Thanks to David Hartman for this cartoon at his NakedPastor page. It a reference, of course, to Rick Warren’s recent tweet using images of the Red Army, which prompted an understandable reaction aimed at the Saddleback pastor. Warren responded as shown in the pre-edited text. As David explains (through lessons learned from his wife), apology doesn’t really require qualification.
Apology seems to be in the air. This month Ed Stetzer reported on LifeWay research showing that half of all Americans surveyed regret choices they’ve made. Forty-seven percent agree that “I am dealing with the consequences of a bad decision.” Over 8 in 10 believe God gives second chances. The figure for evangelicals, not surprisingly, goes up to near unanimity.
This echos work being done by my blogging buddy Michelle Van Loon. Michelle reposted Ed’s Christianity Today piece this morning, which led me to ask her why we seem more comfortable looking for apologies at the individual level but don’t seem to address harm done institutionally.
Churches, colleges, congresses, companies all make decisions that can harm others. Where is it that institutions “regret bad decisions”? If a congregation has conflict resulting in a split, is there an apology to all affected? When a family is estranged from fellowship, do we come forth and say sorry? Do we acknowledge that we can collectively do bad things? How do we atone for those?
We’re reading about Reinhold Niebuhr in one of my classes. He wrote a book in 1932 called Moral Man and Immoral Society. He suggests that individuals are capable of moral choice but collectives are not. I think Niebuhr is too pessimistic, but the inability to apologize and instead to defend choices as just and right may be part of the challenge. The aftermath of the partial government shutdown has led to lots of finger pointing and complaints about the efficacy of poor strategy, but nobody has come forth even to say “My Bad”.
This got me wondering if our inability to apologize for past institutional action is related to a number of problems in contemporary society. Is it possible that the disaffection of millennials from the established church is, at least in part, because they are longing for the church to take responsibility for her past insensitivity and judgmentalism? Is the anger of the Tea Party due, at least in part, to an inability of the Congress over the last 30 years to take responsibility for its lack of long-range thinking? Is our economic crisis in part a reaction to the inability of the mortgage lenders to own up to the fact that they gamed the system and almost destroyed the economy?
I’m a fan of institutions. I’m a sociologist, for goodness sake. It’s my stock in trade. On top of that, I was in administration for half my career, so institutional management is what I did every day.
I agree with Jamie Smith that “We believe in Institutions“. Or to quote the late Robert Bellah and his team from The Good Society (sequel to Habits of the Heart), “Democracy means paying attention”. In other words, our collective life matters. It shapes our present circumstances, feeds our depressions, limits our imaginations.
Maybe we need to be more aware of the impacts we have institutionally and take ownership of them.
To recognize that they did real damage.
Last week’s Ethnic Relations class was one of the most depressing classes I’ve ever had. We were covering Native Americans and I showed this TED Talk from Aaron Huey. He recounts the horrific history of the forced migration of Native Americans, the violation of treaty after treaty, and the decimation of a people. We spent a long time after the video trying to explore “what to do” in response. How do you make this right? Can you turn back time? Pay reparations? Give back the Black Hills?
None of that seemed satisfactory. Maybe what we really need is to authentically apologize. Not just explain our rationale in the context of the day or through claims of manifest destiny or false paternalism. Maybe what we really need to say is
We’re Truly Sorry.
Maybe then the God of second chances can show us some miraculous healing.