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Pope Francis And Redemptive Impacts Of Vicarious Public Confessions – OpEd


Pope Francis’ July 2022 trip to Canada to apologize for the horrors of church-run Indigenous residential schools marks a radical rethink of the Catholic Church’s imperialistic missionary legacy, spurred on by the first pope from the Americas and the discovery of hundreds of probable graves at the school sites. Francis has said his weeklong visit, is a “penitential pilgrimage” to beg forgiveness on Canadian soil for the “evil” done to Native peoples by Roman Catholic missionaries.


The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement pegged the number of church-run, federally funded institutions in Canada at 139. They first opened in the 1870s, and the last school closed in 1996. More than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend them, and more than 6,000 are estimated to have died as a result of disease, malnourishment and suicide, among other causes. The children often faced physical and sexual abuse. The Roman Catholic Church operated 70% of the 139 such schools scattered across Canada. The rest were Protestant.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the residential schools system a central element of a policy of “cultural genocide”.

It is very hard for most young people in our generation to empathize with the concept of redemptive suffering, although it is a central concept of Christianity. Even harder for many people is public confession of sins enacted by people in previous centuries. Most people appreciate that some kind of personal growth can arise out of personal suffering. Very few people can understand that spiritual growth can occur, vicariously or institutionally, for people not directly involved in the suffering, or in the atonement. 

The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 is the archetype for a Christian understanding of the Passion of Jesus, as well as a Jewish understanding of centuries of victimization by Antisemitism. 

Recent events throughout the western world offer us an indication that an acceptance of indirect responsibility, and some kind of atonement through vicarious public confession and a direct attempt at some type of restitution to the decedents of innocent victims of powerful political and religious authorities in the past; may also improved the spiritual life of the descendants of the persecutors. This is an indication of the messianic redemptive insight of Isaiah’s vision of the Suffering Servant of God. 


The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials that followed WW2 set a pattern for later trials of Cambodian, Serb, and Hutu mass murderers by international courts. When the German government decided in the early 1950’s to pay reparations for property losses to German Jews who were still alive, and to the State of Israel for the property losses of German Jews who died in the Holocaust, it was the first time an oppressor had voluntarily accepted responsibility for acts of oppression upon another people. 

When the Pope and several Protestant denominations began to atone for previous centuries of Antisemitism in the 1970’s and 1980’s; a rising awareness of the Holocaust and the need to atone for Antisemitism and other examples of cultural and physical genocide began to influence a wider spiritual consciousness in the West. The American government finally made a token payment to the Japanese interned in American concentration camps during WW2.

In Europe, the post communist Polish government began the process or returning property owned by the Jewish community prior to WW2 to the current small Jewish community; not only as a form of restitution, but also as a way of helping reestablish a Jewish presence in Poland. Formal apologies for historic sins of oppression also appear more frequently. 

In 1993 President Clinton signed into law a resolution stating, “Congress apologizes to the native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of their independent government”. In 2005 the great majority of U.S senators officially expressed sorrow over the many times the Senate refused to pass federal anti-lynching laws (over 4,000 men-70% black- were lynched in the U.S.). 

On the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown in 1607, the Virginia House of Delegates unanimously approved a resolution expressing “profound regret for the commonwealth’s role in sanctioning the immoral institution of human slavery, in the historic wrongs visited upon native peoples and in all other forms of discrimination and injustice rooted in racial and cultural bias” In May of 2007 the Legislature of the State of Alabama passed a resolution expressing “profound regret” for the state’s enslavement of black people. Alabama was the fourth southern state to formally apologize for slavery.

In Europe the movement to atone for past persecutions also spread after the Pope expressed sorrow over the evils done when Europeans conquered North and South America. In February of 2006. two centuries after profiting from the venture, the Church of England apologized for its role in the global slave trade, which included running a Caribbean island slave plantation. The Prime Minister of France finally apologized 56 years after the end of WW2 for the collaboration of the Vichy French government in deporting French Jews to Nazi death camps. 

Another recent example is the Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt who in May of 2007 apologized for his country’s deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II saying, “Only by recognizing the responsibility of the authorities at the time can we build a future where this will never happen again,” The government had just released “Submissive Belgium,” a report that shows how high-ranking Belgian officials and municipalities collaborated with the Nazis in the deportation of Jews. 

