When the Japanese apologized for Pearl Harbor just two years ago, Americans were more puzzled than consoled by the act. The spectacle of important men bowing contritely seemed odd to our remorseless eyes. We regard apologizing as a private act, best done quickly and concealed in the manner of a fastidious cat. The thought of a ceremonial apology seems suspect, if not downright emasculating. That’s why John Rocker looked like a prisoner of war when he said he was sorry. And why no president has begged
forgiveness of the Indians, the descendants of slaves, the casualties of our unjust wars—the list goes on and on.
So it’s profoundly confusing to see this alien ritual of regret become a rite of enlightened Christianity. It was eerie enough when the American Lutherans apologized in 1995 for the anti-Semitic writings of Martin Luther, who enjoined his followers to shoot the Jews. What were we descendants of Luther’s targets to make of this repudiation of his remarks? Jews apologize annually to God but there’s no ritual for accepting atonement from one’s enemies. Thou shalt forgive is note one of the 10—or even the 613—commandments. And now comes the pope, apologizing not only to Jews but to women for the burning of witches and to native peoples for forced conversions.
Yet many recipients of these apologies seem resentful. As Seinfeld might observe, what’s up with that? The obvious answer is that the victims regard the crimes against them as too heinous to be eclipsed by remorse. Those who have tried to apologize for the Holocaust—especially if they happen to be German—have met with resistance from Jews who suspect that the real intention of such gestures is to lay the Shoah to rest.
Intellectuals never tire of pointing out that the war against the Jews was not just the deviant work of Nazis but a culmination of ideas generated over the course of a millennium by the church. So why buy a hedged act of atonement? You might as well skip lunch and call it fasting on Yom Kippur.
But an apology need not be an instrument of closure. It can also provide an opening for further discussion. So perhaps the proper response to the pope’s apology is to ask: Vus nu? What now?
The answer speaks to the power of an apology to heal more than a rift. Real regret is always directed not just at a misdeed but at a relationship. It demonstrates that the offender is willing to risk humiliation and confront shame out of regard for the person wronged. We don’t apologize to people we don’t care about, and because atonement carries this larger meaning of concern it has the capacity to do more than right a wrong. Asking for forgiveness—and bestowing it—are the stuff of growth.
For the persecutor, the benefit is clear. Self-esteem is impossible for someone haunted by the memory of evil committed in his or her name. The raw wound of unconscionable acts is like blood that cannot be wiped away. As in any compulsion, the response to this guilt grows more extreme and perverse the longer it remains unaddressed. It’s possible that the residual effect of evil, rather than a need to save souls or wrest earthly power, is what drove the church to prove its virtue in forced conversions and murderous crusades. Such “victories” only amplify the sense of sinfulness, especially when the wronged are still around to bear witness to your misdeeds. Jews are living evidence of ghastly Christian practice, and the pope is right to proclaim that his church cannot renew itself until the visage of the victim is caressed off every Jewish face.
But why should we Jews grant absolution? After all, a victim’s power is his refusal to forgive. No wonder hardcore Hebrews like Leon Wieseltier and Sidney Zion are fixed on the evident omissions in the pope’s apology. Of course his contrition is incomplete—no one ever repents for the full extent of his or her transgressions. But there is much to be gained from taking remorse at face value. It offers the oppressed a fateful chance to lose their victimhood. For Jews, this perception, honed on centuries of hate, is so consuming that it’s become the matrix of our identity. Persecution has shaped us, so that by now we know ourselves mostly through our negative image in Christian eyes.
We have yet to know what Jews would be like under a loving Christian gaze. Would we still be recognizable to ourselves? That question must give the Wieseltiers and Zions shpilkes, since they are wedded to a concept of Judaism steeped in the memory of other people’s evil. What if this identity were not the product of an ancient covenant with God but the result of social conditions that could change for the better? Whole new ways of being Jewish might emerge from the cessation of hostilities, and they would surely seem heretical, or at least naive, to the defenders of our unsafe faith. But these brave ventures would really be the core of Jewishness asserting itself in the absence of encrusted fear. What the pope’s apology promises is the exotic image of a happy Jew.
Now, if only it were possible for Americans to publicly apologize. We might have no need for the ridiculous rituals of closure that pervade our culture, not to mention the rite of revenge-as-healing that is capital punishment. If a president could bring himself to apologize for the original sin of slavery, who knows what changes in the destiny of our democracy might be catalyzed? If men were willing to apologize to women for the wickedness of sexism, what new models for intimacy would arise?
There are reasons not to accept an apology: when the pain is still too great or when nothing will change as a result. But this is hardly the case with the pope’s atonement. The pain of Christian history is still with us, but so is the prospect of transformation. Hope is the thing with feathers, they say, but for me it’s a playground in which all my nightmares have become the stuff of children’s games.
Just don’t ask me to accept John Rocker’s apology.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 28, 2000