom as being legitimate expressions of the Church that we are now responsible for as Christians.

This is a tough question, I know. The truth is, whether or not Pope Urban II or Christopher Columbus were really disciples of Jesus Christ, they propagated death and misery under the banner of Christianity. Just as atheists must grapple with the historical fact of Stalin, Mao and other secularist dictators, we as Christians must take seriously our responsibility to clarify - and demonstrate - the true nature of the Christian faith. We must renounce evil, not only as we see it in historical figures, but also in all the ways it is manifested today in the Christian community. We must turn away from greed, hypocrisy, racism and homophobia.

But does that mean taking responsibility for every criminal empire that has justified itself through a twisted interpretation of the Christian tradition? How about the many today who justify war, systemic injustice and oppression with the name of Jesus on their lips? Whose conduct am I responsible to apologize for? At what point do we say; "No. I am not with them; never have been."

This is a very personal question, but also one that we might consider wrestling with together as Christian communities. What response can you give? How might your church respond? What do we have to apologize for?

16 comments:

Gustavo K-fé said...

Just to complicate things a bit more, let's remember our Lord's prayer that the Church "be one".

Ganeida said...

Do we apologise for being human? For getting it wrong? For not being perfect? I think this is foolishness. There is no need to apologise for Christ but we need to look at the bigger picture. In the name of Christ the prisons were reformed, the homeless were housed, the starving are fed ~ even now. In Christ's name, every nation where the gospel light has been allowed to penetrate conditions for people have improved, slowly, gradually but irrevocably. No~one does more than those who are genuinely committed to Christ but we are all human & thus fallible. I don't see the profit in dwelling on that. FAr better to focus on improving what we are doing right & doing what we can in other areas.

magdalenaperks said...

We were talking tonight about all the small ways we live faith. I can't prevent wars or injustice from where I am, a small, remote corner of Canada; nor can I even stop the injustices against me, a disenfranchised ex-pat American. But we can greet others in love, practice hospitality, speak up in a small way when confronted by big problems. Like you, I no longer will take responsibility for the past wrongs of the "church" but I will work hard to take responsibility for what I do, today.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

What did Jesus do? Did he go around saying, “I’m sorry for being a Jew, one of God’s chosen people”?

For that matter, did he go around apologizing for any other part of himself? “I’m sorry for being male”? “I’m sorry for being Caucasian” (if he was)?

What did he do instead of apologizing like that?

Diane said...

I agree with Ganeida. Christianity has quietly done great good. A glimpse at a non-Christian state looks like: Nazi Germany. That should give us pause. Yes, what Christians are condemned for is being human. We have, for some time, been the largest and the most dominant world religion, ergo, we have perpetuated more atrocities. Every other religion has also perpetuated atrocities, even the much beloved Buddhists. Further, Buddhists and Taoists in Japan formed not a shred of protest movement in the 1930s, when their government was on movement of conquest and atrocity--in Nazi Germany, there was the Confessing Church, weak as it was. Thank you for pushing back.

PamelaDraper said...

I think these apologies are completed needed and utterly wise. They acknowledge the power dynamic in the world. They clarify what it means to be Christian. Without an apology, or at least clear acknowledgement of the evil that has been done, they are complicit. And, yes this is true for all of us all the time (pointing out what is evil), but I think a central reason these apologies may have came about is the polarization around the Christian faith. So many people have been hurt by it. Legitimately hurt. Who better to help in the healing of these hurts than people that still march under the banner of Christianity? It's about accountability and it's about power.

And why NOT apologize? What message are you afraid of sending?

Micah Bales said...

@Gustavo I think that's a big part of the question: How far does the "oneness" extend?

@Ganeida I do think it is important to apologize and take responsibility for our sins, and even those of our wider community of faith. However, my question is to what extent we as followers of Jesus can take upon ourselves the evil perpetuated in the name of Jesus. At what point do we say, "we are not - and have never been - in unity with those murderers"?

I agree with you that Christianity has a very positive legacy, despite the many crimes of the supposedly Christian West. The very fact that we are considering whether we should apologize on behalf of our ancestors is a testament to the way of love and self-denial that Christ teaches us.

@Magdalena I agree with you that we should take responsibility for those things that we can affect today. At the same time, I see that there might be benefits to acknowledging past sin - even the sin of our ancestors - and repenting of it. The big question for me is: How far does the circle extend? Who am I obliged to take responsibility for?