Further recent examples of a government publicly atoning for crimes of previous generations are the Australian Prime Minister’s apology to the country’s aborigines for laws and polices that “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss” on them. He singled out the “Stolen Generations” of thousands of children forcibly removed from their families. The apology, beamed live around the country on TV, was met with cheers. A similar apology was offered by the Prime Minister of Canada in June of 2008 to the 150,000 aborigines who were forcibly taken from their parents and sent away to 130 residential schools whose mission was to “Christianized and civilize” them. A Canadian government commission concluded in 1996 that the school program had indelibly damaged generations of aboriginal people and subverted their culture. 

The shift in the government’s policy resulted from of a major change in the churches that ran most of the schools. The United Church was one of the first to withdraw from the schools in 1969, and in 1986 was the first of the churches to apologize. Between 1991 and 1996 a Roman Catholic order, the Anglican Church, and the Presbyterian Church also issued apologies. A $1.9 billion compensation fund was created in 2006 when the federal government settled a lawsuit. Every student will get some money and those who were sexually abused will receive higher amounts. In November 2008, a private fundamentalist Protestant school, Bob Jones University, apologized for racist policies including a onetime ban on interracial dating that was not revoked until 1999, admitting that its rules had been shaped by culture instead of the Bible.

A few months earlier, On August 30, 2008 the Prime Minister of Italy signed an agreement to pay five billion dollars in reparations to Libya ($200m annually over the next 25 years) through investments in infrastructure projects. As a goodwill gesture, Italy also returned an ancient statue of Venus, the headless “Venus of Cyrene”, which had been taken to Rome in colonial times. The settlement was a “moral acknowledgment of the damage inflicted on Libya by Italy during the colonial era”, the Italian prime minister said. Libya was occupied by Italy in 1911 before becoming a colony in the 1930s.The former Ottoman territory became an independent country in 1951. The precedent set by Germany over 55 years earlier, when it agreed in the face of Arab boycott threats, to pay Israel reparations for property looted from German Jews during Nazi rule, has finally been applied to a European colonized state. 

In July of 2008 Pope Benedict XVI told Australians he is deeply sorry for the sexual abuse of children by some Catholic priests. Speaking at a gathering of bishops in Sydney, the Pope spoke of the “shame we have all felt” and called for abusers to face justice. Even witch trials of pre modern times are being atoned for. The government of the Swiss canton (state) of Glarus said on June 10, 2008 that the last witch executed in Europe should be rehabilitated because she was a victim of “judicial murder” more than 200 years ago. The 1782 execution of Anna Goeldi for an alleged case of poisoning was a miscarriage of justice, the cantonal government said. The decision to recommend rehabilitation – or clearing her name – came after a long debate in the eastern Swiss region and was taken in consultation with the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. 

Everyone who knows history will realize that such acts of atonement by the ruling political and religious authorities would have been totally unbelievable to every generation of oppressed minorities prior to the Holocaust.

Recent Jewish and Christian history enables us to understand in a new way Isaiah’s famous passage (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) about God’s servant whose tragic suffering can be redemptive to those who once reviled and belittled him. In Jewish thought the prophet Isaiah himself provides the strongest evidence for the claim that the servant is Israel, the Jewish People. Several verses in prior chapters of Isaiah specifically state that Israel/Jacob is God’s servant. “You Israel are my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen” (41:8), “Hear me now, Jacob my servant; hear me, Israel my chosen” (44:1), “Have no fear, Jacob my servant: Jeshurun whom I have chosen” (44:2), “Remember all this, Jacob, remember Israel, for you are my servant” (44:21). These verses make it clear that Israel/Jacob is God’s chosen servant. The national community is spoken of in terms of an individual, as is often the case in the Bible (see Jeremiah 30:10).

However, many rabbis did identify Isaiah’s messianic figure as a person, usually as a Messiah, a descendant of David, from the tribe of Judah. Other Rabbis had other interpretations. Sa’adyah Ga’on glosses the figure as referring to the Prophet Jeremiah. Isaac Abarbanel rejects that and thinks the suffering servant is Josiah, King of Israel. I think this individual is a messianic figure called by the rabbis: Messiah, son of Joseph, i.e. from one of the northern tribes, who precedes David’s son, and is killed in battle by the enemies of Israel. If we keep in mind both the Josephson messiah as well as the role of Israel/Jacob as God’s chosen servant, we will better understand Isaiah’s suffering servant prophecy. 

