The Power of Collective Apologies and Continual Repentance

Jul 5, 2024 | PRAY, READ

“Never apologize, Mister, it’s a sign of weakness!” declared John Wayne, whilst playing the role of Captain Nathan Brittles in the western ‘She wore a Yellow Ribbon.’ Given that this is a post extolling the virtue of constant inner repentance, and the value of collective apologies, I was clearly never going to say a hearty amen to such a statement. The fact is, though, that there are many who find it intensely difficult to say sorry; either because they think they are never wrong or, like Captain Brittles, simply consider that apologising yields too much ground to the other person. The great comic genius PG Wodehouse, for example, made it his policy never to apologise because, as he put it, ‘The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.’

Many who have witnessed the way in which a heartfelt apology can turn situations around would take issue with Wodehouse here, and side instead with Jonathan Swift’s assertion that ‘A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, for that is but saying that he is wiser today than yesterday.’ He was right: God views the confession of our mistakes and wrongdoings more as a sign of humility than of weakness, and a place where He can bring His own strength to bear.

It is right, and often enormously important, to mourn our sins, failures and mistakes – not so much perhaps because God cannot or has not forgiven us for them, but because they can be such a serious stumbling block for others. I came across a powerful fifteen-minute video the other day by Marty Darracott, that is well worth listening to.

Marty had been praying for some time that he would hear God speak to him. The story of how that came about, what he heard, and all that came about as a result of it is a deeply moving and challenging testimony. It begins with the way in which the Lord brought him face to face with his wrongdoing as a pre-Christian teenage, something he had long assumed that God had simply forgiven and forgotten. The Lord had – but as He pointed out, others hadn’t. It was Marty’s confession and repentance that was needed, and which enabled the Lord to bring about the most wonderful changes in the lives of all his family. I commend his testimony to you. You may perhaps want to pass it on to others too.

The Way of continual Repentance

As Marty discovered, the Lord grants us the gift of contrition so that we are willing to go deeper in exploring the sinful and selfish roots that lie behind so much of what we think, say and do. I have written more about this gift in Three wounds that empower us to pray and that enable us to share the depths of God’s compassion.

Most of us will, at times, find ourselves tormented by the razor-sharp denunciations of the Accuser of the Brethren, and plagued by a dark and nagging fear that the Lord has not forgiven us. God give us strength to take our stand on the ground of the finished work of Christ, and to celebrate the truth that the Lord has removed our sins as far as the East is from the West, and atoned for all that we have ever done that was wrong, or that we will ever be guilty of.

We are sinners saved by grace – and the more we come to know the grace of God, the more aware of our sin we become. A powerful Puritan prayer highlights this awareness of our staggering selfishness.*

On the one hand, the poet recognises that the Lord Jesus graciously clothes us with a ‘bridegroom’s robe’ and decks us with ‘jewels of holiness.’ On the other, he recognises that even his best prayers and desires, let alone the rest of his walk, are stained with sin, and tainted with the most subtle and profound selfishness. In a psalm-like sigh he acknowledges, ‘I need to repent of my repentance; I need my tears to be washed.’

It is a poem-prayer that explores and spans the whole spectrum of our experience from ‘the exceeding sinfulness of sin . . . to the exceeding glory of Christ, the beauty of holiness, and the exceeding wonder of grace.’ and I commend this to you too!

The Power of Collective Apologies

When it comes to the ‘exceeding sinfulness of sin’ at a corporate level, we have all come across leaders who refuse to acknowledge their wrongdoing, let alone apologise for them, preferring instead to ride out the trouble until public attention is directed elsewhere. The battle for truth in our post-truth era has never been more important, along with the willingness to take responsibility for collective offences.

Of the 39 chapter nines in the Old Testament, at least five depict great watchmen like Moses, Samuel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel at prayer, confessing the sins of their people as if they were their own. (See, for instance, Deut. 9:13-19 and 25-29, where it was only Moses’ determined identification with the nation of Israel that saved them from being handed over to destruction. See also 1 Samuel 9, Nehemiah 9, Daniel 9 and Ezra 9-10 for other powerful examples.) Paul is another who aches for his fellow Israelites, as we see in Romans 9 and 10, and again in 2 Corinthians 7, in a passage that that the NIV entitles, ‘Paul’s joy over the Church’s repentance.’  It is clear that God relishes answering the prayers of those who are prepared to feel deeply in this way, and to own and take to heart corporate wrongdoing.

