When we hear the word “apology,” we understand that it means one is sorry for a wrong that was committed. However, the Biblical Greek word that we get the word apology from, apologia, means something quite different. It conveyed to the early Christians a defence or reasoned argument for their hope. Peter used the term in a passage (1 Peter 3:15) advising his fellow Christians to be ready to answer anyone who asks what made them different from others who worshipped a god or gods. The answer, of course, was Jesus and His redemptive work.
The meaning of this word apologia is worth thinking about when we seek to express our sorrow for our actions. It is easy to give a “reasoned defence” for why and how we have hurt others. Sometimes we think that doing so exonerates us. We need to know that an apology does not end with the proclamation of words, but that deeds need to follow so that the hurt that was caused can be dealt with.
As followers of Christ, we are to consider him in all that we do. The world needs to see that we have a hope, that the Christian gospel and the One to whom it points have made a difference in our lives. When we live in the light of Christ, apologies in word and deed can be a powerful witness. Over the years of my ministry, I have heard that an apology, in word and reparation, had given a reason for some to consider Jesus and for others to start to follow him. What an amazing and beautiful result when our lives are an apologetic.
Unfortunately, this has not always been the case. Our personal sins can sometimes infiltrate our collective life until they become indefensible. We Indigenous people have heard a number of apologies from the leaders of our community institutions, including the Church. Often those who have seen themselves as people of God have tried to ease their own guilt and the collective guilt of the Church for the many genocidal acts that have been perpetrated. Wolves in sheep’s clothing have often proclaimed their adherence to the Creator and lover of all humankind.
The non-token actions that are supposed to follow an apology are still patiently awaited by Indigenous peoples. Were the words of solidarity and healing in past apologies by Church leaders just cheap sentiments, and has the Church implicated Jesus with its actions and lack of action?
Despite all the pain and sorrows that the Church has caused, it seems that words of forgiveness have been extended to the Church by those who have received the many apologies. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said, after his apology at Prince Albert, Sask. this past May, “I heard time and again the words of grace expressed towards the church.” Further, he said he was “humbled” and found it “unbelievable that you are ever willing to attempt to listen to this apology, and to let us walk on the long journey of renewal and reconciliation.”
How could this be? It may have something to do with Peter’s use of the word apologia to mean a reasoned argument for hope. Welby also said, “The presence of grace is always the greatest sign of the presence of God,” and I think God was in the thoughts of those who expressed words of grace to the church that day. The listeners had considered Jesus, they understood the reason for their hope, forgave and took the hand of the representative of the colonial church in hopes that a new relationship could be forged—a relationship based on the One who can make a change and a difference.