The question came up on an American Airlines flight from Nashville to Dallas. I was reading the September-October issue of Sojourners, a liberal Christian magazine, and my seatmate was reading over my shoulder. We were both taken with a letter to the editor that opposed an apology for slavery.
“She makes a good point,” the woman next to me in the middle seat said. “I wasn’t alive during slavery, and my grandparents didn’t come to this country until the twentieth century, so I really had nothing to do with it. Why should I have to apologize for something I didn’t do?”
“I agree,” I said. “I had nothing to do with slavery either. Of course neither myself nor my parents or grandparents were here when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, so I guess I shouldn’t take any pride in that either. And while I can opt out of having to feeling bad about reducing African-Americans to 3/5ths of a person in the Constitution of the United States–I mean I wasn’t there, it wasn’t my idea–I guess I can’t celebrate the genius of the document or the Bill of Rights that followed it.”
I tried to say this with a straight face, but, frozen facial muscles or not, my voice betrayed me.
“Sarcasm is not an argument,” the woman said.
“True enough,” I said. “But if I think about it I have enough to be sorry for.”
“Well, my grandparents, parents, and I were in this country during segregation, the reign of terror perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan, Vietnam, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments inflicted on black men, the assignations of King and Kennedy, the breaking of treaties with the American Indians, the rape of the Constitution by George W., the terrorizing of Americans by McCarthy in the fifties and Cheney today. And that’s just off the top of my head.”
She was not convinced. “I was alive during segregation but I didn’t discriminate against blacks, so I shouldn’t have to apologize. And I had nothing to do with McCarthy, and I think Bush and Cheney are the greatest Americans since Ronald Reagan, so there is nothing to apologize for there. In fact I had nothing to do with anything regarding blacks or Indians or poor people at all, so I resent the country apologizing on my behalf.”
“But you are willing to take credit for the good things the U.S. has done, even though you personally had nothing to do with them?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“It’s not a question of why not, it is a matter of consistency. If you take credit for the good you had no hand in, you should take responsibility for the evil you had no hand in. All of it was and is being done in the name of the people of the United States, and, unless you plan to give up your citizenship, that means you.”
“No it does not. I’m an American.”
Somehow that non sequitor was supposed to end the conversation with my seatmate taking the gold in logic. And in her mind it did. I was happy just to have her lean the other way and let me get back to my magazine.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro is director of the One River Foundation in Murfreesboro, Tenn. This column appeared originally on his blog.