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Friday, September 18, 2009

The Politics and Spirituality of Apology


Apologies. They're all in the news. As well as the people who apologized.

Or refused to.

Kanye West and Serena Williams did.

Joe Wilson did and then didn't.

He apologized to the President of the United States, but refused to apologize to his colleagues for his behavior. He was officially rebuked by the House.

A lot could be said for all three apologies, which weren't exactly apologies.

West said he rudely interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the MTV awards, saying that it should have gone to Beyonce, because he's still upset about the death of his mother.

Williams issued a "Zen apology" for her X-rated outburst at Match Point. She was, she said, "in the moment".

And Wilson? Well, he was close to Zen saying that "I let my emotions get the best of me." But, he refused to apologize to the House, saying, “The challenges our nation faces are far bigger than any one member of this House. It is time that we move forward and get to work for the American people.”

Seven Republicans joined 233 Democrats in approving the resolution; 12 Democrats joined Mr. Wilson and 166 other Republicans in opposing it.

The spin doctors on the Left and Right have made us all dizzy with the rhetoric of victory, snatching a word here and a phrase there and weaving it into a crown.

I'm more concerned about apologies - or lack or refusal thereof - as a further evidence of the demise of civility in our culture. I think it has a great deal to tell us about the nature of fear and the central message of the prophets and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

My memories of my childhood apologies were much like that of Williams, West and Wilson. I either offered excuses ("I'm sorry but s/he hit me first") or forced by my mother, (Mother: "Apologize to your brother RIGHT NOW!" Me: (Hand on hip, teeth grit) "Okay! I'm sorry."). Neither was either adequate or sincere.

I understand being "in the moment". When I was outraged that I had gotten into trouble with the authority figure of my young life for defending myself, I could hardly be expected to offer a sincere or adequate apology, even though I understood, on some level, that my actions hardly helped the situation.

I also understand offering excuses. It's important, when you've embarrassed yourself, to try to explain the context of the situation. Equally important is to understand is that when someone asks, even earnestly, why you did what you did, that the trap is that your explanation will always sound like an excuse.

I've learned this lesson the hard way. It's always better to stick with a sincere but simple, "I'm sorry." When I hear myself say the word "embarrass" I know that this is a clue that, if I say any more, I'm only going to dig the hole deeper into the Hole of Embarrassment.

Being required to apologize - especially a public apology - rarely produces a sincere or adequate apology, so I understand the resistance to it. However, there are times when standards of discourse and civility absolutely demand it. The best thing is to find the higher ground, even if you feel you were - still are - right, and apologize for the result of your behavior or words.

This is precisely what happened when the Primates of the Anglican Communion demanded a public apology from the House of Bishops in The Episcopal Church for the election and consecration of Gene Robinson.

What the House of Bishops said was that "we regret" the impact of our actions on the certain parts of the Anglican Communion. That was, at least, truthful. To have apologized would have been to admit we/they were wrong, which they/we were decidedly not. They took the higher ground and told the truth about the state of our souls and psyches.

They did the honorable thing in a difficult situation.

That is usually enough for most reasonable people. It wasn't for many of the Primates and many of their flock, who now seek to find retaliation and retribution for what they consider a dastardly deed.

This is not an honorable thing in a difficult situation. Indeed, they have now created a situation in which they have compounded the difficulty and done more harm than the original event.

Which begs the question: What is to be done when one feels that an apology is not enough?

Take, for example, the issue of apology for a heinous crime or murder - especially one showing 'depraved indifference to human life'. Saying, "I'm sorry" doesn't go far enough. There must be consequences for actions and behaviors. That is the basis for our penal system - as well as capitol punishment.

The issue of apology for the Holocaust or Slavery brings up intense emotion on both sides - especially when the subject turns to that of reparations.

Some see Reparation as retribution for things they did not do. The cry goes up, "Why should we pay for something we didn't do - would never have done?" The complexity of how it is we have all benefited from systems of cruel oppression escapes us when our wallets are threatened.

This has lead one of my African American friends to lament that he wishes we would talk about "Reparation" vs "Reparations".

"Put that 's' on the end," he says, "and people see it as a dollar sign."

We've become a litigious society which has been carefully taught by the Litigators Among Us that an apology implies guilt and guilt implies responsibility and responsibility means, bottom line (and, we've all become obsessed with the bottom line), you are going to have to pay something - usually lots of money - to someone.

Hugh Settlements of Big Bucks has made some of us reticent and others of us cowards.

It takes enormous fortitude to put aside political and legal concerns to find our own moral compass to say the right words that convey our sincere regret and satisfy our social obligations to one another.

I've been thinking a great deal, these past few days, of Bishop Barry Valentine. Bishop Valentine is a retired bishop - of Manitoba (Canada) and the retired assistant bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland in 1989.

