July 2008 the United States House of Representatives passes a resolution apologizing for the more than two hundred years of slavery and the decades of Jim Crow that followed.
June 2009 the United States Senate passes a resolution apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow.
October 2007 Tallahatchie County Mississippi Board of Supervisors and Sheriff William Brewer, Jr. sign a resolution apologizing to the surviving family of Emmett Till for his murder and for the acquittal of the two men who murdered him.
March 2013 Montgomery Alabama police chief Kevin Murphy apologizes to Congressman John Lewis for the failure of police to protect Lewis and other Freedom Riders from mob attacks when they rode through Montgomery in 1961.
April 2012 “I am sorry for the loss of your son,” George Zimmerman says at his bail hearing to the parents of Trayvon Martin.
When we were growing up, my parents taught my siblings and me that one of the noblest things to do was to apologize, to say “I am sorry” to those whom we had wronged through our words or our deeds. Saying “I’m sorry” did not come easy, for we knew that in uttering those words we were proclaiming regret for the harm we had done to another, taking responsibility for that harm, and declaring our sincere intent to change our harmful ways. To offer an apology was not a retraction, but regret. It was not an excuse for bad behavior, but a step toward altering that behavior.
An apology is not an apologetic. An apologetic is a defense, a justification for one’s actions. There is no regret intended. There is no offer to change one’s ways, for there is little or no recognition that one’s ways need to be changed. An apologetic involves rationalization. An apology, however, involves repentance.
Repentance indicates that a change is under way. It is about turning away from one way of acting and turning toward another way of acting. With repentance there is regret offered, responsibility accepted, and a re-orientation taking place. Repentance is about nothing less than a sincere commitment and effort to right a wrong. Repentance is what a true apology is all about. Repentance is at the core of many of the world’s religions. It is about turning away from the ways of sin and turning toward the ways of God.
Somewhere along the line the Greek word “apologia” (suggesting a defense) gave way to the English word apology (suggesting repentance). It now seems that in our nation we have come full circle. For the apology has become little more than an apologetic. The words “I’m sorry” have become little more than a defense for bad behavior. An apologetic culture, hiding behind the words “I’m sorry,” has taken root within our society. Within this culture regret, responsibility and re-orientation are not assumed. Repentance is not required.
If we are going to right the wrongs of this nation, if justice is to be served, then the litanies of the apologetic “I’m sorry” must end and repentance must take place. There must be a change in the way in which we regard one another and this means that there must be a change in the systems and structures which privilege and protect certain bodies while penalizing and demonizing others. These systems and structures are reflect nothing less than the ways of sin. They separate us from one another and they alienate us from the ways of God.
“I’m sorry for slavery, they say—but then there is the Industrial Prison Complex. I’m sorry for what happen to the Freedom Riders, they say—but then there is repeal of the Voter’s Rights Act. I’m sorry for Emmett Till they say, but then there is Trayvon Martin. “I’m sorry for Trayvon Martin they say—but then . . .
The words “I’m sorry” ring hollow as long as there are bodies abused, abandoned and destroyed as well as lives lost because of their color, gender or sexual orientation. The time for I’m sorry is over. It is now time to repent for the injustices that continue to infect our nation and to inflect themselves upon innocent bodies.
Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.” She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black Christ, Sexuality and the Black Church, What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul. Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.