Apologizing for something for which you are not responsible?

Last night the associate pastor (let’s call him Y) at church mentioned that when he was in mission school in Australia (he wanted to become a missionary) there was a Korean and a Filipino attending at the same time. When it came time for him to return to Japan (he’s Japanese) he was asked to give a short presentation on Japan so that the group could pray for him. In his presentation, he talked about some of the horrendous things that the Japanese soldiers did in World War II. And then, he apologized for them. Later, the Korean came up to him and asked forgiveness himself, saying that up until that point he was unable to pray for Japan because of the deep resentment he had in his heart passed on to him from his parents. After hearing Y’s apology, however, he was able to let go of those hard feelings and finally felt compassion for the people of Japan. The Filipino also said that she had heard so many negative things about the Japanese from her grandmother but she was also now able to feel compassion for the Japanese people.

It’s a nice story of forgiveness and healing, but I disagree with Y and think it was fundamentally wrong for him to apologize. Y is only in his 30’s. He had nothing to do with WWII, and neither did his parents or grandparents. WWII was more than 60 years ago. How can he apologize for something which was completely out of his control? And, if an apology is sincere, does that not entail doing something about it or at least having the desire to? I am fairly certain that Y has not made trips around South East Asia or done anything else to make penance for the actions of his ancestors’ contemporaries. I just don’t think that it is possible to apologize for actions that you have not committed yourself, much less actions that have been committed by people you are not even related to.

Some might say that some good came out of his apology, so what’s the harm, but if the Korean and the Filipino were harboring hard feelings toward the Japanese people for crimes of which they were not the victims, I think they were the ones with the problem, and they were the only ones that should have apologized. For Y to apologize almost seems to me to give legitimacy to the racist philosophies of those two individuals.

Am I wrong? Is it acceptable or even commendable to apologize for the actions of others?

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28 Responses to “Apologizing for something for which you are not responsible?”

  1. childlife says:

    Well… Not sure if it’s really the same thing, but I do find myself apologizing for the actions of my children at an alarmingly frequent rate… and I can confirm that said apologies are offered with the utmost sincerity (and extreme humility).

  2. casey says:

    Well, I can understand that, because you are responsible for the actions of your children. At least in part and at least until a certain age. But what about apologizing for the actions of people you’ve never met?

  3. childlife says:

    No- I think you’re right… It implies a false sense of responsibility. However, I don’t see anything wrong with stating remorse over a societies behavior or empathy towards how one society has been treated by another. I think that would have perhaps been a more appropriate way to address something like this. But you’re right in that while you can feel sorrow over an event that has happened, you cannot truly apologize with sincerity for something you have no ownership of.

  4. casey says:

    Once again, you do a better job at expressing the idea than me. :) Of course, I have no problem with expressing sadness over something that was done in the past. It’s backing that empathy with an apology that I don’t understand.

  5. friendinME says:

    I think that, at times, it is appropriate. Scripturally, I can think of at least three examples in the Old Testament where the people of Israel confessed the sins of their forefathers and bore some responsibility for their actions:

    Nehemiah 1:6-7
    6 let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned.
    7 ” We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses.

    Nehemiah 9:2
    2 The descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.

    Leviticus 26:40
    40 ‘ If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting with hostility against Me…

    Although this is not the same as confessing to men, presumably, if a sin is confessed to God (and if we bear responsibility before Him) then it is appropriate to confess the sins of our forefathers to men.

    What I am not sure of, however, is WHEN this ought to be done.

  6. casey says:

    Hi friendinME,

    Thank you for the input. That is certainly something to consider. Is confession the same thing as an apology, though? I would consider confession, repentance and apologies to be different things. To confess the wrongdoing of one’s forefathers, to me, means to simply acknowledge that the actions took place. I would understand that. I can admit/confess/acknowledge that the United States has done some very bad things in the past. I can also feel sorry that those things took place, but can I truly apologize for them?

  7. friendinME says:

    hmmmm… well, there IS a difference between confession and an apology (at least in the way we use the words). After all, you can openly admit that you did something but not “say you are sorry” for it!

    However, I think that reducing confession of national sin as simply “acknowledging that the actions took place” isn’t true to the passage. In those verses (in particular the Leviticus passage), God held the Israelites responsible for the sins of the fathers and required that they confess it, repent from it and have sorrow for it.

    Hard as it seems for us sometimes- we do bear some responsibility for what our forefathers did and therefore, confession is sometimes appropriate.

    However, I think one answer to this issue is found in something we have overlooked to this point: that is, the difference between national sin and personal sin.

    Personal sin requires personal confession. National sin requires national confession.

    I can ask for forgiveness for my part in the national sin. Perhaps I can ask forgiveness for my forefather’s part in it. I can express sorrow for it. I can even repent of it personally… but national sin requires national confession.

    For example, an individual German citizen can express sorrow for what happened during the Nazi regime. He can perhaps ask for forgiveness that his family had been involved. He can repent in the sense of repudiating what the Nazis did and choose never to be an anti-Semite.

