Because of the grace of Jesus, we are invited to forgive over and over again. 70 times 7. We are invited and enabled to forgive even before someone apologizes. We can even forgive if they never apologize. We can forgive not because of who the other person is or what they have done, but because of who Jesus is and what He has done in forgiving us. When we do wrong, we are to apologize and we are to apologize when we have caused pain, hurt, and loss. We are to try to make amends and to make things right. An apology doesn’t take away what happened, but it does show that we agree that offense has been committed and it is our desire to heal and rebuild the relationship that is broken, with a view upon the Cross of Christ. We also understand that we might not be able to rebuild the relationship, but the disposition of our heart is to sincerely try.
“Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” – Amos 3:3.
An Apology Starts Us Down the Road of Reconciliation. It is not the Finish Line.
An apology does not equal reconciliation. Reconciliation is not always possible and it is not always advisable depending on the circumstances. But if it is ever going to happen, a sincere apology and forgiveness are the first step in that process, not the finish line. Actual reconciling means that we come together and begin to go forward in relationship with one another. It’s possible to apologize and still go our separate ways and forego reconciliation completely. (This is especially true if the apology is insincere or self-serving.)
We should understand that an apology is just the beginning of the hard work of joining together in fellowship, which means that we carry each others burdens and we even sacrifice ourselves for the other. Jesus died to secure reconciliation between us and God and between us together.
Philippians 2:1-5 “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…”
Basically, if you have received anything at all from Jesus, we, in humility, ought to be caring about others before we care about ourselves. We need to care about the position of others before we seek to promote, protect, and defend our own “way of life.” That is Christianity 101. And, that kind of attitude rooted in Christ and the Cross will enable us to love others and readily apologize to those we have wounded.
But, while an apology is important as a first step in restoring relationships and bringing healing, it isn’t the end. It is a beginning. For example, In 1995, Southern Baptists apologized for a beginning and history of supporting slavery, supporting racism, and for causing harm to our brothers and sisters in Christ. A few significant statements:
…WHEREAS, Our relationship to African-Americans has been hindered from the beginning by the role that slavery played in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention; and
WHEREAS, Many of our Southern Baptist forbears defended the right to own slaves, and either participated in, supported, or acquiesced in the particularly inhumane nature of American slavery; and
WHEREAS, In later years Southern Baptists failed, in many cases, to support, and in some cases opposed, legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans; and
WHEREAS, Racism has led to discrimination, oppression, injustice, and violence, both in the Civil War and throughout the history of our nation; and
WHEREAS, Racism has divided the body of Christ and Southern Baptists in particular, and separated us from our African-American brothers and sisters; and
WHEREAS, Many of our congregations have intentionally and/or unintentionally excluded African-Americans from worship, membership, and leadership; and …
It goes on in the RESOLVEDs…
Be it further RESOLVED, That we lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously (Psalm 19:13) or unconsciously (Leviticus 4:27); and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we ask forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we hereby commit ourselves to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we commit ourselves to be doers of the Word (James 1:22) by pursuing racial reconciliation in all our relationships, especially with our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 2:6), to the end that our light would so shine before others, that they may see (our) good works and glorify (our) Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16); and
It was a good statement. It acknowledged wrong-doing and identified with the sins of the past. It recognized the hurt and pain that was caused by the actions of the SBC, both in leadership and in the pew. It apologized for, repudiated, and renounced the evil and, yes, heresy that was promoted by Southern Baptists in defending slavery and racism. And, it RESOLVED that we would “commit ourselves to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry” and that we would pursue “racial reconciliation in all our relationships.” This had a missional purpose in positioning us so we would reconcile, love one another in relationship, and so our light would shine and we could glorify God and rightly take the gospel to the ends of the earth. TOGETHER.
But, Does The Apology Mean Anything?
So, we apologized. It was a good beginning. But, did we continue down the road to reconciliation? Or, have some of us used this apology from 23 years ago as an excuse to just “move on” and not deal with the residue and effects of our historical, institutional, and structural racism and sin that the very apology clearly stated should be addressed in an ongoing manner? How many times have we heard over the past two decades, “We already apologized for that. How many times do we have to apologize?” When the subject of racial division and prejudice is brought up in any way, immediately there is a cacophony of Southern Baptist pastors and church members who descend from all corners accusing whoever brings it up of being a “social justice warrior,” a “cultural Marxist,” a “liberal,” and a “progressive” who is just stirring up trouble. That response misses the point of the 1995 apology that they refer to.