When the history of this time in our common lives of faith is written, I suspect that the "shot heard 'round the Anglican Communion" will be identified as the Baltimore Declaration.

The Baltimore Declaration was a piece written by six Episcopal priests in the Diocese of Maryland in 1991 regarding affirmation of orthodox Christianity. It is sometimes used as a manifesto by Episcopalian factions which wish to reaffirm orthodox Christian principles within the Episcopal Church

The signers were (see if you recognize any of these names): The Rev. Ronald S. Fisher, The Rev. Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., The Rev. R. Gary Matthewes-Green, The Rev. William N. McKeachie, The Rev. Frederick J. Ramsay, The Rev. Philip Burwell Roulette.

You can read a brief summary of it here. For some reason, I was unable to find the entire document - even 'blocked' at one site. Hmm . . . Strange. But, I digress.

UPDATE: Thanks to "Kevin," you can find a full copy of the document here.

The Bishop Diocesan, Ted Eastman, made what he thought was a very strategic move in asking Bishop Valentine to be his Assistant rather than calling for a Bishop Suffragan.

Bishop Valentine's credentials as a conservative Anglican were absolutely sterling. There was a growing unrest in the diocese, stirred up by the aforementioned clergy, who called for a return to "biblical orthodoxy". Bishop Valentine could speak to them, using their language, and be their pastor.

Something happened. I don't remember the details, if I ever knew them. Bishop Valentine said or did something that eroded the trust between he and Bishop Eastman. It was clear that the two men could no longer work together.

Bishop Valentine retired his position.

Oh. My. God.

While I might not remember the details of the disagreement, I do remember the fall out. The press was all over the story like Old Bay on steamed Maryland Crabs.

I also remember the public statement by Bishop Valentine. I don't remember the exact words, but it went something like this, "I deeply regret what has happened. Anything more I could say would be less than helpful at this time."

And then, he quietly returned to Manitoba.

Now, that takes class. Oh, yes, and spiritual depth and maturity.

Which leads me to my point.

Scholar and modern prophet Walter Brueggemann argues that “fear not” is the primary message of the Gospel. I think he's right. The problem is that I hear the words "fear not" as a challenge to find that little switch in my psyche that can instantly turn off my fear.

It ain't that easy. Not in my experience, anyway. Not when I have to sort through what it is, exactly, that I fear. Especially when I'm expected to apologize and make it both appropriate and sincere.

I have discovered that saying, "I'm sorry," are two of the most powerful words in the English language. They are only powerful, however, when they speak the truth. And, to find the truth, I have to sort through my fear: embarrassment, being wrong, changing my mind or position . . . fill in your own blank.

There is a woman who is teaching me how to do this. It's a "negative lesson" but it is both effective and powerful.

She is a most unhappy person, mostly with herself. To 'outsiders' she is successful - lives in a beautiful home. Has a loving and devoted husband. Two wonderful children. One can only imagine the inner turmoil that brews inside her - or the 'internal scripts' she learned and memorized as a child - that lead her to be so hypercritical.

I can never do anything right in her eyes. And, when I do - when, on those rare occasions I do something right - and she offers a compliment, it doesn't take 15 minutes for her to balance that with a criticism.

It's taken me a while, but when she 'rebukes' me - always publicly - I have learned to step back psychically, take a deep breath into my soul and blow through my fears, find a place of truth in me and say, "I'm sorry to have disappointed you again."

It hasn't stopped her from being hypercritical, but it does stop her dead in her tracks. Every time.

It doesn't cost me much, really. I know I'll never change her. Her patterns of behavior are so set at this point that she's not even aware of her behavior.

Don't get me wrong. I'm far from perfect. My sins are ever before me and I know them well. I don't - can't, yet - do this with everyone, every time. But, I'm learning that relationships in community are worth the sacrifice it takes to find an expression of apology or regret.

And, that's the point. It's not so much about the situation or the regress - who's right and who's wrong. What political point is important to make. And, there are times and situations when it is important to speak the truth to power.

It is always important, however, to speak the truth, insofar as it is possible, in love. Sometimes, it is important to pull a punch and other times it is important to come out swinging.

The wisdom to know the difference, I am learning, arises from a place from whence self-knowledge arises. Part of that self-knowledge is to understand God's unconditional love for us and forgiveness of our sins the moment we express regret.

Knowing that we are loved and forgiven by God makes it easier to love and forgive others - or, at least express apology and regret before we're fully able to do that with sincerity and truth.

"Be not afraid," is a daunting challenge. It is easier to accept that challenge when we hear, before and after that statement, that God loves us, as Gene Robinson reminds us, beyond our wildest imaginings.

