Christians Worldwide Showing Remorse for Racism of Past Forgiveness Sought from Rome to Hawaii

By John Dart 1995, Los Angeles Times | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 21, 1995 | Go to article overview

Christians Worldwide Showing Remorse for Racism of Past Forgiveness Sought from Rome to Hawaii


John Dart 1995, Los Angeles Times, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


A WAVE OF CONFESSION and repentance for past sins, some of them the racist evils of decades or centuries ago, is sweeping Christianity worldwide.

It reaches from the pope, who wants Catholicism to openly repent its historical transgressions before the next millennium, to hundreds of German Christians who gathered recently in Holland to apologize for the atrocities of the Nazi era.

In France next Easter, Protestants and Catholics will gather to begin a series of ceremonies along the route to Jerusalem taken by the medieval Crusaders, saying prayers of remorse for the thousands of Muslims the European knights slew in the name of Christ.

Lutherans have expressed contrition for the anti-Semitism of their church's founder, Martin Luther. New Zealanders have gathered by the thousands to confess sins against the Maoris. Americans say prayers of atonement on wind-swept prairies where white men massacred Indians. Japanese Christians - stepping boldly in where their government waffled - will ask forgiveness for Pearl Harbor.

And Tuesday, the largest Protestant body in the United States, the Southern Baptists, formally apologized to blacks for having endorsed slavery.

Why the mass rush to repentance?

Although many of the groups have no connection to one another and do not coordinate their actions, Christian leaders involved offer many explanations: greater interaction among races and ethnic groups leading to greater efforts to erase bitter memories; growing cooperation and theological unity among Christians; and hopes for a religious revival after Christianity comes clean on its historical sins.

The outbreak of "mea culpas" has met with praise and skepticism among Christians as well as the people to whom they apologize.

"Cautious optimists see it as a good sign for coming changes, but the skeptics say they have heard it all before - empty promises," said Russell L. Twiss of Vancouver, Wash., a Lakota Sioux and director of the International Bible Society's Native American ministry.

The idea of later generations repenting a historic evil does not seem meaningful, said James Wall of Chicago, editor of The Christian Century, a leading mainline Protestant magazine.

Slavery was the subject of the largest such mass apology in the United States. The 20,000 "messengers" - as delegates are called - to the Southern Baptists' annual meeting in Atlanta, which began Tuesday, approved a resolution lamenting the fact the denomination was founded in 1845 in part to provide a religious home for Southern slave owners before the Civil War.

"Many of us feel it would be unseemly and terribly wrong to celebrate our sesquicentennial without addressing forthrightly the more unsavory aspects of our past," said Richard Land, director of the Southern Baptists' Christian Life Commission.

In the case of Pope John Paul II, the impetus comes from the approach of the third millennium - or thousand-year period - since the birth of Christ, an anniversary expected to bring both critical assessments of Christianity and celebrations of its history.

The leader of 950 million Catholics worldwide set the tone in 1992 by formally acknowledging that 17th-century church judges erred when they condemned Italian astronomer Galilei Galileo for saying the earth revolved about the sun. On trips that year, John Paul apologized in Africa for church complicity in the slave trade and lamented in Latin America the Catholic exploitation of American Indians.

Last month in the Czech Republic, the pope apologized for the brutal Protestant-Catholic wars that wracked Europe from the 15th to 17th centuries.

In the same spirit, leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America confessed in April 1994 that the "anti-Judaic diatribes" of Lutheranism's 16th-century founder, Martin Luther, are still used to bolster the teaching of hatred toward Jews. …

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