    But… it is the government and leadership of Germany that would need to ask forgiveness for their national sin.

    what think ye?

  8. Sicarii says:

    I think it is inherently an Asian thing to do.

    As Asians, we do that. We apologize for the wrongs of our forefathers, and make amends even to their latter generations (up to a point, of course).

    On the flip side, people are known to look after a family or a person as thanksgiving to the latter’s forebears for being kind to them previously (again, up to a point).

    I don’t think there’s a right or wrong or even if it is hypocritical. I guess it might be difficult for me to see it as hypocritical or wrong because that’s what I’ve been taught as an Asian.

    My father was born before the Japanese occupation of Singapore and had his elder brothers, sisters and relatives brutally murdered by the Japanese. I was brought up to hate the Japanese for what they did. I used to but I don’t now, not because of any Christian conviction, but because I don’t see the reason why I should hold hate inside.

    Besides, it’s history. I am more concerned if the young Japanese know about it so that history is not repeated should militarism rear its ugly head again in Japan.

    Coming back to your post: To be honest, I applaud Y for doing so.

    It’s a sad thing that till today the government of Japan still doesn’t recognize that there were atrocities committed by Japan. Japanese schoolbooks don’t even mention much about the war. And, as far as I know, not many Japanese even know the full details of that era in their national history.

    Then again, you could argue that that’s *also* an Asian trait. :-)

  9. casey says:


    I don’t know. I think God was requiring them to CONFESS the sins of their fathers, but I think they were required to REPENT of their own wrongdoing. Governments are a collective entity, so I do believe that they should bear the responsibility of national attrocities. Time is not such an important factor in that case. It would be hard to draw the line between which generation or administration was responsible and which was not.

  10. casey says:


    I know what you mean about the textbooks. They don’t want to put negative aspects of their history into the textbooks because it will hurt the children’s self-esteem, apparently. Here’s a link about protests by the Okinawans about the removal of historical facts from textbooks.

    Without getting into a debate on the morality of dropping the atomic bombs, let me just mention what I observed while I was in Hiroshima. The museum there made claims that the US was simply conducting experiments to see how effective their new weapon was. They make no mention of Japan vowing to fight to the very last man and claim that Hiroshima was not a military target despite the historical facts. They don’t even attempt to explain why a second bomb was necessary or why Japan didn’t surrender immediately after the second.

    So I agree with the national responsibility thing, and I, too, am disgusted with the Japanese government’s refusal to admit to the attrocities it committed in the past, but I don’t know about individuals apologizing for such things…

    By the way, it’s interesting that you say it’s an Asian thing. I figured it was a Christian thing. That’s another thing to think about.

  11. Sicarii says:

    You know, it’s funny that I had a debate on the morality of the dropping of the atomic bomb just a few weeks ago with a friend. We came out of the debate quite exhausted with no real answer though.

    Since we aren’t debating that, let’s just take it that my stand on it was that both sides would have lost thousands of men in a long, drawn-out war. Intelligence before the proposed landing in the southern islands by US troops estimated 13 or more Japanese army battalions there defending it.

    Then again, the Russians were ready to enter the war and attack from the North, but yea, I think I’ll stop now. :-)

    I am not so sure about the other Asians, but for Chinese it is only right to apologize for the sins of one’s forebears. I guess this probably either comes from Confucian teachings or the fact that during feudal times, the emperors execute a whole clan if one of them commits a heinous crime.

    Don’t ask me about the actual origins though, because I didn’t bother to study Confucius’ teachings. I do, however, have a ton of Confucian jokes, heh!

  12. casey says:

    Well, in Japan, too, there’s a heavy emphasis on the group rather than the individual. I hadn’t even considered that. I’m glad you pointed that out.

    In ancient Israel the emphasis was also often on the group rather than the individual. I don’t think I could possibly be personally sorry for the actions of someone I don’t know. I can feel sorrow over them and hate the action, but I don’t know about accepting responsibility.

  13. Mulled Vine says:

    I’m half German, half South African and young enough not to have to apologise for the sins of my forefathers in my opinion.

  14. Kansas Bob says:

    Guess I am late to this dance again :(

    As a counselor, I am often led by the HS to lead a person through forgiveness and on a few occasions (I think 4) I took the place of the offending party (3 were their deceased fathers) asking for forgiveness. The effect was simply amazing.. don’t recommend doing it in a rote fleshly manner but when the HS is involved it is very powerful.

  15. Missy says:

    Hi! I followed Bob. :)

    This discussion reminds me of the story of Abigail in 1 Samuel 25, who not only apologized for the surly actions of her husband but ran to intervene on his behalf and those of her household asking to receive David’s wrath herself. Does Jesus not only apologize for our sins, as well as accept responsibilty for them?

    To make an apology sincere, I think it requires that one also be willing to accept responsibility – not guilt. Of course, it does not always end in forgiveness, so that’s what makes it so difficult. :)

  16. casey says:

    Hi Bob,

    That is interesting from a psychological standpoint, but I still am not convinced that we should do it in our personal lives.

