The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples





Three years ago at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association the American Indian tribe that had been contacted to give us our annual blessing for meeting on land that used to belong to them (actually, we were unable to find a local tribe for the purpose that year so we went further afield) dealt us what I considered a highly salutary slap in the face. These weren’t the exact words, but close enough: “We have our own lives to live, and that doesn’t include time to make you feel good about how sensitive you are to white people’s guilty past.” The consequence of that was to set up a “truth and reconciliation committee” based loosely — very loosely — on the commissions set up in the Union of South Africa after the end of apartheid. One of the most important differences was that in South Africa the deeds being examined were contemporary and the witnesses were, in fact, witnesses, both perpetrators and victims. Our committee’s purpose was to dig up more stuff for us to feel guilty about and to apologize for, in particular reference to American Indians. In regard to that language, by the way, it seems that the more radical Indian rights groups are rejecting the term Native Americans as a contemptible effort at conciliation.


A few years ago at a ministers’ meeting a petition was being circulated by an activist colleague asking the United States government to apologize to the Japanese people for that bombing.  I did not sign it. In fact, I said that I would not sign it unless the world and we could have an equally formal apology for the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the rape of Manchuria and the Bataan Death March. I would probably not have signed it even then because I think that formal apologies from one government to another, generations after the incident, by people who were uninvolved in the decisions and particularly with no intent to attempt to reverse or ameliorate any of the evil consequences for those who were harmed is not only an irrelevant exercise, but an act of sentimentality which attempts to establish a false political purity. Sort of a ritual cleansing. For us it is an equally sentimental effort to somehow maintain a sense of our own present virtue by apologizing for someone else’s past.


It’s not that I don’t believe in apologizing. In its most trivial form it is one of those niceties that smooth the complexities of social life. An abject apology for stepping on someone’s foot or forgetting a social obligation or (with promises of restitution) for breaking a favorite vase may save you from retribution and maintain a relationship on a cordial basis. For more serious transgressions the sincere expression of regret, an attempt to atone and a determination not to repeat the offense are necessary and may even be enough to have the same effect. For a government, or any official group, however, to apologize for a historical event which later generations perceive as wrong, independent of an understanding of the history and culture within which it occurred and without the intention or ability to redress the perceived wrong — should it still exist — seems less than ingenuous to me.


In regard to our dropping of the atom bomb, although in hindsight it seems much worse than it probably did at the time when information about radiation sickness and long-term effects was lacking, it still seems to me that an apology is not warranted. The horror that one airplane and one bomb could produce does not obviate the truth that at least equal damage was done to many other sites, and it is still argued by many that in fact the dropping of the bombs saved more lives that it destroyed. When I was in junior high school at what was the height of the nuclear fear when people were building bomb shelters in their back yards and schoolchildren were being futilely and ludicrously trained to hide under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack, we had a speaker from Japan at one of our monthly assemblies. I don’t remember what his topic was — it had nothing to do with the war or with nuclear weapons — but before he began he said to us with such emphasis and seriousness that I have never forgotten it, that we should not feel guilty about the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that if Japan had had the bombs first they would have dropped them, and that it wasn’t our fault anyway since we were not the decision makers at the time.


Human history is full of the wrongs done by some to others. Even protohuman protohistory has it, as the Cro-Magnons wiped out the Neanderthals. Do we regret that? There are no Neanderthals left to whom to apologize. I think the apologies are really attempts to put the history behind us, to go on to a next step of mutual reconciliation. We need to do that, I think, but easy apologies neither change the past nor ameliorate the present. They allow us to feel good about ourselves as we place the values of the present on a past that did not share them, thus, I believe, precluding the understanding of our history that is necessary before we can understand the times in which we live and the people who make up the human family. There are still oppressions, violence, hatred and grievances among us. No apology will make that go away, especially an apology that cannot change the way things are.


Tomorrow is the 520th anniversary of the discovery of the Western Hemisphere by Christopher Columbus. It was an event that utterly changed the world. Because we have now decided that imperialism is wrong the event goes almost entirely uncelebrated except by protests, apologies and attempts to make his achievement seem not only evil but irrelevant. After all, he wasn’t the first European to land in the Americas or even to start colonization. Except that his feat changed the world, and without it most of us would not be here. Do we really wish he hadn’t done it? It is certainly true that his treatment and his later followers treatment of the people who were already here was unforgivable — unforgivable to modern sensibilities, but in his day seen to be heroic, good and right. It seems rather unfair to blame him for what his society taught him and most of the consequences of which we would be entirely unwilling to change even if we could. If we were all ready to pack up and return to wherever our ancestors came from, if we knew where it was and if there were room for us, which is highly unlikely, then perhaps an apology for Columbus’ behavior would be in order. 