12 comments:

Brad said...

Nobody wants to confess to anybody.
People who go around trying to get 'atonement' are a pain.
They should get a life.
Historical apologies are political theater. They mean nothing to anyone. Those who were murdered are dead and there's nothing we could do for them. Same with the murders.
There are enough unsolved crimes and problems among the living.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I don't know how you can make such sweeping statements, Brad, and with such conviction. I hear people's confessions All The Time. I regularly confess to my Spiritual "Soul Friend". I have deep problems with the idea of the Atonement, but I have a life. I have no idea what else you are talking about.

Malcolm+ said...

Barry Valentine was a bishop in Manitoba, but he was Bishop of Rupert's Land, the diocese which includes the Manitoba capitol, Winnipeg, and the Interlakes region.

http://www.anglican.ca/resources/posters/documents/DiocesanMap06.pdf

The ecclesiastical province is also called Rupert's Land. Formerly, the Bishop of Rupert's Land was also Metropolitan, but that had ceased to be the case some time before Barry's election, and he was never Metropolitan.

The name of the diocese and province derives from a grant of land by King Charles II to the Hudson's Bay Company, one of the partner's being his cousin, Prince Rupert of the Rhine. In that usage, Rupert's Land referred to the entire area of land draining into Hudson's Bay.

All of which is beside the point.

But yes, Barry Valentine was a class act.

I am told that a woman in the diocese had made him a precious mitre for his consecration. Apparently it was quite gaudy and he didn't much like it. But for years he would sigh as he was near the end of vesting and put on the mitre anyway.

Jim said...

"People who go around trying to get 'atonement' are a pain."

If our hostess permit: a question. I really have no idea what that sentence means? Who are these people? What activity is "trying to get atonement?"

Confessing to a confessor -- priest, confidant or counselor -- can be a very comforting experience and many seek it out. I suspect that "nobody" in this case means "I."

FWIW
jimB

Mary said...

Thanks for this post. There is so much here that I have read it a couple of times. A couple of points you made resonated with me:

I'm reading about causes of plagiarism and many authors point to the fact that we are such a litigious society that the way scholarship and research are carried out is affected. A couple of authors have argued that the only way to call attention to problems is by creating a "scandal" of some sort.

Right now our churches are one of the few places we seek community in an unvarnished way (no membership fees, no application). As a parishioner who's been involved in various ministries over the past 18 years I am starting to realize how much many of us project old hurts onto parish life. Perhaps in our individualistic, competitive society we (often) lack the skills to give and take within community?

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Well, I have learned many new things about "confession" and "apology." Most important, that to even get to the point of confessing, you have to be willing for metanoia to occur. Something in you MUST change. Not "might change," not "may change," not "could change." Otherwise, you are giving a hollow rationalization. A "non-apology" as it were.

You must accept new lessons in humility, or pride, or jealousy, or covetness, or gluttony, or whatever sin that merits the apology covers.

There is a huge difference, and the stuff we see on the news channels has very little metanoia attached to it.

Brad said...

I apologize for things I have done, I, myself, personally.
If it happened before I was born, apologizing become self-flagellation.
The Reformation was great in that we gave up one Pope far away; now if we could only get rid of the dozens of mini-popes close by...

Andy said...

Elizabeth+, you clearly did some heavy lifting on this essay. Change can ratchet up the anxiety on anyone, political bent notwithstanding. As a libertarian, I have enough beef with both "left" and "right" concerning their desecration and general shredding of our constitution over the better part of the last century and this first decade of this new century.

I'm a little elated to see a guy my age living at 1600 Pennsylvania AV. My advice to Barry is simple: take out space on the Washington Post, Times, New York Times, Post, and a few west coast fish wrappers and have them print your birth certificate. Redact any sensitive info of course.

This simple act will silence the bomb throwers on either side of the spectrum, and bolster the confidence of the rest. A little daylight can go a long way.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Andy. Good suggestion. Come by and visit again.

Lesley said...

Just FYI, my father (The Rt. Rev. Barry Valentine) died this past Friday, October 16th, 2009.

Lesley Valentine-Anand

Michael Valentine said...

I thank you, and others, for your recollection of my father (The Rt. Rev. Barry Valentine) as "a class act". He was indeed, and there are few like him these days.

Anonymous said...

Lesley and Michael, deepest condolences to you and to all members of your family from +Barry's friends who profited immensely, both spiritually and personally, from your father's influence. He was (and is!) a remarkable presence in the lives of so many. How is it that such humility, quietness, zest for life and music, and an uncanny ability to pleasantly challenge easy assumptions could have coexisted in one person? Our lives would not be the same if we had not, all too briefly, known your father. A class act, indeed. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to speak to you directly. The grace of God be with you.