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A time to unpack what forgiveness and apologies mean

Among the many mysteries of faith, the roles of apologies and forgiveness rank pretty high on Easter weekend.

ForgivenessOne way of putting the Christian story, after all, is that the death of Jesus meant the forgiveness of our sins. The long-standing question, of course, is who gets included in the word "our."

As we think about being forgiven and forgiving others, it's helpful to think about apologies and their worth. To receive forgiveness, must we first apologize? And if we somehow represent more people than ourselves, can we legitimately apologize on behalf of others? Beyond that, do we have any standing to apologize for actions taken not by us but by, say, our ancestors or some of our long-dead fellow citizens?

Questions like that, I hope, will come to your mind when you read this piece from The Conversation about what it means when a pope apologizes.

The specific apology first dealt with in the article is one Pope Francis made recently "to First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations, acknowledging the harm done by residential schools in Canada. . ."

Stories of mass graves of Indigenous children at boarding schools have received a lot of attention in the past year or so.

The author of the article, Annie Selak, associate director of the Women's Center at Georgetown University, writes that "As a Catholic theologian who studies church authority, I’ve observed how previous papal apologies can speak for the entire church and either deny or claim responsibility." And she adds this:

"It was once unthinkable for a pope to apologize, for admitting guilt would imply that the church was sinful. However, the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of bishops, cardinals, heads of religious orders and theologians that met from 1962 to 1965 and modernized the church, shifted the church’s perspective on change and instituted major reforms. It also opened the door to admitting fault."

So faith communities can -- and do -- establish their own rules for apologies and forgiveness, and they may not match the rules set by other faith communities. Governments, too, can -- and sometimes do -- issue apologies for actions taken by current or previous governments. The question is whether those apologies change anything, either in the one offering them or the ones receiving them.

No doubt part of figuring that out has to do with whether the apology seems sincere or whether it was simply a statement about being sorry that "you took it that way."

Beyond that, apologies that don't result in changed behavior seem pretty worthless. And yet Selak makes a valid point when she writes this: "While there are certainly actions that are necessary to repair and restore justice, I argue that it is also important to recognize that apologizing is itself an action." (To which I'd add, "though sometimes an empty action.")

In traditional Christian worship there's often both a corporate confession of sins and, after that, words that offer what's called an "assurance of pardon."

Whether in worship or simply in our daily lives, it's always useful to think about who is authorized to offer an apology and who is authorized to offer forgiveness. As someone with German heritage, for instance, do I personally have any standing to apologize to Jewish people for the Holocaust? Similarly, do Jews born after the Holocaust have any standing to offer forgiveness to German people also born after World War II?

In the end, philosophers and theologians can argue about such matters. And should. But the question I, as a Christian, must ask myself on Easter weekend is whether I need to apologize for any of my actions or thoughts and seek forgiveness. The answer every Easter is the same: Of course I do. After all, I'm human.

(P.S.: Here is an excellent article, apropos for Easter, from New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine about how Christians can avoid more anti-Judaism on this sacred day.)

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The origins of the so-called Easter Bunny are quite ancient, as this article from The Conversation notes. Indeed, it's always interesting to find out about the beginnings of our various cultural and religious traditions. In this case, however, the author, Tok Thompson, who teaches anthropology and communication at U.S.C., can't seem to acknowledge what Easter itself is about. He says this: "Easter is a celebration of spring and new life." But he doesn't say whose new life we're talking about. Here's a hint: Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ. You may believe in that resurrection or not, but that's what Easter is about.


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