A few years ago President Clinton made a trip to Africa, and used the opportunity essentially to apologize for the slave trade and the institution of slavery in the United States. It seemed like an odd venue to choose for such apologies. Not only were the people to whom he spoke not those who had suffered, or even descended from them, since only in Liberia are there descendents of American slaves, but the ancestors of many of them were certainly people who had enslaved and sold the slaves to American traders. Slavery is a terrible thing, but until quite recently in human history it has been taken as a matter of course. Conquered peoples were made into slaves and people even sold their own children into slavery. Although it is now almost universally condemned, there are still many incidents of its continued occurrence even in the United States, and quite widely in other places. Here is an example of where an understanding of history is so vitally important. It is not slavery in itself that has created the modern evils that stem from it, but American slavery’s most terrible consequence. This country was founded on principles of democracy. Its most honored document besides the Constitution — perhaps more honored — was the Declaration of Independence. In that declaration it was stated that human beings had unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If that was the case, the cognitive dissonance of slavery was unbearable, and it was necessary to create racism, to define the slaves as not fully human. That was the evil — an evil tragically based on belief in our own goodness — which has created so much of modern injustice in our society, not slavery.


What has been done to the American Indians, or as I have heard them called, First Settlers, and to the descendents of those Africans who were brought here as slaves cannot be undone by breast-beating guilt or apologies. We cannot logically assume guilt for something we have not done, nor, indeed, many of our ancestors, who immigrated after it was all a fait accompli.  We cannot even say that what those ancestors who are indeed implicated did was wrong, since in the light of their days and times they were heroic and right. All of us, black and white and brown and yellow and all shades in between had ancestors who did things that at the time were considered good that we now know, partly from their consequences, more from our changing moral values, were horribly wrong. We know some of the history, and even if it was indeed written by the winners, we can recognize the evil in it.


The apologies that are sometimes demanded by those who have been oppressed are, I suppose, harmless except insofar as they may lay blame in the wrong place and allow us to believe that we have transcended our history. Laying blame is not useful ever. The historic wrongs that are being avenged in various parts of the world are creating new wrongs to be avenged. It is sadly true that we must learn somehow to transcend our human history, to come to a new understanding and a new forgiveness of one another. I don’t think facile apologies can help in any way. We have no intention of returning the land that was stolen from the first Settlers. We cannot undo the years of wrong that racism has created and continued. But surely we can quit bludgeoning one another with history.


The first thing to do is to try to discover honest history, taking into account the times and cultures in which it occurred without trying to create a rival history which has the merit only of being biased on the other side of an issue. When we do that, perhaps we can begin to understand and to forgive those who did what in our day we would not do. Perhaps we can then begin to address the real consequences of that history with which we must live. We cannot change the past except in fantasy, but we can hope to change the present. We can look at the present-day consequences to the First Settlers of their past wrongs and present issues and try to change the present causes of the continued poverty and disease in so many of the places that they live, joining with them in efforts to live now in peace and plenty. Not just the winners, not just the descendents of the oppressors or those who have reaped the benefits of others oppression, but also those who were oppressed. We must have equal understanding, equal willingness to put the history behind us while never forgetting it, since to forget it is to cease to understand.


We must fight the consequences of slavery in racism — not just the perpetrators but the victims, in equal understanding and shared power. An apology simply reiterates the fact of victimhood without enabling the shared understanding of what we need to do to transcend our history. Neither oppressors nor oppressed can do it alone.


And also in other parts of the world where history creates victims and victimizers on one side and another, piling them up, destroying the real past to make new reasons, new excuses for hatred and vengeance, somehow we must learn to reclaim our real history, not to put it behind us, not to lay blame or accept guilt, but to transcend it and try to work together to find a way to end the sorrows and sufferings it has caused. There is plenty of guilt to go around. There is plenty of suffering so that each of us can claim a share. If we are obsessed with what our ancestors have done, how far back will we go, and who is the victim, who is the victimizer? We know the more modern ones, of course, but they are no more or less blameworthy than their parents, their grandparents, their ancestors back to Adam — or the last killer of a Neanderthal. We must all stop the game of blaming and begin one in which all of us can accept responsibility for our human past and our human future in which we must find ways to love and respect one another, in order to create a world of peace and love.