Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Collective Guilt: Apologizing For Something You Did Not Do

I never will understand why people and organizations feel the need to apologize for somebody else's behavior especially when the actions in question occurred several generations ago and when all of those involved have been dead for a century or more. Yes, the organization may live on, but to whom is it going to apologize (assuming an organization can apologize)? 

I have seen this behavior carried out in the Episcopal organization time and time again, first with apologizing for not ordaining women, then apologizing for any role the church and its members played in slavery, and most recently over the treatment of LGBTs. Two items in the news recently raised the question in my mind, "What does all of this accomplish?"

First, we see in New Orleans the removal of historical monuments related to the War of Northern Aggression. The current mayor, who once was a neighbor to my folks, removed the first of these monuments this week with the eventual goal of removing a prominent statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from what is currently named "Lee Circle". Gen Lee is not alone as other monuments are slated for relocation with him to a dark warehouse somewhere.

One carnival organization took the mayor to task during its Mardi Gras parade with this satirical float which I photographed in their top-secret den prior to its rolling down St. Charles avenue,

Needless to say, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's revisionist actions have raised the ire of historical preservationists while gaining him support from his political base, making him feel good, but polarizing the city, a city that has a long history of avoiding race riots and other consequences of racial divisiveness. Attempts to revise history by erasing the past are just one manifestation of the collective guilt virus.

The apology virus also appears to have infected the Jesuits in which the disease has resulted in a “contrition liturgy". The following is from the Religion News Service,

WASHINGTON (RNS) The leader of the Catholic religious order that helped found Georgetown University addressed more than 100 descendants of slaves and sought their forgiveness.
“Today the Society of Jesus, which helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say: We have greatly sinned, in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do,” said the Rev. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.
Georgetown has recently acknowledged it benefited from the sale of more than 250 slaves in 1838 to pay off its debts. On Tuesday (April 18), it apologized for its role in the slave trade during a formal “contrition” liturgy.
Some of the descendants of those slaves spoke during the ceremony, jointly hosted by the school, the Jesuit order and the Archdiocese of Washington. One of their representatives said penance is required, even as forgiveness is sought.
“Penance is very important,” said Sandra Green Thomas, president of the GU272 Descendants Association. “Penance is required when you have violated God’s law.”
In 1838, the school was involved in the sale of 272 slaves who worked on Jesuit plantations in southern Maryland. The sale benefited that state’s Jesuits and paid off debts at a precarious moment for the nation’s oldest Catholic university.
The “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope,” was steeped in symbolism of time and space. It was held two days after Easter, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and a day after Emancipation Day, a holiday that marks the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862.
CS Lewis dissected the problem of repenting for another when he considered the growing expressions of "national guilt" in England over the possibility that governmental policies may have pushed Germany into starting WWII.

 Young Christians especially last-year undergraduates and first-year curates are turning to it in large numbers. They are ready to believe that England hears part of the guilt for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England…. Are they, perhaps, repenting what they have in no sense done?
    If they are, it might be supposed that their error is very harmless: men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable. But what actually happens (I have watched it happening) to the youthful national penitent is a little more complicated than that. England is not a natural agent, but a civil society. When we speak of England’s actions we mean the actions of the British Government. The young man who is called upon to repent of England’s foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbour; for a Foreign Secretary or a Cabinet Minister is certainly a neighbour. And repentance presupposes condemnation. The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing but, first, of denouncing the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity. Unfortunately the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the Government not ‘they’ but ‘we’. And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a Government which is called ‘we’ is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practising contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the Cabinet. whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’
C.S. “Jack” Lewis, “Dangers of National Repentance,” The Guardian, 15 March 1940,
Cited from God in the Dock (Eerdmans: 1970) 189.
The false sense of having done something good by "repenting" of the sins of an ancestor, an organization, or any remotely related entity to oneself masks the sin of failing to repent of one's own sins.

The present rush to express collective guilt is either a form of madness or as Lewis might put it, it is an abominable play on our emotions suggested by Satan himself.

The only things pulling down historical monuments or issuing apologies in the form of contrition liturgies accomplish are a feeding of the ego and an undeserved a sense of pride in doing what might temporarily increase one's popularity among a constituency.

And the last time I checked, pride was still one of the seven deadly sins.

1 comment:

  1. Apologizing for someone else's sins is designed for the self-righteous, not the righteous.

    The first monument in New Orleans which was removed, according to a report I read, commemorated the end of Reconstruction in 1876 (?) and the state getting back its "white supremacy." That sounds like a plaque best removed. Pretending that Gen. Lee was some kind of white supremacist monster is another matter, however. Let Gen. Lee stay. He was an honorable man, fallible like us all but better than most of us. History happened.