Yet, the vast majority of Southern Baptist churches remain racially divided. With all of our good top-down focus from our entities on this issue, the SBC is still hovering around 90% white in a nation that is rapidly approaching majority-minority status. Recently, when looking for new trustee nominees for our entities, the mandate went out to intentionally look for ethnic and racial minorities. The result of that directive was that the Committee on Nominations brought back 67 out of 69 white nominees. The answer given by many as to why the slate was not more diverse after decades of calling for more diversity, was that we nominate who we know and white Southern Baptists still just aren’t in relationship with African American, Asian, Latino, and other minority Southern Baptists. There seems to be some kind of ongoing, structural, invisible hand of ethnic and racial division that keeps us separated. And, when it is brought up as the 1995 Resolution tells us to do, there are those of us who cry foul.
We do recognize that we have made progress and many in SBC life work hard at reconciliation, but the point of the 1995 apology is that awareness and progress is to be ongoing. We just received a report card on where we stand in building relationships that demonstrate true reconciliation and we now clearly see that we have a long way to go.
The whole purpose of the 1995 Apology was not to say some words to get off the hook and be able to point back to it and say “See! We already dealt with that! Now shut up about it!” while we go on ignoring the result of 150 years of sin, division, pain, and schism in the body of Christ. Our past racism had an effect that we are still dealing with today as white Southern Baptists often STILL aren’t in close relationship with brothers and sisters of other races the way we need to be and the way the 1995 Apology directs. As white Baptists, we don’t need to invite minority Baptists to our table. We need a new table where we all sit together as one in Christ and join together for the purpose of loving one another, letting our light shine together, mutually submitting to one another, blessing one another, doing good works together, and laboring TOGETHER in mission to all the nations of the world. The purpose of the 1995 Apology was meant to be a beginning and it laid out that there was much work to be done to make things right.
But, the apology only really means anything lasting if actions follow that lead to real reconciliation, at least where it is possible with African American baptists – fruit in keeping with repentance. For those white Southern Baptists who are actively seeking and building relationships with African Americans and other minority believers and unbelievers, the 1995 Apology is active and has meaning. For those who aren’t doing that, it means very little and is just an historical footnote.
Attached to the apology is a call to action to rebuild what was broken and to actively reconcile through ongoing action. It isn’t a real apology if you just say some words so you can move on. But, many Southern Baptists, in many ways, have excelled in saying some words, passively voting for resolutions, apologizing, and within minutes engaging the growing chorus of, “See! We apologized! Move on! It’s over! Don’t bring it up again!” All of that shows us that the purpose of the apology, at least in the way it is being used by some, is not to make things right and begin to carry on an ongoing process of reconciliation that glorifies God. But rather, the apology is then being used as a hammer to shut up anyone who is still hurt, who has not experienced reconciliation, and is who still shut out from full healing and resulting fellowship with the body of Christ. When the “apology” is used that way, it is abusive.
Which leads me to the situation with Dr. Paige Patterson. I’m not going to recount the whole saga. It has been written about ad nauseum. We’ll just say this: IF his apology is sincere, it won’t be the end of things. It will be a beginning. He will recognize the people who have been wounded. He will truly listen to the women who have written and spoken about how his words and actions have hurt them. He will make opportunity for further dialogue on issues of abuse and he will seek reconciliation that goes beyond words on a page and that turn into actions. His focus won’t be on his position, platform, prominence, or past history – and it sure won’t be as “Father of the Conservative Resurgence,” but rather, he will humbly focus on working to make things right. His followers will not, within minutes of his apology being posted, immediately begin to berate and bludgeon people with a demand to “move on” and “forget it!” and “it’s over, he apologized!” That response demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the situation. And if Dr. Patterson’s apology is sincere, it short-circuits the real work that Dr. Patterson intends for the future. The focus shouldn’t be to protect Patterson, but rather, it should be to actually let the purpose of his apology do the work it is supposed to do toward those who have been affected by his actions. In saying all of this, We are simply saying that Patterson’s own apology needs clarifying, fleshing out, and applying, as every apology should so it ends up being more than a PR statement.
The more we hear, “He apologized, move on!” the more it’s possible that his apology would be used, by some, as a hammer to beat people with. And, that is spiritually and relationally abusive and should be rejected. We would expect Dr. Patterson, if his apology is sincere, to speak against such use of his words. He can begin by speaking out against that right now. Like, today.
Apologies only have meaning when they are a beginning to a process of reconciliation and not a quick way for the offender to “just move on.” Perhaps that process is not possible. Maybe the best thing is to apologize, forgive, and part ways. That is not my decision. But, we pray that Dr. Patterson’s apology produces fruit in keeping with repentance – just as I pray that the 1995 SBC Apology and call for Racial Reconciliation will no longer be used by some as a hammer to bludgeon those who call for the resolution to actually be carried out, but as a reminder that an apology just gets us started down the road to reconciliation. If real, it is a beginning, not the destination. And, as is painfully obvious, we have a long way to go.