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This Lent, I’m giving up apologizing for other Christians

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Some of this year’s most popular Lent sacrifices are booze, social media, and — believe it or not — Donald Trump. But I’ve decided to go a different direction and give up saying I’m sorry for all the Christian crap out there.

I was inspired in this decision by Lillian Daniel’s book, “Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To.” It’s a surprising read because Daniel is a progressive female pastor, so she’s exactly the type of person you would expect to go around making amends for the church’s many sins. She argues, however, that constantly apologizing for the church isn’t helpful in the long run and that believers need to explore better ways to speak of their religious communities.

I diverge with Daniel because I still believe it can be helpful and healing to offer an apology on behalf of one’s community, regardless of who caused the hurt. But I am intrigued enough by the idea to give it a go this Lent season. Here Daniel and I discuss why she believes we need to say “goodbye” to “I’m sorry” when it comes to the church.

RNS: Let’s start with the obvious question: Why are you tired of apologizing for the church? 

LD: Imagine being outside an organization looking in, with genuine curiosity, only to have your polite questions answered by a string of apologies and defensiveness about how lousy the organization is. I’m tired of apologizing because it is neither effective or edifying.

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RNS: You once apologized to a total stranger for the sins of the church. Tell us about that.

LD: I found myself in the checkout line at Marshalls, apologizing to a total stranger in a Sikh turban for every bad thing that had ever been said or done in the name of Christianity. He seemed surprised that I could be responsible for all that.

But that’s how I used to talk about Christianity, constantly apologizing, in advance of anyone even asking, hoping to beat them to the punch. “The Inquisition?” I’d say. “Don’t even raise it, I’ve been mad about it since world history class, that’s how open-minded I am. Salem witch trials? I’m way ahead of you. Super embarrassing. And by the way, is there a gay wedding you need me to perform because my church can do that now, you know!”

RNS: How were you embarrassed by the church this election season?

LD: Ah, let me count the ways … maybe it was Donald Trump saying, “Believe me, if I run and I win, I will be the greatest representative of the Christians they’ve had in a long time.” So much was wrong with that — from Trump appointing himself the judge of his own Christianity to the Christians who didn’t seem to mind him doing it.

Another low point was the pope and everyone else criticizing Trump’s Christianity. Whenever Christians start kicking one another out of the Christian club in public, we look like mean-spirited squabblers.

But the election wasn’t all cringe-worthy. Bernie Sanders broke ground as the first serious candidate to be totally honest about being raised Jewish but having no religion now. Christian voters gave Bernie freedom of religion as well as the space to run his campaign free from religion.

RNS: Some might say that we have to apologize for the church’s misbehavior for the sake of those it hurts. How do you respond?

LD: I hear you. One reason I’m so tired of apologizing to the No Ways is because their grievances with religion can be real and truly heartbreaking. Just picture the people who left church after the sexual abuse scandals. But amazingly, some are willing to try again. I’ve pastored them as they discovered a different kind of church, where they could trust that their deepest values of inclusivity would be upheld by a Jesus-following church that believed Jesus would have included everybody, too.

Until we didn’t, of course. And then we had to apologize.

If only we could kick all the people out of the church, we could really do this Jesus thing. Until then, there will always be more apologizing to do, for the churches we belong to, the churches we leave, the churches we love and the churches we screw up.

RNS: You’re a progressive Christian minister. Do you think that other types of Christians feel as embarrassed by the church as you and your tribe do?

LD: Twenty years ago, no, but today, yes. This election, tons of respected evangelical writers said Trump fits no definition of living an evangelical Christian lifestyle, but their readers voted for him anyway. Which left a lot of evangelicals embarrassed and pouting.

Some of those leaders are now publicly distancing themselves from their own labels, in the same petulant way progressive Christians did in the Reagan years when they didn’t want to be associated with the Moral Majority. We got good at telling people who we were not, but forgot how to talk about Whose we are.

Do we really want to continue the long tradition of “progressive” Christians being embarrassed by “conservative” ones? Those labels have served us so poorly in politics — why would we want to keep using them in churches?

RNS: Instead of apologizing for the church you encourage open conversations about faith that are “reasonable, rigorous and real.” What does this look like on the street-level?

LD: Someone moves in next door and says, “I miss my old church, and I can’t even find a new dry cleaner.” The Mainline Protestant responds, “I can recommend an excellent dry cleaner!” They’ll tell Facebook friends how they voted but not that they go to church. Evangelicals, on the other hand, are good at inviting but their certainty on salvation can be off-putting.

On the street-level, “rigorous, reasonable and real” would be: “I disagree with my church. No women pastors, yet. … But the Mass, shaped over centuries, keeps me steady in mind, body and spirit in ways I can’t explain but have come to trust.”

Don’t simplify it with pat answers. Acknowledge the ambiguity and complexity. And please, respect the other person’s honest questions by giving them a real answer.

RNS: Let’s say my friend was shamed by her congregation for getting divorced. Do you think her fellow congregant should apologize on their behalf?

RNS: No, unless her fellow congregant was the one doing the shaming. Which raises a question within your question. How does a “congregation” shun someone?

In my experience, people shun people, to varying degrees. So was it the pastor? Then the pastor should apologize. Did the members do it because the pastor told them to? Then the members should apologize too, each one of them.

Sometimes, we use the word “church” like it’s some entity way over yonder, as in “It wasn’t me, it was the church/the pastor/the board.”

But it’s always an “us” when we like what it is doing, and a “them” when we don’t.

RNS: Confession, apology and repentance are important in the Christian faith. How do these fit into your “no apology” plan?

LD: Apologizing to strangers for the Salem witch trials is easy when you didn’t actually burn any witches. There’s no humility in that, especially when you’re doing it to make yourself look better in comparison! Confession is admitting something you actually did and may be still doing.

For example, an easy apology for me would be “As a pastor, I apologize for other churches that would not do your gay wedding.” But an honest confession would be: “I’m sorry my own church, that prides itself on being welcoming, has actually been so poor at reaching out that you haven’t even heard that we exist. I’m sorry we find it easier to criticize other people’s theology than to offer anything life-giving of our own. I’m sorry we were so afraid of being associated with the Christians we were apologizing for that we acted like Jesus didn’t matter to us, when he really does.”

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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