Blood on Our Hands


In him we have redemption through his blood,


the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with


the riches of God’s grace.


Ephesians 1:7

On the day after Thanksgiving last year, representatives from the Collegiate Church–the oldest Reformed church in North America–held a ceremony of healing and reconciliation with the Lenape Native American people. Established in 1628 in what was then New Amsterdam, the Collegiate Church was the “company church” for the Dutch West Indies Company as it settled Manhattan. The Lenape were once the people of Manhattan, although most now reside in Oklahoma.

“With no illusions about correcting past errors,” the Collegiate Church website said, it was “determined to acknowledge its forebears’ short sightedness” and “acknowledge publicly the role it played in the cultural marginalization and physical dispersion of the Native Americans living here.” The healing ceremony coincided with the first observance of “Native American Heritage Day” and the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s coming to Manhattan.

I know there are many who are skeptical, even derisive of these sorts of apologies and reconciliations. Whether it be apologies to African Americans for slavery, Japanese Americans for internment camps during World War II or even the Reformed Church in Zurich, Switzerland which in 2004 apologized to the Anabaptists for persecuting and executing them during the Reformation–these apologies can feel like overwrought liberal guilt and grandstanding. I get that. Typical responses are “What good does that do now?” or “I wasn’t even alive then. How can I apologize for what I didn’t do?”

But I wonder if more of the resistance and ridicule for these apologies stem from the common human propensity to avoid apologizing. We don’t want to say “I’m sorry” any more than absolutely necessary.

There is also more than a little bad theology in the reluctance to make apologies for our culture and history. We live in a world that views sin as individual, unconnected and conscious acts. According to this way of thinking, I may have sinned six times this morning: I lost my temper once, swore once, gossiped twice, lusted once, and forgot to pray before breakfast. If sin is understood in this way, then indeed it makes no sense to apologize for deeds our ancestors did centuries ago.

A better understanding of sin sees it as much more complicated and pervasive. A stain that soaks through every fiber of the fabric, an out-of-round wheel that can not be trued, a twisted web that spans generations and continents–these are metaphors for a deeper, truer understanding of sin. I once heard a preacher say if we truly understood sin, we would realize each of us has broken all ten commandments before we get out of bed in the morning. The congregation was both puzzled and annoyed.

All of us always and inescapably have blood on our hands. We are all caught up in, complicit in, responsible for things far larger than ourselves, things that we can’t individually change, that we didn’t personally do. Yet we are part of them. There is blood on my hands from the acts of my theological ancestors in Zurich and New Amsterdam. There is blood on my hands from the acts of my compatriots in Haditha and Wounded Knee. When I go shopping at Wal-Mart, I have blood on my hands, even more so if I drive. But I am not enough of a pietist or perfectionist to worry much about it. I try not to shop at Wal-Mart too much and to drive a little less, but there is no way to keep score on sins, no way to extricate myself from the sticky and convoluted web of sin.

It seems remarkable that African American slaves understood this deeper notion of sin better than we do. The old spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” expresses it in a haunting manner. None of us dare retort, “I wasn’t alive 2,000 years ago. I’m not a Sadducee or centurion. Of course, I wasn’t there!” The song conveys what we all know. Indeed we were there. We have the blood of Jesus on our hands. We are complicit in and responsible for his execution. And by that death and resurrection, we are forgiven for what we don’t even realize we did; the wrong we unavoidably do; the wrong done in our name; the wrong we do when we intend to do right; the wrong we do when we do not see.

To understand sin in this deeper way also causes us to understand God differently. No more is God a fussy bookkeeper putting a check mark in a ledger for our every sin. Instead God is a healer, a reconciler, who at great cost, works to put the universe back together.

Our hands are covered with blood from all sorts of complexities, injustice, tragedies, and history. But mercifully our hands are also covered with the blood of Jesus Christ. Father, forgive us, for we do not know what we do.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is pastor of Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa and a co-editor of Perspectives.