Archbishop Welby Amritsar prostrate

Welby in Amritsar — damned if he does; damned if he doesn’t

The Archbishop of Canterbury visited the site of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in the Punjabi city of Amritsar. He didn’t merely visit it, he prostrated himself very publicly before a memorial to those who were shot, and expressed his profound regret and shame for the slaughter of some 400 unarmed Indian men, women and children, and the injury of 1,000 more. He wrote:

I feel a deep sense of grief having visited the site of the horrific Jallianwala Bagh Massacre today in Amritsar, where a great number of Sikhs, as well as Hindus, Muslims and Christians, were shot dead by British troops in 1919.

I have no status to apologise on behalf of the UK, its government or its history. But I am personally very sorry for this terrible atrocity.

Coming here arouses a sense of profound shame at what happened in this place. It is one of a number of deep stains on British history. The pain and grief that has transcended the generations since must never be dismissed or denied.

To say sorry as a Christian is to turn around and take a new direction alongside voicing words of apology. When there is something on the scale and horror of this massacre, and done so many years ago, words can be cheaply banded around, as if a simple apology would ever be enough.

Learning of what happened, I recognise the sins of my British colonial history, the ideology that too often subjugated and dehumanised other races and cultures. Jesus Christ calls us to turn away from sin and to turn to Him as Lord.

We are called to not just repent of old ways but to intentionally live in a new way that seeks the Kingdom of God here on earth.

It is this second part that is truly the challenge. We understand God’s Kingdom to be a place where all humans are enabled to flourish, and all are valued as made in His image.

Therefore, we have a great responsibility to not just lament this horrific massacre, but most importantly to learn from it in a way that changes our actions.

A true repentance involves me listening and learning to the voices of Indians, celebrating their cultures, and determining to work for the common good in ways that enable the flourishing of all people.

The past must be learned from so nothing like this ever happens again.

The Archbishop has been lauded by some, and scorned by others. His prostration in Amritsar was weeping with those who weep, or a major political miscalculation. How gracious of him to acknowledge the depth and severity of the Dyer wound, and to bring a message of healing and reconciliation. Who the hell does he think he is, this fake archbishop, with his muddled grasp of history and his ignorant presumption of repentance for the sins of his forefathers which has no biblical basis or propitiatory efficacy.

Hindu scholar Dr Rich Handa summarises:

All the cynicism about Welby is beyond me. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. When the 100th anniversary of the massacre happened, Panjabis wanted an apology. Someone gives it and it’s questioned as ‘what’s the point’, ‘it’s not genuine’ etc.

Do you know it’s not genuine? Where’s your evidence? Have you looked into his heart? If he had said that what took place was bad, either his acknowledgement would have been appreciated or an apology demanded. But the archbishop actually prostrated himself and apologised (not that he needed to). That’s no small thing to do.

The Hindi song is right: kuch to log kahenge, logon ka kaam hai kehna. (People will say something, it’s people’s job to say something).

But for some the Archbishop’s self-abasement was inadequate: they want a written apology. Dr Handa responded:

Those people who want it in writing, I wonder what they’ll gain from it. It won’t change what happened. Will they feel peace? That’s their ego then needing it. They’re too disassociated from what happened at a personal level that it’s only alive as a concept. It perpetuates their individual victim state to fuel their ego’s raison d’être.

Dr Handa was challenged further about the Archbishop’s sincerity. “Actions speak louder than words,” he was told (as though he didn’t know). “Sanatanis after years and years of abuse, manipulation have become wary which is natural and to be expected. The bowing, prostration and speeches are great but what is the substance in the stance?” And then came the nexus of the grievance: “Are active steps being taken to promote mutual respect for all traditions and faiths? Are they going to stop proselytizing and showing dharma down?”

To which Dr Handa responded:

If Indians aren’t going to accept any apology, why do they ask for one? And then an apology with a caveat? And why should Christians stop proselytising? That’s part of their teaching and purpose, to save everyone and salvation is only gained through surrender to Jesus. If it be argued that they do it deceptively in India, well their argument would be that the end justifies the means. Religion is ideology and this no different to secular ideologies. One has freedom to share ideologies with the intention of convincing the other. To stop that would be censorship and stopping freedom of speech. Now if Hindus and Sikhs don’t like what Christians are doing, what knowledge are they sharing to address and combat it? Hindus and Sikhs need to wake up and be proactive – educationally, not aggressively – instead of complaining about what Christians are doing to their people.

Yet still the darts of doubt were fired: “Part of waking up is seeing through/being aware of deception and those who are raising a voice against the apology are warning of more of the same only in a different package. What’s wrong with that?” Dr Handa responded:

Nothing’s wrong with it. But those people questioning his apology shouldn’t ask for one in the first place. It’s the self-contradiction that I’ve seen of those who want it yet criticise it that I have issues with. Either want it and accept it when it’s given or don’t ask for it.

You can cavil about the asking and the giving, or quibble over substance or propriety, but when Justin Welby prostrates himself in vicarious penitence he shows the whole world that the creature keeps turning his back on the Creator, and the only resolution to the political chaos and spiritual confusion is repentance, reconciliation and restoration. And this begins with deep sorrow, regret and a sincere apology, so that God can break through hard hearts and stubborn minds with the fragrance of His grace, love and peace.

And he includes himself in that recalcitrance and recidivism: by all means, bash him with his own sins and shortcomings, but there’s nothing he doesn’t know about his own Calvary, and there’s no stain on his heart to which the moral perfection and beauty of God’s nature is not the answer.

When tribes are unresponsive, belligerent and divided, isn’t it better to do something at an appointed scene of action rather than to say something as an object of hope? Isn’t an immediate reality preferable to an incomplete aspiration? Can’t inner attitudes follow external rites of reconciliation? Isn’t it possible that doing something that feels right in the confession of corporate sin may be theologically more right than the dignified letter of a sacred text? Isn’t reconciliation the work of the Holy Spirit in renewing the lives of penitents so they may transform communities and nations?

Isn’t it possible that the Archbishop of Canterbury is sincere in his tender, affective piety, and right in his cultivation of heart-work; and that a faith which orientates toward completing the present reconciliation is preferable to one which moves away from the hope of satisfaction? Isn’t it more Christian to give practical ‘substance’ to what is hoped for (Heb 11:1), than to hurl rocks at sinners and teach children to chew on stones?