Augustinian guilt and Apartheid guilt

June 29, 2009

I know very little of Augustine, I must admit. Same with Luther, Calvin, and most church fathers. What I know of them I know from second hand knowledge. Well, in reality I’ve met very few people who actually know the giants from the past first hand, so I don’t feel that alone, although I’d like to change this over time. Someone said somewhere in the past few months at a place that I attended (I think it was Scott McKnight), that Augustine’s confession was the prototype for a conversion that went together with extreme experiences of guilt. Luther’s was similar. And this has become the prototype for how conversion stories must.

This was the classical conversion story that I’ve heard in my life. The recognition of my own total depravity, my absolute guilt, my being a worm in the eyes of God, and God then coming to take away this guilt. Recognition of sin always lead to an experience of guilt over this. Then the sin was forgiven, and God never though about it again.

In conversations on Apartheid, there is a group which I’d call that “sal-nie-langer-jammer-sê-nie”-group (translates with “I-will-not-say-sorry-any-longer”-group). This is from a song by a well-known Afrikaans band in which they sing about how they won’t say that they are sorry about Apartheid any longer. It was in reaction to this that Tom Smith and some friends started a website which said that they are sorry for Apartheid.

Let me quickly put down my thinking and then ask you to respond. I wonder whether there is a link. In this classical tale of conversion, past sins need to be forgiven quickly and gracefully, if not they lead to feelings of guilt. For those caught in this approach, the wrongs of Apartheid will lead to feelings of guilt if they make themselves part of the people who did this, and if they consider this a wrong which still must be addressed.

However, I also see some who don’t consider recognition of past, and even present, sins to be a source of guilt, but rather a source of change. In this approach guilt do not lead to redemption, but redemption lead to recognizing sins. Moving closer to God will reveal my own wrongs, my own sins, which I embrace because in time this will help me change. It’s not something bad, something which should be gotten rid of, but something good. Maybe it’s this lack of Augustinian guilt that make it easier for some to continue being sorry for Apartheid?

What’s your thoughts?

5 Responses to “Augustinian guilt and Apartheid guilt”

  1. Thomas Says:


    This conversation is very important to me and some of my friends. We started that site a year ago and the online presence is way behind of what has happened in actual life.

    For me the penny dropped when I realized that my sorry/guilt as a beneficiary of apartheid never got lived out in a real life relationship with someone who has been on the oppressed side of Apartheid.

    In other words, instead of doing an ontological forgiveness there is a group of us that believe that a generalized act of repentance is not enough – it has to become personal and relational.
    We started this site in response to a Dana Snyman article in the Beeld …

    For us being sorry for apartheid starts a journey or in your words is “a source of change”.

  2. Thomas Says:

    I would highly recommend Alexander Venter and Trevor Ntlhola’s book “doing Reconciliation” on this topic. In Chapter 4 yhe discuss “Facing our Apartheid history.”

    They note the following on “saying sorry”,

    “How did the churches respond to the TRC? In June 1997 a handful ecumenical and evangelical leaders, including a few respected Afrikaners, sent an Open Letter to 12 000 pastors and leaders of Christian organizations in SA. It was a general letter of confession for pastors and churches to acknowledge their failure during the apartheid era. Only 610 signed and returned it, and this was submitted to the TRC on 15 November 1997. This poor response must be put into context. Thirty four official submissions were made to the TRC by denominations and Christian organizations, many obviously speaking for thousands of individual pastors and congregations. This must in turn be seen against the backdrop of the 1800 church denominations in SA, excluding Christian organisations. The church’s response was disappointing.p.119

  3. I think you may have to explain your last paragraph a bit more. The way that it is written there it is firstly unclear whether you agree with this viewpoint or not and secondly, this sounds like the exact argument that Paul was writing against in Rom 6:1-2 when he said: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” That last paragraph makes it sound as if sin in itself is not really so bad. And going one step further, one would then have to say that Apartheid in itself was not too bad, because that helped us change. In other words: The world is actually a better place because of Apartheid. A very strange thing to say.

  4. Steve Says:

    I suspect that this arises from the penal substitution theory of the atonement. Augustine paved the way for it, Anselm rolled it out, and Calvin souped it up, though even then, I think they all had in mind foreensic guilt, rather than psychological guilt. Freud was more responsible for the latter.

    There are not 1800 denominations in South Africa, there are more than 10000, but there comes a tie when feeling guilty simply paralyses you, especially if you don’t really know the mentality of the people who brought in apartheid and what made it attractive to them, and what was wrong with it. I don’t think it’s a problem if people don’t keep saying that they are sorry for it. A far bigger danger is that they don’t realise what was wrong with it and begin to think it was OK. If you try to push people into a guilt trip, the danger is that they will react against it, and then think that apartheid was something defensible.

  5. cobus Says:

    Thanx, you all help me to refine what I’m trying to say. In time I’ll try to formulate my thoughts. I’m not trying to say that any form of sin is not so bad, or that Apartheid was not so bad, exactly the contrary. I think what I’m trying to say is that recognition of “sin” (by lack of a better word) grows over time, and become more, not less, as I grow deeper spiritually.

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