Apology a reminder that sin is social

ApologyToday we have an apology. The Government has consulted about its contents, hoping that both sides of politics will support it and that indigenous people will accept it.

The consultation and the concern to find a generally acceptable form of words have been proper. Any apology made by a government, on behalf of a nation which did not own it, to its indigenous people who were insulted by it, would be destructive. Whether the apology could have been bolder will be much discussed.

Some Australians still believe that apologies by national governments, particularly for actions of previous generations, are incoherent and unreasonable. They argue that responsibility can be attributed only to individuals for actions in which they have been involved. So only individuals can apologise.

Most Christian groups have argued strongly that the government should apologise. It sits easily with stories told in their tradition about the shared responsibilities of peoples for their history and for its consequences. The prophets did not simply sheet home the abuses of tyranny, of extortion, of manipulation to the officials responsible. They imputed them to the whole people, who would also suffer the consequences. Similarly, virtuous behaviour in public life would be rewarded with national prosperity.

In the Gospels, too, Jesus preaches the Kingdom of God to the whole people, and demands its conversion. His followers saw the beginnings of the promised Kingdom in his rising from the dead. They also recognised in the faith of those who accepted Christ the seeds of a world made new. They focused first on what God had done for all human beings, and only then on the individuals whom God loved.

So in the Christian tradition apologies and acknowledgement of sin were always in order, whether made by individuals, by churches, by nations or by the human race. Because nations carried their history and were shaped by it, the passage of time never removed the need for an apology. Where scars remained from ancient injustices, and where one part of a nation still benefited from what its forebears had done while another suffered from it, apologies needed to be made. Nor did individual apologies satisfy for the symbolic need for the nation to apologise through its rulers.

Apologies, of course, are symbols. They do not of themselves mend the harm caused by wrongful actions. But in the Christian tradition of reconciliation, apologies must have certain qualities if they are to be good symbols. They must be honest. This implies that they name accurately what has been badly done, focusing on the experience of those who have been harmed by it. An abstract account that slides over the human reality of oppression and despoliation lacks in honesty.

Apologies must also include a desire for restoration. This implies that those who apologise wish to remedy the disadvantage of those hurt by the original wrongdoing. Although they might do this by financial compensation to particular groups, the desire implies a larger commitment to the whole community affected. Those who make the apology are invited to imagine differently the welfare of the whole community. They will give a different priority to the needs of those affected by past wrongs.

From this perspective financial implications are not central to the apology, although the willingness to bear financial consequences might offer a scratch test of honesty. The heart of an apology lies in the commitment to a new pattern of relationships based on respect between different groups and on respect for the reality of their shared history. No apology by itself will forge this respect and commitment. It is a symbolic gesture that can create space for new possibilities.

Among those possibilities of new forms of respect we might hope that, in future relationships between the descendents of the overseas settlers and the original inhabitants, the latter will be consulted before actions are taken on their behalf. We might hope that they and their communities are seen as agents of change and not simply as its objects.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.



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Existing comments

what do the descendants of Moses owe to the descendants of the Canaanites for taking the promised land? or the Canaanites to the descendants of Abraham? Before animal rights were recognised, perhaps only Adam and Eve were debt free.

david williams | 13 February 2008  

It was gratifying to note that on this momentous day our National Parliament opened with the Lord's Prayer. The coincidence with what is to follow is a meaningful demonstration of PM Rudd's unashamedly Christian heritage.

'Sin lies only in hurting others unnecessarily. All other 'sins' are invented nonsense.' -Robert A. Heinlein, science-fiction author (1907-1988)

El Ninja | 13 February 2008  

Yes of course apologies are in order, in some circumstances. I am however, having difficulty in working out exactly what we are apologising for.

The writer is assuming there were generations that were ‘stolen’. While there were cases of abuse by authorities and the population in general, should we be calling the extraction and rescue of many children from abusive situations ‘stolen’? Should we now castigate DOCS for acting similarly, ‘stealing’ when they place children in foster homes because of abusive parents?

Should we organise an apology from the British Government (for all the reasons you state) for the transportation of convicts to the end of the earth for what we would term minor infringements of the law? Or was this just the society at the time applying the norms of the time to what they saw as the criminal element in their midst?

Were these generations of Aboriginals ‘stolen’ and if they were, were previous generations not applying the norms of the time to the situation of an abusive environment that they found Aboriginal children, which resulted in their extraction from that environment?

Christopher Betar | 13 February 2008  

If we are to grant some monetary compensation will all other 'compensation' already in place cease?

