In the article, Posthumously Pardoning the Lizard King’s Penis, the author, Jim Goad, begins with this:
“Sixties rock deity Jim ‘The Lizard King’ Morrison’s bloated corpse was found in a Parisian bathtub in 1971, but apparently his soul had been writhing in restless torment until last Thursday, when lame-duck Florida Governor Charlie Crist finally pardoned him for allegedly flashing his dingus at a Miami audience in 1969.”
He then goes on to give the reader a history of apologies for sins committed decades or centuries earlier as though they actually meant something. They, of course, do: They make the apologizer feel good. To me, they also seem to be maudlin attempts to be viewed as a “sensitive person” for some personal aggrandizement.
Several years ago, while in England on business, I was sitting in a pub with two other Americans and our British host. We were enjoying a pint (or more) of good English “bitter” beer when a well-dressed but inebriated Englishman came over to us. He evidently recognized us by our American accents; and although we weren’t being stereotypical “ugly Americans,” he had a few things he wanted to share with us. He was quite tweedy looking, and with unkempt professorial hair flopping, he proceeded to admonish us for “killing the Indians,” those noble warriors of yore that dominated the American scene in our early history, that is, before our homegrown genocide. We sat there like bumps on a log, saying nothing while the tirade increased in volume. Tired of the vitriol, the bad breath, and the spittle, I said: “Listen pal, I didn’t kill any Indians; your ancestors did!” In shock, he walked away, leaving us to wonder.
It was stupid thing for me to say, but it was the best I could think of at the time. For all I knew, his ancestors never left Yorkshire in all of history. The fact that he reacted as he did, suggests that maybe I had stumbled on to something, but then perhaps not. My ancestors came from England, Holland, and who knows where. Since their American presence goes back to the Revolutionary War on one side, and prior to the Civil War on the other side, it is quite possible that one or more ancestor of mine had killed some Native Americans… but no family member I knew ever acknowledged such information.
Regardless, I don’t think I ever engaged in Native American killing, bashing, or discrimination.
Then about three year’s ago, at church, the pastoral prayer included a reference to maintaining an attitude of repentance for the Inquisition, the Witch Trials, and any other thing in the history of Christianity that might be an affront to loving one’s neighbor, since we are a part of the Body of Christ. What? Now, I personally have a lot to consider on this matter of repentance…but I flatly reject any notion that I had anything to do taking a passive approach to the Holocaust, burning witches, and I never ever participated in the Spanish Inquisition! I left wondering how invoking the theological concept of the Body of Christ translates into some need for us to absorb a sense of collective guilt for the sins of fellow Christians from antiquity. I also wondered: What was the purpose of this? To accomplish what?
Was it to diffuse the atheist’s attack on Christianity that says, “I can prove that your religion is bad, you had the Salem Witch Trials?” If we all apologize for it, “forever, and ever,” are we saying that maybe the atheists will change their mind? I doubt it. Any atheist firm in his or her conviction won’t be swayed by Christian apologies.
The whole concept of collective guilt presupposes that groups can have some mystical connection to past misdeeds or that because people belong to a “class” or a connectional group, they perhaps have some misguided intentions in the present that somehow relate to past events. Therefore those so connected should possess guilt; and if they don’t, shame on them! That seems a bit of a stretch.
I discussed this with a friend, a Christian scholar not familiar with my local church. While we both may be wrong, the whole notion may involve this: By repenting for, and displaying collective humility for past sins, that those living today had no part in, the inference is that the church can avoid the difficult message of Christ as the truth and the light. Our great sensitivity to those who disagree with Christianity or to those who prefer their Christianity “light” is thus fully demonstrated. While triumphalism is quite unattractive, and I am certainly not promoting it, if the church champions extreme “collective” humility for everything that has been wrong with Christianity (including the pesky neighboring church down the street that we smart folks don’t agree with), then perhaps we can be at one with all the other religions…and nature…the rocks and trees…perhaps God is a clam…and forgiveness is universal…because God is love…and everybody gets to go to heaven…imagine.
No, repentance is in the present and personal, requiring absolute honesty.
I must say that I really dislike getting sucked into corporate prayers that reflect a fluffy theology. Next time, I walk.