My sincere apologies.

· Social Justice,Bible

I just finished listening to a Radiolab podcast episode on the topic of apology. Boy, can I relate! The guest reporter is—You guessed it!—Canadian. And what are the tropes that define Canadians?

And don’t forget. “Sorry!”

I’ve often been proud to be Canadian because instead of pushing back, we apologize. But the more I think about it, we say sorry a lot. So often, so mechanically that we tend to forget the meaning behind the word.

There has been a lot of talk in both psychological and Christian circles about how apology and forgiveness are both important even when one of the two is missing. I should apologize to someone I’ve wronged even if I don’t expect to receive their forgiveness. And I should forgive someone who has wronged me even if they don’t apologize. Why are these things good for me? They might give me a sense of “closure.” Or, from a more religious perspective, they might heal my soul and bring me closer to God.

But this is a very individualistic approach to apology and forgiveness. In both cases, the focus is on me and my own self-maintenance. Scripture is very clear that God has created us for relationships:

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:18)

God has created us to live in community, treating one another with love:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34‒35)

Being known for love requires that we live lives of repentance and forgiveness:

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. (Luke 11:4)

While apologies are required, the responsibility of forgiveness—full and whole forgiveness—must follow:

If a brother or sister sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” (Luke 17:3‒4)

Let’s not forget that Jesus, at the end of his life, forgives his unapologetic executioners and those who incited the act. There are no exceptions to the responsibility of forgiveness.

But surely there’s more to it than that. We can’t live together as community without some kind of reparation when wrong is done. Love and justice are not opposites. They go together.

Consider the Lukan story of Zacchaeus, the wealthy chief tax collector. The text indicates that he was short—although a minority argues that, when looking at the original Greek, it’s possible that Jesus was the short one. Regardless of their relative height, there’s something about the idea of being shorter than average that reflects on Zacchaeus’s character, especially as it was considered by others. Tax collectors were viewed as traitors, agents of the Roman government who pilfered for their own profit. While Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, he could not “on account of the crowd.”

He climbs a tree to gain some vantage. And Jesus notices him. To Zacchaeus’s delight and to the crowd’s dismay, Jesus invites himself to stay at Zacchaeus’s house.

What happened next? Did Zacchaeus kneel before Jesus? Did he apologize for taking
advantage of his own people by exploiting them? Nope.

Zacchaeus stood tall before Jesus. Admitting that he had defrauded his clients, he promised not only to pay them back but to give them four times as much as he stole. Not only that, but he committed to give half of his assets to all people suffering in poverty.

His apology comes in his actions. It’s a matter of restitution for those he has systematically exploited. And it’s a matter of provision to those who have much less than he has.

Perhaps Zacchaeus was inspired by what he knew of the law:

When a man or a woman wrongs another, breaking faith with the Lord, that person incurs guilt and shall confess the sin that has been committed. The person shall make full restitution for the wrong, adding one-fifth to it and giving it to the one who was wronged. (Numbers 5:6‒7)

Or perhaps he had already been reflecting on his life. We don’t know if these acts
brought Zacchaeus down to the economic level of those he cheated. But behind them
was the intention to change how he used his power. To become even shorter than the crowd.

Given the joy Zacchaeus expresses when Jesus chooses to be in his company, I suspect he was already past repentance, ready to meet Jesus, and planning restitution.

Why is this important for us?

Canada may be known for saying sorry. But the nation has done more harm to Indigenous
peoples than any verbal apology could ever make up for. In the interest of nation building, colonizers welcomed Indigenous people into exploitative treaties and then took them out of their lands. In the interest of making these people less problematic to their efforts, they removed Indigenous children from their homes and communities and then placed them in government-funded, church-operated residential schools. And by fracturing families and cultures, they left a legacy of poverty, addiction, and abuse. Every Canadian is complicit in this legacy as we continue to uphold, rather than overturn, the systems and structures that maintain it.

Credit needs to be given to many Indigenous peoples who have fought to reclaim their identities, families, languages, resources, and cultures. But the rest of us have a long way to go.

This is not to say there have been no efforts to change the way we use power. But change
comes slowly. In 2008, “We’re sorry” was said by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper—the result of a class-action lawsuit over the legacy of residential schools.

Another result of that lawsuit was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). As a means of identifying the truth about residential schools, the TRC interviewed many surviving former residents. Their stories are publicly available in The Survivors Speak. Prepare to shed tears.

Capping the efforts of the TRC was a report: Calls to Action. It lists 94 calls, some to the government and others to social bodies. If you search the report for “apology” you will find only a handful of results—mostly directed toward church parties. The focus of this document is not on saying sorry but on action. Change. It specifies how Canada can begin to redress what has happened and advance the process of reconciliation.

Adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Educate the public—children and adults alike—on the deep harm caused by colonization. Obtain the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples before proceeding with economic development projects. Maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries so the locations of buried children may be identified. These are only a few of the changes that need to happen, only a sampling of the work necessary to building new relationships.

“I’m sorry” is not unimportant. But when it comes to living in community, on its own, it is inadequate. There must also be reparative action. Love and justice are not opposites. So let’s get to work.