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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7 Responses to “Forgive Us Our Trespasses”

  1. The young fogey Says:

    Oh, yes, forgive. Thought of that when I heard Ted Jnr at the funeral describe him as a decent dad to a handicapped son and when I saw a Boston Globe cartoon of the other brothers on a sailboat helping the aged Ted on board that made even me tear up a little. In God’s infinite mercy such an afterlife is entirely possible for him. Maybe not right away but possible.

    But when he was a grown man (unlike your story from childhood) a woman still suffocated to death in a car underwater and he signed off on the death of millions of babies, going back on his word by so doing, so he still must answer for all that.

    The first half of his Requiem in which people got to pick the readings and write the petitions, and the sermon de facto canonising him, were a public scandal.

    I’ve prayed for him. He probably needs it very much.

  2. sol Says:

    If not right away, is this due to purgatory or the toll houses?

    He appears to have supported abortion right to the end, so yes, it seems plausible that he will have to make an account of that before God. For that he should have also been excommunicated by his diocesan ordinary, if not by order from high upper the hierarchical food chain. (But then it runs to boths sides of the Schism, as Black Bart of Constantople made Paul Sarbanes an archon of the Church.)

    If he received absolution (and I’m not saying he did, but it appears that his Catholicism went to far as to embrace the sacraments at least from time to time) for the manslaughter or otherwise of Mary Jo, how far does that absolution run?

    However, my point is that he is not ours to forgive, but God’s. As he was baptised, our only responsibility is as you have done, to pray for his soul as we would anyone else.

  3. The young fogey Says:

    The toll-houses are the particular judgement as described in Russian folklore; purgatory the intermediate state on the way to heaven without which prayer for the dead makes no sense. (‘Praying somebody out of hell’ is heretical.) Not the same things. I meant the latter.

    If he truly was sorry about Mary Jo and confessed (I should think a condition of absolution would be to show contrition by turning himself in and taking the consequences of what he did full on like a man) then yes, he was forgiven.

  4. sol Says:

    It is interesting that you say prayer for the dead makes no sense without purgatory. As you are well aware, Orthodoxy has never seen a need for the former to be connected to the latter, nor do the Orthodox attempt to pray anyone out of hell. I think your logic limits the reasons and usefulness of prayer.

    Surely the Kennedys bought up enough indulgences to get out of pugatory. If not, how long do you think it will take him to get out of there? This is the thing I don’t get about purgatory: does it exist inside or outside of the time/space continuum? If outside, can you spend “time” in purgatory?

  5. The young fogey Says:

    The intermediate state is simply a state of being before heaven where somehow the people there are helped by one’ s prayers. Both sides pray for the dead so both teach this exists. The rest you may be thinking of – how the people experience this state (fire for example) – is not Roman Catholic doctrine, only opinion.

    The second paragraph is common Protestant misinformation about Rome. Rome doesn’t sell indulgences (an admitted early 1500s abuse stamped out) and in any event they are not about ‘time off purgatory’. I think you’re right: like heaven and hell it’s outside the time/space continuum. Time in indulgences refers to the time of canonical penance (a concept ancient and Eastern as well as Western) the prayer substitutes for – not ‘time off purgatory’.

    I read Fr Seraphim Rose’s ‘The Soul After Death’ 12 years ago and thought he taught something about praying people out of hell, which like outright universalism is wrong. I thought his rejection of purgatory as ‘too literal’ was silly.

  6. sol Says:

    I have no problem with an intermediate state, though whether this is a place of purging to make some one acceptable for heaven or rather simply the blissful way-station on the road to the Resurrection of the Dead and the Final Judgment I know not.

    It seems to me that the concept of canonical penance has been dead for some centuries and no longer has a place in Catholic theology. Are you saying there is a heavenly book listing particular sins and the penances thereof, against which prayers for the dead can be exchange?

    I read bits of “The Soul After Death” about 12 years ago and it was too weird for me.

    But back to my original point: the death of Mary Jo is God’s to deal with and third party forgiveness or unforgiveness is pointless.

  7. Steve Says:

    It seems to be a characteristic of our age to engage in the relatively undemanding activity of confessing other people’s sins, while being reluctant to confess our own. And, when onje politician did make a public confession of his sins, some people said they found it “deeply offensive” — see my blog on Blair, the slave trade and apologies: Khanya


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