The belief that there would be two different messiahs, one a moral political leader from the house of David (Davidson) and the other, a religious reformer from the house of Aaron (Aronson), as well as a special “end of days” prophet such as Elijah or Jeremiah (Matthew 16:14) is found in inter- testament literature. A Dead Sea scroll states that the Qumran community must continue to live according to the original discipline “until there shall come a prophet (Elijah) and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel” (Manuel of Discipline 9:11). 

There is also a rabbinic belief in a messianic figure from the northern tribes called a Josephson messiah who is killed by Israel’s enemies. This idea may be modeled on the example of Saul who reigned before David and was killed in battle by the enemies of Israel. Thus there could be as many as four individual messianic figures as well as the people of Israel who act as God’s agents in bringing about the Messianic Age. Gentile rulers also play a role, first as destructive oppressors of the Jewish people, and second when their successors later acknowledge their error and are ultimately included in helping bring about the Messianic Age’s worldwide blessings. Cyrus was such a messiah (Isaiah 45:1)

All of this makes for a complicated future scenario that might take generations, or even centuries to develop. When people are persecuted, afflicted and oppressed as a community, and despised and rejected as individuals they need hope for a much quicker and simpler process of redemption. This is why there is an overwhelming focus on the final stage Davidson messiah by most teachers, preachers, commentators and expositors. This is also the reason that those who believe in the imminent coming of the Davidson messiah always think it will occur soon within their lifetime (John 14:19, 21:22). 

Also, since humans have free will, the exact time and manner of redemption cannot be determined in advance. Much depends on what we do. Repentance produces changes in the future of both individuals and nations. Repentance enables some individuals and communities to escape the consequences of prior evil. On the other hand, God’s promise is that evil powers will never succeed in destroying Israel or in overcoming justice in the long run. Thus even without full repentance, God will act if the Divine promise of a Messianic Age is threatened. 

As Isaiah states a few verses prior to the suffering servant passage, “The Lord says: you were sold but no price was paid, and without payment you shall be redeemed.” (52:3) i.e. all your suffering in exile was not merited and your redemption from exile will not be fully earned. Both are part of God’s outline for human destiny and will occur sooner (through repentance) or later (in God’s own time). 

Finally, if one believes that God inspired prophets are able to describe scenarios of various developments in the distant future then one has to accept that the understanding of these passages should change and improve as we come closer and closer to the times they describe. As an example, Jeremiah describes a radical future in which woman surround men, “The Lord will create a new thing on earth-a woman will surround a man” (31:22). 

The great commentator Rashi understands ‘surround’ to mean encircle. The most radical thing Rashi can think of (and in 11th century France it was radical) is that woman will propose marriage (a wedding ring, or encircling the groom at the wedding ceremony) to men. In today’s feminist generation we can see women surrounding men in fields once almost exclusively male such as law, medical and theological schools. Of course, this means that a few generations from now we might have even better understandings of some predictive passages in the prophets, so humility should always be with us.

Now let us try to understand the suffering servant passage in light of 20th century Jewish history. Isaiah proclaims the good news of peace and salvation (52:7) when God returns to Zion (8) and comforts his people (9) so all the Gentiles see his salvation (10). The Jewish people will depart the exile not in flight but under God’s protection (11&12). Israel/Jacob, God’s servant, whose appearance (14) was disfigured, marred and appalling (during the holocaust) will prosper (13) and be lifted up (in subsequent generations). 

A marvel for many nations, whose rulers will shut their (anti-Semitic) mouths because of this, since they will see what they had not been taught and will understand what they never heard of (15). For centuries the Church taught that the Jews were being punished for rejecting Christ and couldn’t be redeemed without believing Jesus was the Son of God. 

Now some Gentile rulers see that this teaching is not really correct doctrine. The biblical message of God’s commitment to redeem Israel without their explicitly believing in Jesus wasn’t believed (53:1) but now there is a growing minority who affirm a two covenant theology. 

