catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 6 :: 2005.03.25 — 2005.04.07


The pivotal apology

In the summer between high school and college, my friends and I used to engage in debate with a non-Christian friend?perhaps he could be labeled as a secular humanist?over coffee at our favorite caf?. He thoroughly enjoyed challenging us on the point of our lifelong, but young faith and we imagined that someday we might say THE thing that would help him suddenly understand our convictions.

I remember one particular evening, he was drilling us on the difference between faith and works righteousness. Having been raised in a Catholic church, he had the impression that salvation was something earned and maintained by doing the right things. We claimed that we didn?t have to do anything to earn salvation. He countered with the question of why everyone wasn?t automatically saved then. And we sheepishly supposed that one still had to repent of one?s sins to be saved.

?Then you do have to DO something to earn your salvation??

?Well, no?? We were going in circles. We had some recited notion about there being nothing we could do to earn salvation, but we just couldn?t quite find our own words to convey a paradox that was bred in our bones.

This summer debate has been on my mind since last weekend, when we watched a film at our church called Long Night?s Journey Into Day, about the work of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. The accompanying study guide included an essay by Priscilla B. Hayner explaining the background and nature of the commission, which was established to help citizens heal after forty years of systematic racial oppression through the public confession of wrongdoing. She writes:

The most controversial of the commission’s powers was its power to grant amnesty. Amnesty could be granted only to those who fully confessed to their involvement in past crimes and showed them to be politically motivated. The Commission’s amnesty committee considered a number of factors in determining whether the applicant satisfied the terms for amnesty. Among them, the committee was directed to consider the relationship between the act, omission, or offense and the political objective pursued, and in particular whether there was “proportionality” between the act and the political objective pursued. Any crimes committed for personal gain, or out of personal malice, ill will, or spite were not eligible for amnesty. Neither an apology nor any sign of remorse was necessary to be granted amnesty.

The more I learn about the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, the more I?m amazed at the wisdom inherent in its structure. While the commission was not without critics and flaws, thousands of victims and perpetrators were given space to publicly dismantle the history of oppression, so that a new and more just institution could be built in apartheid?s place. The four stories covered in the film are extremely powerful as they show people struggling to find healing after committing violence against one another and enduring the pain of losing loved ones as a result of unfounded fear. Rather than finding peace in isolation, victims and perpetrators find themselves engaged in the face-to-face work of knowing and forgiving the other.

The Truth & Reconciliation Commission exemplifies something I?ve come to know as true since our summer conversations with our non-Christian friend: that true repentance is not simply an act, but a state of being that may or may not precipitate an identifiable act. The commission realized that forcing an apology in exchange for amnesty would produce a weak statement of regret poisoned by fear and politics. We Christians must realize the same and be careful in the way we speak about the interconnectedness of repentance and salvation.

While the act of apologizing may be what completes the circle of repentance in many cases, it is ultimately love that energizes the process?love of neighbor and love of a living God. And because God lives, the circle of love and repentance has no end for the fallen. So we can talk about salvation as being realized through the confession of sin before God, but we can also choose to talk about salvation as the realization of an irresistible love that saturates our beings with the desire to serve in spite of weakness. Let us not ignore our guilt, but let us not overemphasize repentance so that it becomes disconnected from the love that is its source.

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