@Marshall I agree that Jesus was unapologetic. He is, after all, the living Word of God. Not much to apologize for there! He did not, however, hold back in denouncing the hardness of heart and evil that he observed in his culture.

My interest is finding the way to a life that is so completely bathed in the life and power of Jesus Christ that past wounds can be healed and everyone can witness the good news for themselves. I recognize, though, that the path to this kind of holiness involves a lot of repentance.

What is the difference between repentance and apology?

@Diane I agree, though I think that we as Christians are called to move beyond the selfish, sinful state which is normally considered "human." Perhaps the impulse to ask forgiveness in this way is a sign of our movement in the direction of this greater holiness. Thank you for your encouragement.

@Pamela I do believe we should apologize for things we are responsible for. However, I am not sure it is honest - or helpful - to apologize for individuals or communities that we do not claim membership in. Once again, the overarching question for me is: "How far does the circle extend?"

Quakers have long held a tradition of disownment; in fact, the practice of disownment preceded membership. The purpose of disownment was primarily to let the world know that we as a community did not take responsibility for the actions of an individual who was acting contrary to the discernment of the community. It was taken for granted that Friends "dis-owned" the wider culture that professed Christianity while perpetuating all manner of injustice.

I guess another way of asking my question would be: "When is it time to apologize, and when is it time for us to disown those who abuse the name of Jesus through their hard-hearted treatment of their fellow beings?"

Marty Calliham said...

How do we hate sinful behavior while simultaneously loving the sinner?

New Muggleton said...

I have long wondered whether Jesus of Nazareth intended this (other similar passages in the Gospels) to apply to whole groups (like a/the 'Church'), or just to individuals:

Matthew 7:17-19
New International Version (NIV)
17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

This is one of the main reasons that I have rejected the description 'Christian'.

Any thoughts please?

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Micah, you ask, “What is the difference between repentance and apology?”

I would answer, in the first place, that if I am apologizing for my own behavior, then my apology is the natural consequence of repentance, and carries with it an acknowledgment that I am accountable to others for the way I behave. And accountability is of critical importance here. Accountability is what Jesus was teaching in Matthew 5:23-26 and Matthew 18:15-17.

But if I am apologizing for the behavior of others who have chosen to travel under the name of my religion, while not behaving as it requires, then I am apologizing without first ascertaining that they have repented, and my apology does not represent any actual establishment of accountability on the actual wrongdoers’ part. And then I myself am substituting symbolic virtue for the actual accountability Christ advocated. I must consider whether this might not be a way of making myself and my faith a “whited sepulchre” such as Christ denounced.

Moreover, and in the second place, if I repent for my own deeds, I live up to the religion of Christ and show its goodness in my repentance and willingness to be accountable, and that proclaims the good news Christ himself proclaimed. But if I apologize for Christianity because of the deeds of other people who profess it without practicing it properly, I besmear the good name of Christianity with those deeds without being able to show any actual repentance on the wrongdoers’ part at all. And that obscures the goodness of Christianity instead of advancing it.

So I do think there are major differences.

Micah Bales said...

Thanks, Marshall. That's helpful.

Lisa H said...

I can't help seeing the parallels between this and acknowledging white privilege. Just because we don't own slaves today or haven't taken land directly from Native Americans doesn't mean we can't make some reparation for the wrongs done by our ancestors. How is this different?

Marshall Massey said...

Might I suggest, friend Lisa, that reparation is a great big step beyond apology? Apology is speaking, but reparation is doing what makes a concrete difference.

I think what Ganeida wrote last Friday, about doing prison reform and housing the homeless and so on, illustrates reparations offered to the oppressed, as distinct from apologies offered for oppressors.

Conceivably James 2:14-26 may be pertinent here as well. We usually think of it as illustrating the difference between faith and works, but verses 15-16 in particular address the difference between words and works.

David H. Finke said...

Coming to this conversation several months later, but sensing its timelessness, I offer the following observation:

A distinction I learned in church history (at a seminary in the Free Church tradition) was between "Christianity" and "Christendom." The latter is a concept that emerges and possibly becomes dominant AFTER the "Constantinian Captivity of the Church," as our Anabaptist f/Friends bluntly but truly state the case A huge watershed happened when the organization of the Christian Church -- which previously only claimed the power of Truth and internal discipline -- became taken over and used as one more instrument of imperial Roman power, the merger of church and state from which we have the relatively recent (and often imperiled) experiment in church/state separation. Becoming the monopoly official religion of the Roman Empire was, in my view, a deal with the devil. Constantine won; the church lost.

