We need more work in the years ahead—exegetical, historical, and doctrinal—on our theology of apology.

For starters, the word itself is ambiguous. Apology can mean anything from “let me defend myself,” to “my bad,” to “I’m sorry you feel that way,” to “I repent in deepest contrition.” We could use more careful language to express what we mean (and don’t mean) to communicate.

Apologies are also complicated by history. What is our responsibility in the present to apologize for things that have happened in the past? Should Christians apologize for the Crusades? For the Salem Witch Trials? For slavery? Some apologies for the past are appropriate and heartfelt, while others feel less sincere and more manufactured.

And then there is the presence of social media, which gives us all the opportunity to make public apologies (or demand them of others). When are public apologies profound examples of humility and healing, and when do they cross the line into implicit rebuke and moral grandstanding? These are issues of the heart to be sure, but they are also biblical and theological issues.

Moving in the Right Direction (Maybe)

The “Toward” in the title of this post is important. It’s the academic way of saying, “I don’t have this all figured out, but maybe I have something helpful to throw into the mix, so here goes.” With my weasel word firmly in place, here are two suggestions for Christians as we formulate a theology of apology.

Suggestion #1

First, let’s utilize the category of corporate responsibility, but within limits.

The book of Acts is an illuminating case study in this respect. We see, on the one hand, that people can be held responsible for sins they may not have directly carried out. In Acts 2, Peter charges the “[m]en of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem” (v. 14) with crucifying Jesus (v. 23, 36). To be sure, they did this by the hands of lawless men (v. 23), but as Jews present in Jerusalem during Passion Week, they bore some responsibility for Jesus’s death. Likewise, Peter charged the men of Israel gathered at Solomon’s Portico with delivering Jesus over and denying him in the presence of Pilate (Acts 3:11-16). While we don’t know if every single person in the Acts 3 crowd had chosen Barabbas over Christ, Peter certainly felt comfortable in laying the crucifixion at their feet. Most, if not all of them, had played an active role in the events leading up to Jesus’s death. This was a sin in need of repentance (v. 19, 26). We see the same in Acts 4:10 and 5:30 where Peter and John charge the council (i.e., the Sanhedrin) with killing Jesus. In short, the Jews in Jerusalem during Jesus’s last days bore responsibility for his murder.

Once the action leaves Jerusalem, however, the charges start to sound different. In speaking to Cornelius (a Gentile), his relatives, and close friends, Peter relays that they (the Jews in Jerusalem) put Jesus to death (10:39). Even more specifically, Paul tells the crowd in Pisidian Antioch that “those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers” condemned Jesus (Acts 13:27). This speech is especially important because Paul is talking to Jews. He does not blame the Jews in Pisidian Antioch with the crimes of the Jews in Jerusalem.

This is a consistent pattern. Paul doesn’t charge the Jews in Thessalonica or Berea with killing Jesus (Acts 17), nor the Jews in Corinth (Acts 18) or in Ephesus (Acts 19). In fact, when Paul returns to Jerusalem years after the crucifixion, he does not accuse the Jews there of killing Jesus; he does not even charge the council with that crime (Acts 23). He doesn’t blame Felix (Acts 24) or Festus (Acts 25) or Agrippa (Acts 26) for Jesus’s death, even though they are all men in authority connected in some way with the governing apparatus that killed Christ. The apostles considered the Jews in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion uniquely responsible for Jesus’s death, but this culpability did not extend to every high-ranking official, to every Jew, or to everyone who would live in Jerusalem thereafter. The rest of the Jews and Gentiles in the book of Acts still had to repent of their wickedness, but they were not charged with killing the Messiah.

Does this mean there is never any place for corporate culpability across time and space? No. In Matthew 23:35, Jesus charges the Scribes and Pharisees with murdering Zechariah the son of Barachiah. Although there is disagreement about who this Zechariah is, most scholars agree he is a figure from the past who was not killed in their lifetimes. The fact that the Scribes and Pharisees were treating Jesus with contempt put them in the same category as their ancestors who had also treated God’s prophets with contempt (cf. Acts 7:51-53). It could rightly be said that they murdered Zechariah between the sanctuary and the altar because they shared in the same spirit of hate as the murderers in Zechariah’s day.

Similarly, we see several examples of corporate confession in the Old Testament. As God’s covenant people, the Israelites were commanded to confess their sins and turn from their wicked ways so as to come out from under the divinely sanctioned covenant curses (2 Chron. 6:12-42; 7:13-18). This is why we see the likes of Ezra (Ezra 9-10), Nehemiah (Neh. 1:4-11), and Daniel (Dan. 9:3-19) leading in corporate confession. The Jews were not lumped together because of race, ethnicity, geography, education level, or socio-economic status. The Israelites had freely entered into a covenant relationship with each other and with their God. In all three examples above, the leader entered into corporate confession because (1) he was praying for the covenant people, (2) the people were as a whole marked by unfaithfulness, and (3) the leader himself bore some responsibility for the actions of the people, either by having been blind to the sin (Ezra 9:3) or by participating directly in the sin (Neh. 9:6; Dan. 9:20).