Rosemary Keenan | 13 February 2008  

thanks, fr andrew. rudd's apology was warm,compassionate and respectful to aboriginal people's dignity. it focused on the wrongs done but did not rub salt in the wounds. nelson's speech was hurtfully raw in places, and diluted the needed simple sorry message with too contextual explanations and qualifications. a 'sorry, but ...' is not quite a real 'sorry'. it's a shame the coalition parties missed the opportunity to go that last mile. but the day is still a wonderful moment.

tony kevin | 13 February 2008  

Thank you, Andrew, for this article, which I found very clear and helpful, to perhaps use to help a few who do not understand the need for an apology. The idea of social sin, as you explained it was particularly insightful.

Maryrose Dennehy | 13 February 2008  

Congratulations to Andrew Hamilton on his article 'Apology a reminder that sin is social'. I actually only got the opportunity to read it just before the Prime Minister made the apology to the nation. Then I went back to Andrew's article and saw how insightful it was. Thank you to Eureka Street for such insightful and balanced articles.

Breda O'Reilly | 13 February 2008  

One has to be mindful that even on significantly important days like today's national apology, that politicians will talk politics. Mr Rudd made a point of saying that the shameful behaviour towards indigenous people had gone on ‘for more than a decade’, which of course encapsulates former Prime Minister Howard's period in office. Whereas the shame went on for many decades. including those times when Whitlam, Hawke and Keating were in power and had the opportunity to say sorry, but didn't.

There's almost an irony in Mr Rudd delivering the apology as Labor Prime Minister.

As Keith Windschuttle noted in his article in the Weekend Australian: ‘The major pieces of relevant legislation (which so hurt and humiliated the indigenous people) were all passed by Labor governments.’

Windschuttle's new book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume Two will be published later this year. Methinks there could be thoughtful reading in this for many, whose minds have not been biased by unquestioned hearsay.

Brian Haill | 13 February 2008  

I do not regret, rather am I glad that people in the past and as recently as 2 days ago in Canberra removed neglected children, black and white from hunger and physical abuse. There is certainly no need to apologise for their actions.

Bill Barry | 13 February 2008  

I certainly agree that sin can be social and that an apology was appropriate and, in fact, long overdue. However, Andrew's comparison with the Hebrew prophets - who held the whole nation responsible for the abuses done by their leaders - seems out of place. As I understood it, Mr Rudd was apologising primarily for the actions of past governments. To me this is important, because the government and other leaders were the ones with the power to make and implement such policies.

In this context, I find it interesting that another response to this article mentions DOCS removing children from abusive parents. I get concerned that the current overreaction on the issue of child protection, which we're seeing in both society and the Church, will turn out to be the modern equivalent of the Stolen Generation. That is, there's too much emphasis on bureaucracy and intervention by professionals, and not nearly enough on genuinely empowering and supporting families. However, I doubt if I can get anyone to take me seriously on this, at least, not anyone in a position of power and influence!

Cathy Taggart | 13 February 2008  

It's a shame Mr Nelson didn't read this article before delivering his reply speech. As a teacher in a secondary school which began the day with all classes watching the speeches I spent the rest of the day explaining what and why Mr Nelson may have said the things he did. Apart from explaining why it took so long to say 'sorry' (an issue with the younger students) I'm pleased to say that our young people at least could see that this day was now about the future and making a difference in our relationship with the indigenous people of our country. Let's hope our Government as a whole body does as Mr Rudd suggested and work together on this future.

A.Wilkinson | 13 February 2008  

On reflection, I think perhaps we needed to go down into the darkness and shame of the last 11 years. Through this, we have been able to grasp the real horror of what our attitudes had become. The light shining on the commitments made today needs to be tended and maintained like a holy lamp to remind us all, every moment, that we have to attend to the 'sorry' business and never let us become complacent about the sufferings of others in our country, Australia.

Jenny Raper | 13 February 2008  

I'm interested that some respondents mention not being sorry about removing children from abusive situations, when what came out in "Bringing them Home" was that many children were removed simply on the basis of race, not abuse. Rudd's comment about "over a decade" referred to the time between the release of "Bringing them Home" and the apology. Yes, the policies were the product of the societal attitudes of their times, but that doesn't make them right and surely we can admit that we now consider them to be wrong and express regret ie apologise? I found Andrew's article helpful and am pleased that our government has taken this step.

Yes, there are other things that have been done in the past that were wrong - the fact that we can't apologise for all of them at once shouldn't mean that we do nothing!

Judy Redman | 16 February 2008  

I think this article provides a very good reasoned argument to answer those who think an apology by the present government, parliament and people should not be made as we can't be held responsible for what was done in the past. The article should be more widely publicised.

Tony santospirito | 17 February 2008  

My reading of prior comment on this article causes me to think that some of my fellow commentators do not understand that hurt can be and is transmitted across generations.
I was 6 years old at the time of the 1967 referendum. For the pain and damage that was inflicted by some of my predecessors and fellow citizens in this nation to my other predecessors and fellow citizens in this nation, I will ever remain sorry.

David Arthur | 08 March 2008  

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