May 27, 2020

Should the Powerful Apologize?

Editing Note

I began drafting this following a panel podcast to discuss the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. While I was editing, George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis. I pray that this article is one piece in the puzzle of reconciliation. As white people, we have to stop this. As a fellow panelist said “White parents need to start telling their kids that it’s not OK to murder someone just because they’re black.” This has gone on too long and those who remain silent are complicit in the perpetuation of racism in our nation. I also want to apologize and repent for the fact that I have spent most of my life silent on this issue and too willing to just look the other way by telling myself “I’m not the one killing someone.” This article is dedicated to Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. that has been way too long in coming:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Martin Luther King, Jr.


I was recently on a panel podcast, and a fellow panelist, an African American man, said that his children had asked him why African Americans are always the one’s doing the apologizing, and having to just forgive and move on without an apology from the wrongdoer. This got me thinking, and I realized, in white America, this is what we’re taught from a young age. The person with less power apologizes to the person with power and the powerful person keeps moving forward.

This principle that those in power don’t apologize has become so engrained in our psyche that some of us don’t even feel we should apologize to God:

“I am not sure I have,” Trump said when asked if he’d ever asked God for forgiveness. “I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” he said. “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Why Don’t the Powerful Apologize?

Growing up, I was a strong-willed child and would get into spats with strong adults in my life. As I think back though, I can think of numerous times where I apologized, either voluntarily or because I didn’t want to risk a consequence, or didn’t like the consequence that had been handed out, but I can think of very few times where the other adults apologized, and if they did, it was generally after I did. As children in America, we learn from a young age that to continue the relationship, the apology must be made by the weaker person to the person in power. As we get older we continue to see this with our older siblings, teachers, professors, and bosses. So is it any wonder that we carry this terrible perspective into our race relations?

Why is it that those in power don’t feel the need to repent and ask forgiveness? Why do we seem to always feel that our “underlings” should come apologize first? Is it that we feel it shows weakness to apologize? Are we ashamed of our short comings? Do we think we will loose our power? Are we afraid that if we apologize, and truly repent, we will have to change a behavior that has brought us success, protected us, or is just a deeply ingrained habit? Unfortunately, those of us in power are often the ones that are hurting other people the most and most need to repent and seek forgiveness.

New Testament passages on repentance and forgiveness often assume that the individual in the wrong will repent. For instance, Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother who comes and repents (Matt 18:21-22). However, Jesus explicitly addressed repentance to another person in Matthew 5:23-24:

‚ÄúTherefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

Matt 5:23-24 NIV

A Challenge to Repentance

So, here’s a challenge to myself, and to everyone else living in a place of authority (even if that authority is just the color of your skin): be the first to repent and seek forgiveness. Don’t wait for your children, subordinates, team members, students, the other race, etc. to apologize. Go first; repent first; model this; lead the way! For too long we have shown that repentance is a sign of weakness. As Christians, let’s show the world something different. Let’s show them that repentance is actually a sign of strength. True repentance comes from a position of being secure as a person such that you’re able to admit that you’re wrong and willing to acknowledge that you need to do better next time. True repentance shows that our identity doesn’t come from our power or from feeling like we’re always right but comes from our position as children of God. Let’s raise up a new generation of Christians who have the humility run counterculture, take the position of a servant, and repent even to those who we have power over.

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