To sum up: The Bible has a category for corporate responsibility. Culpability for sins committed can extend to a large group if virtually everyone in the group was active in the sin (it is telling, however, that the apostles don’t seem to think they killed Jesus, even though they were in Jerusalem at that time). We can also be held responsible for sins committed long ago if we bear the same spiritual resemblance to the perpetrators of the past. And yet, the category of corporate responsibility can be stretched too far. The Jews of the diaspora were not guilty of killing Jesus just because they were Jews. Neither were later Jews in Jerusalem charged with that crime just because they lived in the place where the crucifixion took place. And we must differentiate between other-designated identity blocs and freely chosen covenantal communities. Moral complicity is not strictly individualistic, but it has its limits.

Which leads to a second point.

Suggestion #2

Let’s try using more precise categories when apologizing for the past.

As I said at the beginning, our apologizing words don’t always mean the same thing. “I’m sorry” can mean “I feel bad that you are hurting” all the way to “I sinned against God and men.” Likewise, people may use “blame” to mean “I could have done more” or “I feel deep contrition for my wickedness.” We need some additional categories for expressing grief over wrongs committed.

I can think of at least four things we might mean by making an apology for something in the past.

  • Recognition: I acknowledge what happened, and I see the negative effects of those sins of omission or commission.
  • Remorse: I feel terrible for what has happened.
  • Renunciation: I reject what has taken place in the past and repudiate those beliefs, words, thoughts, or actions.
  • Repentance: I have sinned against God and will turn away from this evil and strive after greater obedience to God’s law in my life.

Each aspect of apology has its place, but all may not be present in every instance of saying, “I’m sorry.” Sometimes we get tied up in knots making public apologies of corporate sin because we are unsure how to repent of sins we didn’t commit, when a more appropriate (and equally salutary) step might be to recognize what happened and express our remorse over what transpired in the past, while utterly renouncing those attitudes and actions wherever they exist in the present.

[I suppose you could make restitution a fifth aspect of apologizing, but I would include this under repentance. When Zacchaeus declared his intentions to pay back four-times the amount he defrauded from others—in keeping with Old Testament law (Exod. 22:1)—Jesus took this as a sign of genuine faith and repentance (Luke 19:8-9). While the law at Sinai never tried to enforce a vision of cosmic justice whereby every inequality was abolished, it did command God’s people to make restitution for wrongs committed (Exod. 21:33-22:15) and to be openhanded to the needy (Exod. 22:21-27).]

Is There Room for We?

Of course, things get even trickier if we change those “I” statements to “we” statements. When am I responsible for something as a “we” that I may not be responsible for as an “I”? That depends on a lot of factors. We’ve already seen that Paul did not ask the Jews in Pisidian Antioch to repent of killing Jesus just because they were Jews. And yet, that doesn’t put an end to all corporate responsibility.

Consider two examples.

If you’ll permit a grim analogy, suppose you are the parent of a child who ends up a mass shooter. You raised your child with love and discipline. You didn’t encourage any destructive or hateful tendencies. You were a good (if still imperfect) parent, and your other children turned out fine. When the camera comes on you for a statement, you may not repent per se (since you don’t feel like you sinned in how you raised your now-25-year-old son), but you would certainly be right to recognize what has happened, express profound remorse (probably even saying “I’m sorry”), and renounce violence of this kind.

But consider a second example. Suppose you never disciplined your child for violent behavior. You saw his disturbing journals and did nothing about it. In fact, as a parent, you often told your son that people of color, or people with disabilities, or people with athletic chops, or pretty girls, or whatever, were losers and didn’t deserve to live. Now when you find out what your son has done, what do you say? Even though you didn’t commit a crime, you would be right to issue a “we” statement that includes repentance. Your actions played a direct role in the tragedy.

It’s messy, isn’t it? Someone can always say that you were a part of “a culture” that produced someone or something. But I think we need a tighter argument. The apostles didn’t argue that the culture of first-century Judaism killed Jesus; the Jews in Jerusalem, by the hands of the Romans, killed Jesus. Our corporate apologies would be helped if we looked at the differences between recognition, remorse, renunciation, and repentance.

Similarly, public apologies are more or less appropriate based on whether their cost is mainly to us or mainly to someone else. When someone steeped in Southern Presbyterianism apologizes in tears for the sins of the 19th-century Presbyterians he grew up revering, that costs something. When college kids, who have never been tempted in their lives to idolize Richard the Lionheart, set up confessional booths on campus to apologize for the Crusades, that costs next to nothing. One is a public expression of personal lament; the other is a personal expression of public accusation.

All of this means that the stronger the ties that bind, the stronger the argument for corporate identification. On the one hand, some Christians are quick to apologize for anything and everything (and quicker to demand apologies from everyone else). On the other hand, there are too many examples in the Bible of God’s covenant people confessing their sins together to immediately dismiss every attempt to address corporate sins of the past or the present. Even if we don’t issue a formal statement of repentance, there is still a place for churches, denominations, and other institutions to express the other three R’s. Our theology of apology must be sufficiently nuanced to allow that “We are sorry” can be appropriate even in situations where insisting on moral complicity may not be. If the Sanhedrin in AD 90 had come to Christ en masse, they wouldn’t have had to repent for killing Jesus, but we would certainly have taken it as a good sign if they had expressed the deepest remorse over his crucifixion and renounced the opposition to Jesus that lead to his death.