A Sorry State of Affairs: The power of an apology

“Why should I apologize to the descendants of slaves, or the holocaust, or
the Northern Irish? I didn¹t do it. It happened before I was born. How can
apologizing for things you didn¹t do help anything? Is it biblical? Can you
back it up? Aren¹t you just stirring up trouble?”

At Worldwide Church of God¹s Office of Reconciliation Ministries (ORM)
we get such questions often. They deserve an answer.

Consider this. The police chief of a major American city, a leader in
community reconciliation, recently confessed to a lapse in judgment. He had
sat down at a restaurant where the waiter serving him was Turkish. Suddenly,
deeply buried resentments inside the chief¹s psyche rose to the surface. He
proceeded to make life miserable for the young waiter. Why?

The chief was of Armenian descent. Inside him were deep feelings he had
heard around the family table concerning the Armenian genocide, one of the
20th century¹s most heinous crimes. “The Turks have never apologized for
that episode,” the chief told one of us. “Still, that was no excuse for my
behavior toward that young man.”

Events 100 years old came hurtling out of the past as if they were wounds
from yesterday.

“Land of the Living Past”

In the 1990s, millions of people in the Balkans found themselves caught
up in hatreds and resentments that went back to squabbles and atrocities of
the 1300s. One journalist called this area “the land of the living past.”
In writer William Faulkner¹s words, “The past isn¹t dead. It isn¹t even
past.”

Ancient hatreds and animosities still exist. The trouble is already out
there walking around. The dead hand of the past is not so dead. People still
living carry around bitter folk memories of wrongs inflicted on their
ancestors, wounds that have been passed on down. A phrase from Exodus 20:5
comes to mind: “the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Hatreds take on a life of their own‹the Capulets and the Montagues in
Romeo and Juliet; the Hatfields and the McCoys in early America. In Bosnia
the hurt went marching down the generations.

In the face of deeply rooted hatreds, can a simple apology be of much
help?

“Attitudes have a kind of inertia,” wrote M. Scott Peck. “Once set in
motion they will keep going, even in the face of the evidence. To change an
attitude requires a considerable amount of work and suffering.”

That¹s the hard part. So where to begin? Who is responsible for trying to
break such cycles of hatred? The dead? Obviously not. Who, then, will step
into the breach, and how?

Sins of the Fathers?

Many counselors believe that an indispensable first step in shutting down
any cycle of hatred is to work toward an apology. “What‹a simple apology?”
Wait. No apology is simple. That¹s why it has to be “worked towards.” It¹s a
process. It requires emotional and spiritual commitment on the part of the
one offering it‹and for the injured party to accept it. Which is to say that
neither mercy nor forgiveness are easy.

But what about things that happened generations ago? Can a living
generation be held accountable for what their ancestors did? 2 Samuel 21
records a severe famine in Israel in the time of King David. David sought
God¹s advice. He was told: “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained
house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death.”

Centuries before, the Gibeonites had been promised protection as resident
aliens (Joshua 9:15). Saul had broken that pledge. Now David¹s generation
was paying the price. David asked the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you?
How shall I make amendsŠ”

Offenses are personal. To deal with them often takes a personal response.

Even on the parental level we can see the power of an apology. When a father
or mother sincerely apologizes to a young person for overreacting harshly,
immense goodwill can be created. It thaws out the frozen relationship where
everyone stumbles around in a half-evasive daze, not sure of what to do
next.

Breaking the Cycle

A reconciliation specialist from Ireland tells us: “The first step
towards peace is to talk truthfully about what went wrong.” A sincere
apology often clears the air. “I¹m sorry we¹re having this problem.” Where
wrongdoing is deeply layered it takes stamina to break down barriers. “There
are many examples in history of nations who have tried to bury rather than
face the past. If we try to ignore or bury the past it will haunt us and may
even destroy us.”

Forgiveness is an act of release. It can be graciously extended after a
generous apology is offered. But when there is a refusal to admit that
someone somewhere did something very wrong, relationships remain frozen.
Human nature being what it is, the next step is often to blame the victims
for inflating the situation. “You¹re making it up. It¹s not that bad.”
And so, the cycle continues. The sickness remains. But the good news is
that there is a better way.

It often begins with an apology.
(Reprinted with thanks to Christian Odyssey magazine.)