Many Gentile rulers (kings, governments, business and religious leaders) now admit what their anti-Semitism did to the people of Israel. The Jews were like a tender shoot in dry ground, unattractive and undesirable, despised and rejected, sorrowful and familiar (intimate) with suffering (52:2&3). We (the Gentile rulers) scapegoated them and they carried our projected infirmities, but we rationalized that the Jews were stricken and afflicted by God, not by us. Israel was pierced and crushed due to our transgressions (anti-Semitism) for we sought our peace by blaming Jews for all kinds of evils (54:4&5). 

This anti-Semitism led to: Crusaders slaughtering Jews in France and Germany, blaming Jews for the Bubonic Plague in central Europe, torture by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, many expulsions and pogroms at various times throughout Europe, and the deaths of tens of thousands of Jewish civilians massacred during wars in Poland (1648-9) and the Ukraine (1919-21). All this set the stage for the worst martyrdom of all, the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust (plus five million non-Jews). Each evil regime turned its own kind of iniquity (religious, political, economic and social) on its Jews (54:6). 

Again and again Jews were passively taken away to exile, or like sheep to the slaughter cut off from the land of the living, though they had done no violence (54:7-9). Yet faithful Jews accepted all this as God’s will and refused to abandon their religion or their people. Survivors of the concentration camps, who had lost their entire family, had the courage and faith to marry, and lived to see their offspring (Jewish children and grandchildren) grow up (54:10). Many, whose days were prolonged (54:10) and are now in their 70’s and 80’s, have lived long enough to see the most amazing outcomes of the Holocaust. 

The return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel and the rebuilding of its cities and countryside are the subject of many passages in Isaiah both preceding chapter 53 and following it. The realization of these prophecies did not require a Holocaust. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the mass departure of more than one million Soviet Jews to the land of Israel also are not directly linked to the Holocaust. But the redemptive aspect of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust for Gentile rulers and nations is emphasized in this suffering servant passage. 

Of course, the Turkish government still denies responsibility for the death of over one million Armenians; the Japanese deny slaughtering 300,000 residents of Nanking during WW2, and only a few French leaders admit to the complicity of the Vichy government in rounding up Jews for the Nazi death camps. Even the UN has not officially admitted its dereliction of duty in the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. Yet the few steps of public confession and atonement that have been taken by some political and religious leaders are truly remarkable when you consider that nothing like this has ever happened in previous human history. 

If the Holocaust stimulated a willingness of religious and political leaders to accept responsibility for past examples of persecution and iniquity done by their institutions and governments continues to expand, society will improve greatly. If other governments and institutions admit responsibility for the sins of their predecessors it reduces the likelihood of repetition. Then the numbering of God’s innocent servant- Israel/Jacob with transgressors will, when the lessons are finally learned, justify not just those directly involved in the atonement process but also many others. Israel’s pouring out of life (six million deaths) will not have been in vain, and the revivified Jewish people will see the light of life and be satisfied (54:11-12).

The ability of Christians and Jews to understand that both religions’ interpretation of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant has helped bring us closer to an age of increased human rights will lead to a greater demand for universal peace and security. (Isaiah 2:1-4 and Micah 4:1-8) Christians have always stressed the individual aspects of personal self sacrifice for salvation. By adding national and organizational aspects, Christians can help elevate the moral level of political and organizational behavior. 

When current political and religious leaders feel the need to publicly acknowledge the sins of their predecessors, itt helps to reduce the level of self righteousness that usually accompanies the corruption of political and religious power. It also warns religious people and their leaders that in the words of Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” 

Jews can now begin to understand how the role of Jesus as the Josephson Messiah, and the example of the passion of Jesus, has motivated many political and religious leaders in our generation to apologize for evils they personally did not do, in order to set the record right. The Davidson messiah will come after all nations, religions and political parties learn to respect and value as a gift from God, each other’s right to differ in large as well as small issues. (Micah 4:5) Since this religious reform requires great leadership from all the major religions, each religion will have to produce its own Aronson religious reformer messianic figure. 

These plural messianic religious reformers are referred to by Jeremiah as ‘shepherds’ (3:14-18) and their teachings will provide each religion with a reformed and renewed covenant (31:31-34). The advocacy of pluralism by the major religious communities will then produce the bases for the ultimate messianic predictions of worldwide peace, justice, prosperity, and salvation that the prophets proclaimed so often. The Davidson Messiah will come to crown our faith in God’s inspiration and deliverance.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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