The Power of National Repentance

The word “repentance” has an antique ring to it. To many it belongs with top hats, sailing ships, and snuff boxes. To others it sounds as psychologically unhealthy as self-flagellation, hair shirts and the shaming of children. But most people will agree that even today, if someone’s done something really bad, they should admit it and express sorrow for it. Repentance is essential because it increases the chances that a behavior won’t be repeated, and it helps the healing and reconciliation process for everyone involved.

But do only individuals repent, or can whole nations? Suppose Americans reach a consensus that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a wrongful use of its superpower. Might it help for the United States to repent?

The evils of the Nazi regime in Germany, especially the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust, are seared into the conscience of the whole world. To their credit, many post-war German leaders have expressed public remorse and repentance for the evils perpetrated by their nation. They have supported the establishment of memorials and honored them in annual times of remembrance. Likewise in South Africa in more recent years, progress on the path toward healing of the scars of racism and apartheid has been propelled by public declarations of repentance and acknowledgments of past sins. I am not equating America with the enormity of Nazi guilt, but simply pointing out a precedent of exemplary response to wrong-doing.

Last year in Hong Kong I met a philosophy professor from a major university in the People’s Republic of China who is a clandestine Christian. He shared with me his search for faith and meaning in life, and the process by which his choices came down to Buddhism and Christianity. Like many other informed Chinese today, he remains outraged by the atrocities of the Japanese army during the infamous Rape of Nanking. He noted that the Japanese have never confessed or repented of those atrocities in which hundreds of thousands of helpless Chinese citizens were abused, degraded and murdered. But he was also aware that Germany had expressed remorse for what it had done during those same years of World War II, and he remembered that the Germans were at least a nominally Christian nation. The contrast in national responses was the decisive factor in this particular Chinese intellectual’s decision to become a follower of Jesus Christ.

Should America repent for the fateful choices of its administration? It is common knowledge around the world that the preemptive invasion of Iraq not only violated international law, but also the established “just war” criteria developed through the centuries within the Christian tradition itself. The original justification for the invasion was morally insufficient in the first place. When the perceived threat to America was later discovered to be an imaginary one, the invasion became indefensible. Acknowledging responsibility for conflict and injustice, and seeking repentance and forgiveness is one of ten practices recommended for abolishing war in Just Peacemaking, 2d ed. (2004), a serious and significant book edited by Glen Harold Stassen, professor of ethics at Fuller Seminary. To do so would take nothing away from those in the military who have obeyed their orders with courage and honor.

Many Americans, including many American Christians, believe that to acknowledge wrong-doing now would constitute loss of face, and only weaken America’s power in the world. Others are convinced that we should stop focusing on the past, and stop wasting energy on assigning responsibility for what has happened. It is time to look forward, they argue, to focus on stabilizing the Middle East, and move on.

But the Christian tradition would say: not so fast. Admittedly it is hard to admit wrong. It is hard to say that we are sorry. But we have to go back before we can go forward. Otherwise we will perpetuate the same strategies when the next challenge comes up. To repent is to relinquish one kind of power for another—the power of force is replaced by the power of restored moral authority and the possibility of trust. This last ingredient will be essential to reclaiming a future with a future.

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