When Rome is in charge, and raison d'etat becomes compelling, and Machiavellian calculations become a dominant principle, then those who take seriously the life and teachings of Our Master become either a pious annoyance, an actual threat (as Jesus was to the religious establishment of his day,) a matter of irrelevance (in a "two kingdom" theory) which Caesar can disregard, or -- as was a common adaptation -- let those thoroughly committed Christians go off and be "religious" by joining Holy Orders and being cloistered away from the world (while, admittedly, doing good works in the world that somewhat softened the harshness of what Rome had to offer.)

We have always had -- claiming to speak for the Church -- the "realists" who think that we can't be too fussy about carrying out Gospel Order or practicing Christian Discipleship; their claim to being "relevant" carries the guise of "responsibility."

Case in point: the very war we now have in Afghanistan, which our President could have elected NOT to pursue, was justified in the neo-orthodox (or even "liberal") terms of Reinhold Neibuhr, a very ambiguous contribution to church history and thought in the mid-20th century.

I don't know if we want to get off into discussing Neibuhrian ethics. But his view of church-state relations and the moral obligations of a Christian are fundamentally different from the Witness tradition of those who upheld Christianity while rejecting Christendom, and being prepared to suffer under the church-state unholy alliance.

We are still living under the threat of massive nuclear annihilation which was justified in the '40s and '50s under doctrines that claimed Christian sanction: to protect the West (and thus "Christian civilization") by posing lethal "massive retaliation" threats to the godless Communists.

I have never felt the need to apologize for Christendom -- which, in the theocratic model, was quite willing in New England to put to death Quaker ministers.

Focussing on what JESUS did and preached is a pretty good antidote to all that polluted heresy.

aThy Friend, -DHF

David H. Finke said...

Coming to this conversation several months later, but sensing its timelessness, I offer the following observation:

A distinction I learned in church history (at a seminary in the Free Church tradition) was between "Christianity" and "Christendom." The latter is a concept that emerges and possibly becomes dominant AFTER the "Constantinian Captivity of the Church," as our Anabaptist f/Friends bluntly but truly state the case A huge watershed happened when the organization of the Christian Church -- which previously only claimed the power of Truth and internal discipline -- became taken over and used as one more instrument of imperial Roman power, the merger of church and state from which we have the relatively recent (and often imperiled) experiment in church/state separation. Becoming the monopoly official religion of the Roman Empire was, in my view, a deal with the devil. Constantine won; the church lost.

When Rome is in charge, and raison d'etat becomes compelling, and Machiavellian calculations become a dominant principle, then those who take seriously the life and teachings of Our Master become either a pious annoyance, an actual threat (as Jesus was to the religious establishment of his day,) a matter of irrelevance (in a "two kingdom" theory) which Caesar can disregard, or -- as was a common adaptation -- let those thoroughly committed Christians go off and be "religious" by joining Holy Orders and being cloistered away from the world (while, admittedly, doing good works in the world that somewhat softened the harshness of what Rome had to offer.)

We have always had -- claiming to speak for the Church -- the "realists" who think that we can't be too fussy about carrying out Gospel Order or practicing Christian Discipleship; their claim to being "relevant" carries the guise of "responsibility."

Case in point: the very war we now have in Afghanistan, which our President could have elected NOT to pursue, was justified in the neo-orthodox (or even "liberal") terms of Reinhold Neibuhr, a very ambiguous contribution to church history and thought in the mid-20th century.

I don't know if we want to get off into discussing Neibuhrian ethics. But his view of church-state relations and the moral obligations of a Christian are fundamentally different from the Witness tradition of those who upheld Christianity while rejecting Christendom, and being prepared to suffer under the church-state unholy alliance.

We are still living under the threat of massive nuclear annihilation which was justified in the '40s and '50s under doctrines that claimed Christian sanction: to protect the West (and thus "Christian civilization") by posing lethal "massive retaliation" threats to the godless Communists.

I have never felt the need to apologize for Christendom -- which, in the theocratic model, was quite willing in New England to put to death Quaker ministers.

Focussing on what JESUS did and preached is a pretty good antidote to all that polluted heresy.

Thy Friend, -DHF

Micah Bales said...

Amen, David.