Question: Is it okay to apologize for something I have not done personally, but has been done by the members of my group, or race, or religion, or family? Or should I insist on personal innocence and distance myself from “the bad element” that has given my group, or race, or religion or family a faulty reputation?
Personally, it is my natural inclination to speak up and declare my innocence and circle the wagons to make sure I’m safe from accusations of wrongdoing. But, I believe the examples found in the Bible point to another way. The heart of being a Jesus follower is recognizing when responsibility for wrongdoing must be shared by those who are innocent of the wrongdoing.
Does this rub you the wrong way? Do you bristle at the thought of taking the blame for something you did not do? Maybe you’ve said something like this:
“I’ve never discriminated against a person of color.”
“The Crusades were a long time ago. I wasn’t a part of that.”
“I’ve never abused my position or power.”
“I didn’t take away the Native Americans land.”
I have said every one of those quotes myself. If I’ve never done any of those things, why should I apologize for them? Why should I be identified with people who have? Why can’t I just worry about doing the right thing myself? Why do I need to take responsibility for the way things were a generation ago? Or for the way those of my group have acted in the past?
Then, I met the prophets. Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezra introduced me to corporate confession. The prophets identified with the sins of their people. They included themselves by declaring not you, but “WE.” Let’s take a closer look.
Jeremiah: We have sinned.
Jeremiah is the assumed author of Lamentations. Lamentations is a book of poetry lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem and the fulfillment of the curse portion of God’s covenant with Judah. Judah had entered into a legal relationship with God, but they consistently broke their side of the agreement throughout the generations. So, the weight of the Law, full of just and right consequences, had descended upon Jeremiah’s generation. God allowed the Babylonians to conquer, invade and rape the land of Judah. Lamentations describes utter chaos and unimaginable horrors, the chief being mentioned numerous times: mothers cooked and ate their children to stay alive. Collective shame and repentant admissions characterize the emotional tone of the book. Lamentations says,
Let us examine our ways and test them… let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven, and say: “We have sinned and rebelled…” Woe to us for we have sinned! (Lamentations 3:40-42, 5:16)
Even though Jeremiah was a righteous man, whose life was marked by courageous obedience to God, he included himself in the sins of his people. He acknowledged that wrongs were done and identified with those perpetrating those wrongs. He called for personal examination and for taking a posture of dependence not upon our own right actions on earth, but upon God in heaven.
Daniel: We have sinned.
Daniel was one of the thousands of Judean refugees taken to repatriate in Babylon as a political strategy to “Babylonianize” the conquered nations. Most people know the strong character and faith of Daniel. God himself called him “highly esteemed” (Dan. 10:10). Yet, when the seventy years of deportation was nearing an end and Daniel looked with hope to the return of his people to the land of Judah, Daniel included himself in his prayers of confession and repentance in Daniel 9:4-20. He wrote,
We have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled. We have turned away from your commands and laws. We are covered with shame. We have not obeyed the Lord our God. Our sins and the iniquities of our fathers have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us.
Daniel assumes accountability by including himself in his confession. He shares the blame with those who did wrong, even though he might be blameless himself. He recognized that he bore the scorn for the sins of the members of his family. He included himself in confessing and repenting.
Ezra: We are guilty.
When Judah was allowed to return to Jerusalem to begin rebuilding their temple and city, they continued to disobey God’s law. Ezra, an educated priest who returned to the abandoned city of Jerusalem from his country of birth in Persia, went a step farther than collective repentance. He felt the shame and disgrace of their sin personally. He says,
I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you, my God, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has been great for generations. Because of our sins, we and our kings and priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity. We have disregarded the commands. We are guilty. (Ezra 9:6-11)
Ezra took the collective sins of his people as personal shame. He admitted guilt and identified himself with his entire group for disobedience.
Don’t be an ostrich.
Throughout the book of Jeremiah and Lamentations, there are references to a type of person that keeps insisting things are going well, even when things are falling apart. Their optimism is not rooted in God’s mercy, or even in an insistence on truth, but on the desire to be popular and retain their influence and power. Lamentations describes this kind of person as an ostrich. In the midst of suffering and conflict they remain “heartless, like ostriches in the desert” (Lam. 4:3). In fear or stubbornness, they stuck their heads in the sand and refused to watch or participate or witness the thirst, hunger and death afflicting those around them.
To take my head out of the sand, I must be willing to see the experiences of others. I must be willing to examine not just my own personal wrongdoing, but how my group, or race, or religion or family has failed to uphold the just and right commands of God. I must be willing to include myself in confessing and repenting. In doing so, I may recognize my own inclinations and understand the full extent of the wrongs done to others by those whom I identify with, by choice or by birth.
We must recognize our collective wrongs.
When we take our heads out of the sand to recognize the collective wrongs done by our group, we begin to notice the small ways we might have contributed ourselves. Psalms 106:6 says,
We have sinned, even as our fathers and mothers did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly.
The entire chapter of Psalms 106 is a recounting of all the ways the generation of Israelites who were delivered from slavery in Egypt did wrong. The recounting continues by listing all the failures of the subsequent generations, until it reaches the author’s age. The author of this Psalms clarifies that the problems the nation was facing were not a result of one person’s wrongs, but the way of living for generations.
These past sins were not forgotten, nor overlooked. They were written down. In fact, the Old Testament Scriptures is not a book about the successes of Israel, but all the ways the nation failed! Why did Israel record its consistent failures to live justly and rightly? Because, it is only through confession, recounting our mistakes and failures, that we can understand and know the never-ending mercy of God.
Answer: Yes, the examples of the prophets encourages us to confess and repent of wrongs perpetrated by our group, race, religion, or family. As you follow the example of Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezra, may you experience the mercy and healing of our God in heaven.