Forgive Us Our Trespasses

Recent conversations and a few newspaper articles about the death of Ted Kennedy have revealed the continuing animosity toward Kennedy with regard to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. This has highlighted to me the tendency that we often have to think and act in a personal way toward public figures. This is true of politicians, celebrities, and notorious criminals, and those we might think fit into the triple overlap of these categories (if it were a Venn diagram, they would be in the middle).

With elected politicians, we have a responsibility to call them to account for their actions and decide whether they should continue to represent us – by impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors, and by voting against them in the next election for lesser reasons. Except for citizens of Massachusetts, this is where unforgiveness toward Ted Kennedy falls short. Though he was nationally known, he did not represent the nation. He was elected by the people of Massachusetts and it was their decision, for better or worse, to return him seven times to the United States Senate.

The idea of forgiving or not forgiving public figures not personally known to us is foreign to any concept in the scriptures. Jesus said we should pray, asking the Father to “forgive our tresspasses and we forgive those who trespass against us,” and said further said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” It’s a personal thing.

Not forgiving Ted Kennedy is about as pointless as the politicians on Capitol Hill who apologised last summer and this summer for something they didn’t do. In July of last year, the U.S. House of Represenatives apologised for slavery and racial segregation. The Senate did the same thing in June of this year with almost identical language.

This is ridiculous for a number of reasons. First of all, neither the House nor the Senate ever legalised slavery. Slavery has always existed. (It still exists today, even in the US, but that is a subject for a future post.)

Admittedly, they did vote to approve the Corwin Amendment which would have prohibited any other Amendment to the Constitution allowing the federal government to interfere with slavery. (Congressmes and Senators from the seven Deep South states did not vote for the Corwin Amendment, as they were already in the process of seceding – it was a Northern proposed amendment to preserve slavery.) Despite their apology 148 years later, that amendment is still pending as it was only ratified by the state legislatures of Ohio, Maryland, and Illinois.

The only slaves that could be said to have been owned by the United States itself were those used by the Union armies in the Recent Unpleasantness. Not the freedmen soldiers that everyone hears about, but the still enslaved laborers. (I can’t imagine why those Yankee-authored history books fail to mention this.) Neither the House nor Senate mentioned the Corwin Amendment or the use of slave labor by the bluecoats and I don’t think either body had either issue in mind.

On the other hand, Congress at times voted to restrict slavery’s extenstion into certain territories. It then voted to abolish slavery through the 13th Amendment. Likewise it passed the 14th and 15th Amendments to send to the states for ratification. It passed various Civil Rights Acts. So even if it could apologise, there is nothing to apologise for.

But what really angers me about both House Resolution 194 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 26 is that both purport to apologise on my behalf. “The Congress…apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws…” This may surprise some people, but I have never owned a single African-American slave. I would go so far as to suggest that no living American citizen has ever owned a single African-American slave. Having been born less than four months before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came into effect, I can also assure readers that I have never promulgated or enforced any Jim Crow laws. (But then again, neither has the US Congress, in its present, or any previous, incarnation, as Jim Crow laws were state laws.)

I have lots of ancestors who owned slaves. Lots of slaves. Just for the record, I do not apologise for them either. I couldn’t even if I wanted to do so.

I do admit to calling another 2nd grader “nigger” in 1971. I will not even offer the excuse that my erstwhile friend Scott encouraged me to do it. I was beaten soundly about the buttocks by the school principal and had to apologise, so I think I have paid my debt. (I hope that any of my friends who haven’t forgiven Ted Kennedy for the Chappaquiddick incident will not also refuse to forgive me for something that happened two years after.) However, I do not believe the US Congress needs to apologise for this on my behalf.

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