On the historic apology

It can’t have escaped your notice that the unstoppable runaway train that is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership bid has been a rich vein of material for this blog of late (see here and here). And today is no exception. In today’s Guardian, Corbyn announces that if he becomes leader he will apologise on behalf of the Labour Party for the (most recent) military intervention in Iraq.

I dared to reply to the Guardian twitter update with the following:

This led to a small twitter-spat (as these things tend to do) which I will not bother boring you with here (for those interested in such things, you can find it here).

This got me thinking about the value of historic and symbolic apologies. On one side of this discussion are those who think they are a symbolic show of future intent. Never mind that Jeremy Corbyn consistently voted against the Iraq war, it doesn’t matter that he himself always opposed it, as leader of the Labour Party he would be making an important symbolic gesture moving forward. On the other side of the debate are those who think it is a totally valueless act. His future intent is clear enough when he called for Tony Blair to be tried as a war criminal and has consistently and repeatedly voiced his opposition to military intervention. If the word ‘sorry’ conveys contrition and remorse, how can those uninvolved in a felony, and who consistently stood against the action, show such penitence? I fall into the latter of these two camps.

Symbolism is only really valid when the symbol applies to the one associating themselves with it. I am sure scores of Iraqi citizens would find value in an apology from the perpetrators. I am far less convinced they will find an apology from a man who consistently voted against the action and has repeatedly and vociferously called out his own government on the decision remotely worthwhile. His views on the issue have been clear from the beginning, remain clear and his plans going forward are no less transparent. An apology under such circumstances is neither symbolic nor meaningful. Only those who are responsible for an act can offer a meaningful apology. An apology from someone who always rejected the action does nothing to change the fact that those responsible are still unrepentant. It is like receiving an apology from the mother of a murderer (who you never held responsible) whilst her son continues to brag publicly about his heinous crime. It is simply a hollow gesture.

That also brings into question the nature of the historic apology altogether. The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, recently apologised to America for Japanese actions during WWII though he has more recently claimed that modern-day Japan shouldn’t have to keep apologising for WWII actions. Angela Merkel has made further apologies for German atrocities under the Nazis. And Tony Blair, though unable to apologise for his own actions in Iraq, seems to have no issue apologising for Britain’s past involvement in the slave trade and our part in the Irish potato famine.

It is Blair’s own apologies that bring into sharp relief the pointlessness of the historic apology. It is easy to say sorry for actions with which we were personally uninvolved and that we have consistently made clear were wrong. There is little doubt in the modern age that virtually everyone in the Western world despises slavery. There are no policy decisions from any party across the political spectrum that suggest, explicitly or implicitly, any desire to return to such days. To apologise for something universally rejected in the West, and for which we bear no personal responsibility, is but a valueless and hollow gesture. We are really apologising on behalf of others which seems to defeat the very purpose of an apology. I can express sorrow and disgust about the actions of others but I cannot be remorseful or penitent on their behalf. An apology is only worth something if there is a recognition of wrongdoing on the part of the perpetrator. For those of us who always rejected the action, apologising on behalf of others does nothing.

It is ludicrous to me that people who openly and repeatedly reject the actions of the Nazis in modern day Germany are expected to continually apologise for something with which they had no part, neither passive nor active. It is silly that a hollow apology from a modern world leader about the horrors of slavery, when they have repeatedly and consistently stated their opposition to it, is deemed of value. It is rather more telling that Tony Blair has no problem whatsoever apologising for historic crimes in which he had no part but cannot bring himself to say sorry for the very real problems his decisions have directly caused for those who are still alive, affected by such things and for whom an apology would be both laden with meaning and of any intrinsic value. It says to me that the only apology worth anything is one from the individuals responsible. It says to me that is a much harder apology to give because it involves owning up, to those affected, to that for which we are personally responsible. It says to me that anyone can express sorrow and remorse for what they have not done; it is much harder to own what we personally and directly have done and admit we were wrong.

It also brings into sharp relief the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 7:13f: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Many of us are happy to accept that the way is hard. Jesus also said “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” And so we expect following Jesus to be tough. But we often don’t like the fact that “the gate is narrow… and those who find it are few”. It is not simply following Christ that is hard but even entering by the gate – a gate that Christ elsewhere makes clear is himself – is also difficult.

Those from other religions may not understand what is so difficult about salvation by faith alone. What on earth could be difficult about that? It is precisely the same thing that is easy about the historic apology and extremely difficult about the current, only valid, one. To come to Christ necessitates an understanding that we are personally responsible for our own sin. It is not an historic crime in which we have no part and remains entirely the fault of Adam, Paul tells us “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Without acknowledging our own personal responsibility for the sin that separates us from God, there can be no forgiveness. And there is no denying that accepting responsibility for what we have done, acknowledging that we have not lived as we ought and accepting that we have actively pursued what is wrong is difficult indeed!

It also means – if I must accept personal responsibility for my separation from God – that somebody else cannot be penitent on my behalf. If I am separated from God because of my sin, it is simply no good for my father, mother, brother, sister, friend or colleague to be terribly sorry on my behalf. My personal responsibility has in no way been accepted if I am personally unwilling to seek forgiveness for what I have done. It is only when we accept that we have done wrong and that forgiveness is found in repentance and faith in Christ alone that we can be made right with God. It is something that requires a personal and heartfelt penitence. A meaningful apology – that is true repentance and genuine faith in Christ – are the only means of real forgiveness.

By contrast, historic apologies are neither personal, do not accept responsibility and are not an acceptance of wrongdoing. It is pleading on behalf of another who has potentially shown no remorse whatsoever. If we want the word ‘sorry’ to mean anything at all, let’s please stop insisting we use it on behalf of others.


  1. It's a good point Steve and something I've wondered about – I feel a sense of shame about what my country has done in the past, but an apology seems odd seeing as I was not alive and not involved for most of the British history that I'm ashamed about.

    I can only think that it comes back to the fact that as individualistic as we think we are, we still maintain some level of collective responsibility – it seems to be the rationale behind a lot of racism, prejudice and stereotyping – cos people see some one of a particular race, gender, nationality etc etc etc acting in a particular way, they hold all of that group responsible and maintain a grudge accordingly. One of my grandparents was inherently suspicious and disliked German people because of the Second World War. As advanced as we think we might be, there's a part of us that rationalises holding entire people groups responsible for the actions of a few. And so perhaps, there is also a residual shame when it is our own people group who have perpetrated something terrible.

    But it is interesting how much easier it is to apologise for the horrific acts of others than to own up and apologise for the horrific things that I have done in my own life … Element of the speck and the plank, do you think?

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