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When an Apology Isn't Enough to Right Old Wrongs

August 06, 2000|Jason Berry | Jason Berry is the author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation" and the forthcoming "Louisiana Faces: Images from a Renaissance," a collaboration with photographer Philip Gould

NEW ORLEANS — A culture of apology has emerged in the public square. Powerful people and institutions are voicing regret for past moral failure.

Pope John Paul II expressed regret for anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church and the role of the church in the Holocaust. President Bill Clinton apologized to Africans for U.S. failure to intervene during the genocide in Rwanda. On July 4, the Hartford Courant, the nation's oldest continuously published newspaper, ran an account of its late-18th and early-19th century advertisements for slaves in Connecticut. The paper followed with a formal apology. In a curious twist, a delegation from the West African nation of Benin recently visited Virginia and apologized for the role the kingdom of Dahomey, as the country was known in the 19th century, played in facilitating the sale of African prisoners to Europeans, who later resold them as slaves in America.

In a culture obsessed with fame and money, this odd caravan of apology makers comes trudging across the media grid, insisting on the radical premise that truth matters. In excavating realities buried by ignorance or ideology, there is a possibility of justice delayed. "Positive peace," said Martin Luther King Jr., "is the presence of justice." Yet, a true apology, it would seem, must be personal, from those who transgressed to those whom they harmed.

But apology--an admission of errors or terrible wrongs--is not the same as atonement. Atonement is a process of contrition, acts of reparation. It succeeds by changing public opinion, teaching values in the course of mending what has been torn apart, replacing right with wrong. Atonement, in addition to apology, is what's needed.

Many rabbis praised the pope for his statement on "the sin of anti-Semitism." Other Jews, however, want greater candor from the church when it confronts the pernicious myth of Jews as Christ killers, which has been embedded in church thinking for centuries.

In "Papal Sin," historian Garry Wills dissects the "structures of deceit" built by Vatican authorities since the late 19th century to shroud the papacy in an aura of perfect truth. "To maintain an impression that popes cannot err," writes Wills, "the teaching part of the church is continually tugged off from the truth, or made to shy away from its consequences, precisely because it claims special access to the truth. The papal record has to be whitewashed, even when that effort inhibits sincere attempts at good works--as when the effort to express sorrow over the Holocaust was blocked, at every point, by a nervous reassertion of the church's essentially innocent behavior toward the Jews."

The pope's refusal to halt the nomination for sainthood of Pope Pius XII is an example of the church's whitewashing mentality. Orthodox apologists who deny the motivations ascribed to Pius in John Cornwell's "Hitler's Pope" fail to account for the papacy's silence in the face of Nazi genocide. Yet, in reaching out to Jews, the pope cracked open a door, long closed, that invites investigations of the church's past, whose results will weigh on future popes. As a parable of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, his move is a form of atonement, the starting of dialogue.

A similar reluctance to confront past wrongs echoes in the mentality of whites who want to feel innocent about the status of black America. Policymakers and politicians hostile to affirmative action appeal to this notion of innocence by proclaiming that America has become a colorblind society, thanks to the heroic work of the civil rights movement.

The rooted ills of black America--splintered families, substandard schools, cycles of crime and poverty--are, in many ways, residual products of the old slave economy. That's not to say that every person of color is trapped by his or her past. But with black men disproportionately imprisoned and executed, and with African American per-capita earnings still behind those of whites, the inequities are historical in scope.

Slavery imposed conditions--and an identity--on people who had no choice. "Slavery was so woven into the nation's economy and social fabric that such ads [by owners seeking the return of runaways] were probably less controversial than gun or tobacco marketing would be today," the Courant reported in an assessment of the paper's role in the slave trade.

The Courant and other papers, including the Akron Beacon Journal, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and lately the New York Times, have reported extensively on issues of race, rooted in slavery. These news packages carry more than symbolic importance. They confront readers with forces of the past that roil beneath the surface issues of today's politics.

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