The willingness to address corporate sin is not confined to contemporary events. He is outside of time, and events that are past to us remain present to Him. It is right therefore to address specific wrongs. Acts of public penitence are of great value, for they

  1. reveal a willingness to remember truthfully – which itself is the very opposite of sweeping matters under the carpet,
  2. can serve to address or even redress the wrongs of the past,
  3. can change attitudes in the present,
  4. and make it easier to pursue justice in the future by unlocking longstanding strongholds as a result of these corporate and public apologies.

We have seen a number of national leaders in recent years apologising on behalf on nations for their wrong doings. One of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s earliest acts in June 1997, was to apologise for the British government’s failure to assist the Irish during the terrible potato famine of the late 1840s, the memory of which has been a source of ongoing bitterness.

“Blair’s contrition was met with praise and criticism, but it proved to be part of the larger narrative in the peace negotiations within Northern Ireland. Although Blair’s apology is often cited as an exemplar of political leaders apologizing for historical injustices, little actual scholarly work on this subject has been conducted. To that end, this paper examines Blair’s potato famine apology through the theory of collective apology. We argue that collective apologies serve to build, repair, renew, and strengthen bonds between communities harmed by historical wrongdoing. Moreover, collective apologies are meditations in collective memory about the past, present, and future relationship between communities. We assess Blair’s apology through this theoretical lens, discussing the potential impact that it had on the Northern Ireland peace process.”

On 13 February 2008, Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd likewise offered a formal apology to the indigenous peoples, particularly the ‘Stolen Generations,’ on behalf of the nation at Australian Parliament House. The apology acknowledged that,

‘the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments had resulted in the forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families ‘inflicting profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians’.

A Canadian leader took a similar step a year later in issuing a Statement of Reconciliation that acknowledged the damage done to native populations from the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century, right through recent efforts to suppress native customs and language.

Praise God for every step taken toward reconciliation through collective apology. Each one is important in the sight of God. I highly recommend John Dawson’s book Healing America’s Wounds if you can track down a copy, for it explores stories and principles that extend way before America’s shores. Even though it was written in the early 1990s, it remains a timely and prophetic book, as much for our generation as for the one he wrote it for, as is also his better-known volume, Taking our Cities for God.

Dawson devotes considerable space to an expression of repentance and sorrow for the brutal 1864 massacre of over a hundred Cheyenne and Arapaho native American tribesmen and women – who had thought themselves to be under the protection of the United States – by Methodist pastor Major John Chivington and his troops. Chivington’s philosophy was simple: ‘I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honourable to use any means under God’s Heaven to kill Indians.’

Dawson is at pains to stress that this belief was by no means shared by all the early settlers, but Chivington was certainly not alone in believing that the Lord wanted to do away with the original inhabitants of North America, just as He had commanded the Israelites to cleanse the Promised Land.

Chivington was roundly censured for what he did, but never convicted for his actions. But has that and other such actions not served to unleash a spirit of racial genocide into the heart of the nation? That this devilish sense of racial superiority remains so much alive to this day should be a source of the deepest shame.

Gutted by reading about these terrible happenings one dear friend wrote, ‘As someone who (reputedly) had believing ancestors who sailed on the Mayflower, I have found myself repenting for what my forebears did when they arrived on American soil, by failing to see Jesus in the people He had rooted there so long before [and to serve and witness to them].’ She went on:

‘Let’s ask the Lord to reveal to us any areas where we are carrying a legacy from our forefathers that needs dealing with; where ungodly beliefs and unseeing eyes led to terrible suffering both on far away shores and here at home.’

I wonder if anything of our colonial past, or family or personal sins we have committed in the past have left the stain of its prejudice on us? Has the church or community that we are part of caused harm to anyone, perhaps, or refused to embrace anything that is precious to the Lord?

O, Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of loving devotion to those who love Him and keep His commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have acted wickedly and rebelled. We have turned away from Your commandments and ordinances. (Dan. 9:4-5)

Father, we grieve and repent for the atrocities committed by those who named Your name and took Your word as their standard, but who did not show them Your love. Jesus, guard our hearts from being sound in most of our doctrine and yet being wide open to permit other forces from prevailing in other areas of the way we relate to others and practise our faith.

We share Your grief, Lord, on behalf of these and so many other oppressed minorities, Lord, and cry out to You. Raise up fresh ways to demonstrate Your kingdom in their midst. Be with all who are suffering discrimination and worse this day we pray. May their hearts not be filled with loathing, but rather bring hope, health, strength and justice we pray.

We are not presenting our petitions before You because of our righteous acts, but because of Your great compassion. O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! (Dan. 9:18a-19b)

*(O God of Grace, in Valley of Vision, A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotion’).




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