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Christians seek forgiveness for sins of their ancestors

A wave of confession and repentance for past sins, some of them the racist evils of decades or centuries ago, is sweeping Christianity worldwide.

It reaches from the pope, who wants Catholicism to openly repent its historical transgressions before the next millennium, to hundreds of German Christians who gathered recently in the Netherlands to apologize for the atrocities of the Nazi era.

In France next Easter, Protestants and Catholics will gather to launch a series of ceremonies along the route to Jerusalem taken by the medieval Crusaders, saying prayers of remorse for the thousands of Muslims the European knights slew in the name of Christ.

Lutherans have expressed contrition for the anti-Semitism of their church's founder, Martin Luther. New Zealanders have gathered by the thousands to confess sins against the Maoris. Americans say prayers of atonement on wind-swept prairies where white men massacred Indians. Japanese Christians _ stepping boldly in where their government waffled _ will ask forgiveness for Pearl Harbor.

And this week, the largest Protestant body in the United States, the Southern Baptists, apologized formally to blacks for endorsing slavery.

Why the mass rush to repentance? Although many of the groups have no connection to one another and do not coordinate their actions, Christian leaders involved offer many explanations: greater interaction among races and ethnic groups leading to intensified efforts to erase bitter memories, growing cooperation and theological unity among Christians and hopes for a religious revival after Christianity comes clean on its historical sins.

The outbreak of ex post facto "mea culpas" has been met with both praise and skepticism within the Christian community and among the people to whom they apologize.

"Cautious optimists see it as a good sign for coming changes, but the skeptics say they have heard it all before _ empty promises," said Russell L. Twiss of Vancouver, Wash., a Lakota Sioux and director of the International Bible Society's Native American ministry.

The idea of later generations repenting a historic evil does not seem meaningful, said James Wall of Chicago, editor of Christian Century, a leading mainline Protestant magazine.

Slavery is the subject of what may be the largest such mass apology in the United States. The 25,000 "messengers" _ as delegates are called _ to the Southern Baptists' annual meeting in Atlanta this week approved a resolution lamenting the fact the denomination was founded 150 years ago in part to provide a religious home for Southern slave owners before the Civil War.

"Many of us feel it would be unseemly and terribly wrong to celebrate our sesquicentennial without addressing forthrightly the more unsavory aspects of our past," said Richard Land, director of the Southern Baptists' Christian Life Commission, whose biracial task force wrote the resolution.

In the case of Pope John Paul II, the impetus comes from the approach of the third millennium _ or thousand-year period _ since the birth of Christ, a date expected to bring both critical assessments of Christianity and celebrations of its history.

The pope, the leader of 950-million Catholics worldwide, set the tone in 1992 by formally acknowledging that 17th-century church judges erred when they condemned Italian astronomer Galilei Galileo for saying the Earth revolved around the sun. On trips that year, John Paul apologized in Africa for church complicity in the slave trade and lamented in Latin America the Catholic exploitation of Native Americans.

Last month in the Czech Republic, the pope apologized for the brutal Protestant-Catholic wars that wracked Europe from the 15th to 17th centuries.

In the same spirit, leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America confessed in April 1994 that the "anti-Judaic diatribes" of Lutheranism's 16th-century founder, Martin Luther, are still used to bolster the teaching of hatred toward Jews.

Also last year, church leaders dismantled the all-white Pentecostal Fellowship of North America, an umbrella association of two dozen denominations, replacing it with a new body with equal white and African-American church representation.

In early April, about 800 German Christians crossed into the Netherlands to join about 6,000 other Christians, mostly Dutch, in a service asking forgiveness for the World War II German invasion of Holland.

An estimated 15,000 people crowded into Aloha Stadium in Pearl City, Hawaii, in May to watch descendants of early Christian missionaries, fruit company founders and Japanese Hawaiians seek forgiveness for their ancestors' sins against native islanders.

Events planned for 1996 include a ritual apology by Japanese Christians for the attack on Pearl Harbor. After lengthy debate, the Japanese government recently refused to recognize the 50th anniversary of the war's end with an apology. Instead the official statement used a Japanese word that can be interpreted as expressing "remorse."

Historian Mark Noll, who teaches American religious history at Wheaton College in Illinois, says it is tempting to be cynical about apologies for centuries-old acts. "I think it would be good for Americans to apologize to Britain for the unjust character of the American Revolution, but I don't recommend it because it wouldn't make any sense," he said.

"Repentance means a lot more when it is the perpetrator who asks forgiveness of someone wronged," Noll said. "Yet, the spirit behind this is commendable, especially if it leads to solid steps toward mutual understanding."

The Rev. Gary Best of Langley Vineyard Church near Vancouver, British Columbia, who spoke at the gathering of Christians in April at the Dutch-German border, said he saw instances of heartfelt changes of attitude.

"I saw one Dutch woman who said she was raised to hate Germans but was there praying tearfully with three Christians from Germany," he said.

"There is no wholesale agreement that repentance can somehow mysteriously break the spiritual impact of past violations," said David Bryant of New York City, who is chairman of the committee that promotes the National Day of Prayer.

"But to the extent we are living off the bitter fruits of the past, we evangelicals need repentance and reconciliation as well as restitution to offended groups in order to reach our goals of evangelizing the world," he said.

John Dawson is a Los Angeles Baptist who is urban mission director for Youth With a Mission, a worldwide relief and evangelistic organization, and also is U.S. chairman of the global Marches for Jesus, a growing, British-born series of annual rallies that took place in 600 U.S. cities last month. He acknowledges an evangelistic motive: The repentance and reconciliation phenomenon may vindicate the Christian message in the eyes of non-believers who otherwise will not be able to accept Christians as sincere.

Dawson said that he cannot prove the connection, but that he feels the reconciliation prayer ceremonies can set the stage for more material reparations by governments, as he thinks happened in his native New Zealand.

He was among many white New Zealanders who in 1990 asked forgiveness from the indigenous Maoris at stadium prayer meetings in five cities, he said. "Painful things were brought into the open _ the sins of our forefathers as well as the sins of today."

And in March, he pointed out, the New Zealand government apologized for the British confiscation of Maori land in 1863, awarding the Maoris $112-million and 39,000 acres.