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
A few years ago at a ministers’ meeting a petition was being circulated by an activist colleague asking the
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
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
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
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.