BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day led by Revd Dr Sam Wells.

Good morning. On Monday the President of Mexico said, ‘I have sent a letter to the king of Spain and another to the Pope … urging them to apologise to the indigenous peoples for the violations of what we now call their human rights.’ He said there couldn’t be reconciliation until there was forgiveness.

The Spanish government immediately responded, ‘The arrival, 500 years ago, of Spaniards to Mexican territory cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations.’

It’s a complex story. There’s a fear that speaking of guilt and apology might lead to legal claims for compensation. There’s the fact that 98% of the Mexican population have some combination of indigenous, European and African ancestry, so everyone is implicated. Indeed the Mexican President plans to offer his own apology, since the repression of indigenous peoples continued after the colonial period.

But the heart of the issue is whether it can ever be just for a person today to offer an apology for something done by others 500 years ago.

In the eleventh century Anselm of Canterbury wrestled with a similar conundrum as he pondered how human beings could be forgiven for the sin committed since the dawn of time. Anselm believed divine justice required both confession of guilt and concrete reparation; but the weight of the offence was so enormous that no human being could atone for it. Hence his formula: only God could do it, but only humankind should do it. Thus the logic for the God-human, Jesus.

But ever since Anselm, people have wondered whether this was simply replacing one injustice with another. The issue is the same as between Mexico and Spain: is it ever appropriate or helpful for one person to apologise or atone for the crimes or sins of another?

Reconciliation is the epicentre of the Christian faith. But it can be thwarted when it’s rushed or trivialised. To lay the ground for reconciliation, it usually takes lengthy preparation and follow-up. It means resolving to live beyond conflict, ensuring offending acts have actually ceased, telling a truthful story, and taking steps to understand the wrong-headedness that underlay the actions. Without such preparation and follow-up, a standalone apology is an isolated gesture, open to cynicism and mistrust.

But with such accompanying gestures of humility and sincerity, a vicarious statement, very close to an apology, is not an absurdity. It is possible to announce, ‘I believe that Hernan Cortes and his thousand men and their successors, if they were standing here today, knowing what we now know and understanding justice as we now see it, would say, “We are sorry. We were wrong. We beg you to forgive us.”’