Should We Apologize for Sins We Did Not Commit?

Does it make sense to repent of someone else’s sins? Christians seem to be doing a lot of that recently, so it’s right to ask whether it makes sense. In my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), we voted overwhelmingly at our 44th General Assembly to “recognize, confess, condemn, and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers.”

The PCA’s repudiation of racism echoes the 1995 Southern Baptist resolution on racial reconciliation on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC): “We lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past.” This year the SBC also passed a resolution repudiating the Confederate battle flag. You can stop flying a flag now, but can you repent of someone else flying a flag more than a century ago?

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Intergenerational Guilt

One way to say yes to this question is to believe in corporate guilt, or imputed intergenerational guilt. Todd Pruitt, a PCA minister who voted for the overture to “repent of corporate and historical sins” nevertheless doubted whether such corporate guilt made theological sense. He wrote:

However, I am not convinced that an overture of corporate repentance was the best way to address sins of racism in some of our churches. I am doubtful about the theological justification for corporate repentance—that sin is generational and therefore those who were not even born during the era of Jim Crow and segregation bear the taint of guilt. I do not see evidence of this sort of generational guilt in the Bible.

When understood in a strictly theological sense, Pruitt is surely right. Take the Westminster Shorter Catechism as an example:

Q. 87. What is repentance unto life? A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

The catechism rightly assumes a sinner paradigmatically repents of his own sin, not someone else’s. That’s true.

In a broader context, though, we can think of repenting in at least two other ways: first, as regret, and second, as public disavowal.

Repenting as Regret

First, regret. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) uses G. K. Chesterton’s Wisdom of Father Brown to offer an example of “repent” being used more broadly. Here’s one definition of repent from the OED: “To view or think of [any action, occasion, or thing] with dissatisfaction and regret, especially because of unwelcome consequences for oneself.” Here’s Chesterton: “He began to repent the coat he had left behind him.” The coat isn’t a personal sin, nor is his action sinful. But we can say that he’s realized that, if he could do it all over again, he would have chosen otherwise. He would have brought his coat.

I don’t think those repenting of corporate and historical sins are saying the Lord believes they are culpable for the sins of individual segregationists. Instead, they are saying that, if they could have influenced the process, they would have exhorted their ancestors (theological, or, in some cases, actual) not to sin against brothers and sisters in Christ by barring them from worship. And the past becomes present when we gravely inquire whether we really would have done differently than they did. It’s painful to say it’s doubtful we would have. After all, we are sinners, too.

This perspective isn’t new. Even before the New Testament was written, people understood that how we respond to what happened says something about us. When Aristotle talks about voluntary action in book 3 of his Nicomachean Ethics, he suggests we think differently about someone who did something in ignorance but experiences “pain and repentance,” versus someone who does not. Aristotle is talking about a person reflecting on his own actions. But we can extend his point more broadly. A teacher may apologize to a student who feels mistreated by the school not because she participated in the harm—she may have been fighting it—but because she wants to communicate to the student both that he was wronged and also that her teacher genuinely regrets that it happened the way it did.

Repenting as Public Disavowal

There’s another kind of repentance: public disavowal. There are times when it’s appropriate to say, “That’s not who we are. It’s who we were, but it’s not who we are now.” In my own presbytery’s debate about racism, I became aware of facts heretofore unknown to me. One prominent church in my presbytery left the mainline denomination not over biblical faithfulness but over segregation. There’s something to be said for a different kind of repentance in this context—a stronger kind of repentance. It’s regret mixed with embarrassment over present blessings. It’s difficult yet vital to say something like the following: “We want their buildings, but not their attitudes. We are proud of their theology, but brokenhearted by their treatment of their neighbors.”

Those of us in the PCA who aren’t Southerners and who weren’t even raised Presbyterian, like those in the SBC raised neither Southern nor Baptist, find it hard to imagine the anguish some face in both embracing the faith of their ancestors while at the same time rejecting their racism. We literally walk into churches where black Christians were not welcome.

Repenting of racism sends the message that we are heirs to a great legacy, but not one free from sin.

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