  17. casey says:

    Hi Missy,

    Thanks for visiting!

    I don’t think that Jesus apologized for our sins. He accepted the penalty, but I don’t think that’s the same as apologizing.

    Nevertheless, it is interesting what you said about being willing to accept responsibility and not guilt. That’s something I’ll have to think about.

    I’m glad I asked this question. It’s great to get all this input!

  18. Kansas Bob says:

    I thought of a different one.. a time when I apologized to an older African American man in church for the sins of my Mississippi slave owning ancestors.. it was a very difficult thing to do.. it was received well by this dear brother in Christ. In some sense this apology was not only an acknowledgement that my ancestors were wrong about slavery but about my sadness of how it had played out in this brother’s life.

  19. Missy says:

    Casey, I guess I am thinking of the definition of apology as accepting responsibility for something and requesting forgiveness, when I consider Jesus apologizing for our sins. True, He did not ask forgiveness for Himself, but for us. I consider the times I have apologized. Certainly at times, it is simply a formality of acknowledging that I was incorrect, at which forgiveness is expected. However, when I am truly repentant, forgiveness may be a hope, but far from expected. I expect punishment.

  20. casey says:


    But do you think you’re responsible for the actions of your ancestors?


    But can you ask forgiveness for something for which you are not responsible? If my cousin stole $100 from you and I paid you back, I think I could ask you to forgive him, because the debt would have been paid. If my cousin kills your sister, however, I can’t bring her back, so how could I ever ask you to forgive him? It’s simply not my place if I cannot take responsibility for it.

  21. Missy says:

    You might not be able to bring her back, but you could accept your brother’s punishment as your own. Resposibility is not righting a wrong, but accepting the consequences.

  22. Ang says:

    The whole idea of repenting of our anscestors’ sins has been brought to the forefront in most churches today by the self-proclaimed “Super Apostles” like C. P. Wagner, Cindy Jacobs, Jack Deere, and many other individuals, as well as organizations such as YWAM and their leadership, the “National School of the Prophets” in CO, and a plethora of other false teachers and false prophets. It is all part of their SLSW (Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare) which they believe they are waging “in the heavenlies” against demons over towns, cities, and countries. The repenting part, they believe, is kind of clearing the way for them to attack and revile heavenly beings–expressly forbidden in Jude and 2 Peter. We cannot repent for anyone other than ourselves. The Old Testament scriptures brought up by “friendinME” up above, cannot be applied to the Church. They are distinctly about the nation of Israel in context and application. Other nations are just not “chosen” nations. God’s covenant with Israel given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was and is unconditional–He WILL give a remnant of Israel His Land. I believe the Holy Spirit can use any part of Scripture to speak to us individually, or convict, train, correct, or comfort the believer. However, there are specific promises made to specific groups (Israel) and people (King David) that we cannot apply to, say, the U.S. or China or somewhere. Context, context, context! If anyone is interested in these strange phenomena of our day (which are really not so strange–there were 1st Century Gnostics too), you can find great articles that will help you discern and test the spirits at http://www.deceptioninthechurch.com (he lists many other discernment websites on his search function), and another that I can think of off the top of my head is http://herescope.blogspot.com. That was a very astute question you asked, by the way!

  23. Kansas Bob says:

    Forgiveness isn’t always about responsibility.. sometimes it is just about responding to the Spirit.

  24. Laurie says:

    It is humane to be empathetic in situations like this. However, it happens too often that people feel they need to apologize for something they had no responsibility in. Unfortunately, I catch myself doing it often enough. I suppose it has its nobility but it also takes the focus off of those who are responsible.

  25. Laurie says:

    I think often the meaning of “I’m sorry” gets misconstrued by sensitivity. What I mean is this, If someone tells us they are ill, quite often we may reply with I’m sorry….not because we had anything to do with them becoming ill but simply because we feel bad that they are.

  26. casey says:

    Yes, you are right. Sometimes when we say the words “I’m sorry,” we are expressing empathy, not an apology. I wouldn’t take anyone to task for that. ;)

  27. Shirley says:

    I travelled Asia with a Japanese girl and she was the same. At first she didn’t feel any connection to the events during WW2, but as she met the people in the Philippines and surrounding countries, her heart was broken as she put faces to a culture she’d only heard about in History.
    She said she felt bad for what happened and while she felt no guilt herself, the apologies to her were showing her empathy with the situation and disgust for what her forefathers had done. Rather than, “I’m sorry for….”, it was more like “I’m sorry that this happened.”

    I feel the same way about my South African heritage. My parents left the country when I was an infant, but I am still repulsed to know what happened there, not long ago. I would have no problems in saying, “I’m so sorry that this happened – that people like you and me are capable of such atrocity.” But I feel no personal guilt in that situation.

  28. casey says:

    Hi Shirley. Thanks for your input! I wouldn’t argue with the use of the word “sorry” in the sense of feeling regret, sympathy or pity. I’m more concerned with making an apology, which to me implies admitting or accepting guilt.