Why Do I Have to Apologize for Slavery?

I’ve never enslaved a person. For that matter, I’ve never removed Native people from their own property. I’ve never interred a person of Japanese heritage. Why do I have to apologize for something I’ve never done?

I have Black friends. I’ve gone to school with Black students. I was bussed from my own neighborhood to a school across town. And now I live in a neighborhood with Black and Brown people. There’s even a Black family in my church.

Why do I have to apologize for slavery?

Over the weekend, our Presbytery discussed whether or not we would concur with an overture to the General Assembly (the biennnial congress responsible for considering changes to our denomination’s constitution) regarding the history of slavery in our country and in the Church. It starts out like this:

The Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy overtures the 225th General Assembly (2022) to offer an apology to African Americans for the sin of slavery and its legacy.

(Note: Giddings-Lovejoy is the name of one of the 166 Presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church USA. It’s based in the St. Louis area.)

Included in this overture are the following statements:

  • White supremacy is a conscious, calculated effort to perpetuate and institutionalize white supremacy and privilege through legal systems as well as economic and physical intimidation.
  • We, as a people of faith, recognize that the only appropriate path to healing and reconciliation is to acknowledge the wrongs that we, the Presbyterian Church, as part of the institutional church structure, were and are complicit in perpetuating.
  •  Black lives have been devalued beginning with slavery, and their human dignity continues to be circumvented through the economic and legal systems that are racist as institutions.
  •  We recognize the necessity of building a trusting relationship between white Americans and African Americans.
  • The PC(USA) apologizes to African Americans both in the church and outside of the church for all the wrongs that have been done throughout our history and those that are ongoing.

These are fighting words for many.

These words spark many layers of conversation from “Is White Supremacy actually baked into our U.S. history from the beginning?” to “Am I personally guilty of the sins of our Fathers and Mothers?” These words make many White people feel ashamed and defensive.

Speaking as a Christian in the Reformed Tradition, my faith is confessional. This means that we believe that although – from the beginning – God has called human beings to live in covenant with both God and each other, we have broken that covenant. Confession is a major part of our faith, meaning that – in simple terms – we can do better. We as individuals can do better. We as corporate humanity can do better. We as a nation can do better.

We all fall short of the glory of God. Even Mother Teresa. Even the Pope. Even our sweet grandmothers.

And so we confess those things that have separated us from God and each other. The sin of slavery is one of those things. It separated human beings in the worst possible ways from the beginning of our nation’s history. And after emancipation, the inequities continued. And they continue today from the shooting of people in Black bodies to the everyday ways people are treated whose skin colors are different from our own.

We have to be blind not to see this.

On Saturday, our Presbytery voted 71% to 29% in favor of concurring with this overture. The 225th General Assembly will discuss it, tweak it, vote on it this summer in Louisville, KY. Clearly there are many people who believe we have nothing to apologize for. In faith I disagree.

Image of the Briery Presbyterian Church in Keysville, Virginia (in the Presbytery of the Peaks). In 1766, slave holding members voted to raise money to hire a minister by investing in human chattle to build the church endowment. You can read about the church here and here.

7 responses to “Why Do I Have to Apologize for Slavery?

  1. Brian Tischendorf

    Thanks Jan. It is so easy for us to want to brush this past away and move on. I love how you reminded me of why we confess and must continue to confess our past, present and future sins. For we are indeed all sinners. Have a blessed day!


  2. I couldn’t agree more. Yet there’s a gap here that needs to be addressed. You rightly speak on behalf of We, of “our” racism. The voice you invoke resisting apology speaks as I, doesn’t see sin in his/her everyday acts and attitudes. How can we bring individuals to identify with oppressive societies secular and sacred? How can we teach them to link past and present racist structures? Way easier said than done, but that strikes me as our task.


  3. Perhaps we need training in the Book of Confessions? Training in what confession means as related to sin, forgiveness, healing, trauma and the impact on us and our descendants?


  4. Interesting, so did the Church own by proxy slave because of the contributions to the denomination by its members?


    • I don’t know how it worked. It sounds like the enslaved people were considered property like the pews and the organ would be church property. Chattle.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, interesting way to use a simile to describe the pew or organ we likely accounted for as property like chattel. However, most property cannot walk away like parishioners. Were the lay people free to leave, how were they given passage and naturalized as “American”? How did keep track of who is who?

        For example, Usually, slave owners would brand the back, shoulder, abdomen, and even the face of a slave. Frederick Douglass described the act in an address he delivered in England on September 1, 1846, as “A person tied to a post, and his back, or such other parts was branded, laid bare; the iron was then delivered red hot, and applied to the quivering flesh, imprinting upon it the name of the monster who claimed the slave.”

        Now what is more interesting to me is that this goes on further to indicate: But not just slaves were branded. Johnathan Walker, a white man born in 1790, was arrested in 1844 for trying to carry slaves who were members of his church to freedom in the Bahamas. He was apprehended in Florida and jailed for mare than a year. His hand was branded with the letters “S.S.” for Slave Stealer.

        Are there any practices you have become aware of indicating how or “if this brutal and harsh act was performed both for identification purposes and as a form of punishment”? Who is the slave the parishioners or the alleged chattel?



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