Our picture shows Justin Welby prostrating himself at the shrine of those killed in the Jallianwala Bagh incident in April 1919. There can be little doubt that the death of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators has become for many Indians a symbol of all that was wrong with the British Raj. But what does it mean, now, to apologise? And indeed was the Archbishop’s powerful gesture (as the newspapers glibly concluded) an apology after all?
There has arisen a modern cultus of historical responsibility. Soldiers are prosecuted for actions conscientiously undertaken half a century ago. Modern institutions, which allegedly benefitted from the profits of slavery, are asked to make reparation. And Africans whose ancestors were never themselves enslaved, claim that the benefits should somehow accrue to them.
Wits ask where it will all end: are the Italian, Danish and French governments to be held responsible for their respective invasions of England? And what, they ask (more seriously), of reparations for the German atrocities against Poland and France?
Surely there is a better way. The European Union, some say, is a means of discharging, through mutual co-operation, the burdens and responsibilities of the past. Europe’s recent and fragile unity, after all, is built on the bones of past conflicts.
Justin Welby’s silent prostration – though, in the end, it will prove unsatisfactory to all parties – is perhaps the only intelligent response. We are necessarily unable to make adequate reparations for actions undertaken in another country and a different time and by people not ourselves. But we can silently contemplate, in the face of those past events, the inscrutable will of God. Vengeance is mine (and mercy) says the Lord of Hosts.