The Words Ring Hollow by Kelly Brown Douglas

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 ChristSexuality and the Black ChurchWhat’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.

Categories: Abuse of Power, Community, General, Justice, Racism, Resistance, Violence

Tags: , , , ,

6 replies

  1. May it be so. My heart is aching for the parents of Trayon Martin and for all black parents who had to explain what happened and could happen to their sons. Let’s send the stop and frisk police into college dorms and then decriminalize marijuana. Let’s end 3 strikes and you’re out. Let’s stop using swat teams for ordinary arrests. Let’s figure out how to educate all our children. Let’s teach white people about how racism has infected their minds to the point that a black child gets killed and the twisted racist man who did it walks free and gets his gun back. Let’s change a system in which thugs and gangs are allowed to “run” the prisons and terrorize other prisoners, some of them only boys. Let’s change our world.


  2. Great post thank you. It reminds me of Oscar Wilde, in his long letter to Bosie while he (OW) was in His Majesty’s Prison in Reading : ‘Of course the sinner must repent. But why? Simply because otherwise he would be unable to realise what he had done. The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation’.


  3. Thank you for your moving post, for telling it like it really is. We need people of all colours and backgrounds to come together and fix this, for once and for all. As you say, it’s not just education, but systems and structures which put the white, pale brown, and then black in the “pecking order.”

    As a Brit, I’ve wept when I’ve visited the US to see how black people are treated, and the impact on life chances, earnings and self esteem. We have our problems here too, but thank God guns really aren’t part of our culture. What has made things far worse is the NRA sponsored “Right to stand your ground”.

    A judicial review is needed, and I think we also need to question why neighbourhoods feel so fearful about people of colour. The outside world watches America, and does not see a Dream, but a Nightmare……


  4. Yes, apology without active repentance, evident and tangible change is indeed hollow. May this theme be sounded and acted upon individually and corporately. Amen.


  5. Repentance begins at home. Let all those demanding others repent look at our own lack thereof. Leading by example is powerful beyond any attack, condescension, projection, or other forms of hollowness.


  6. Beautiful and true words. Let the repentance begin with a nationwide repeal of the “Stand Your Ground” law which legalizes murder. I am so saddened by the lack of justice and compassion in our world.


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