Sorry: The Lost Art of Apology

Chris Buice profile

Al Herter, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Paris, emailed me the following story.

Once there was a skeptic who went to an interfaith conference but if you had asked him about his beliefs he would have thrown his hands in the air and said, “I do not believe in any of the world’s religions.” While he was sitting in a chair he was approached by a Christian priest who laid hands on him and said, “Today by the power of Jesus Christ you will walk.”

 The skeptic smiled and thought to himself, “I am not paralyzed. This guy has no idea what he is talking about.”

 Next a rabbi approached him who looked him in the eye and said, “Today it is the will of Yahweh that you will walk.”

 The skeptic thought to himself, “But I am perfectly healthy, what is this rabbi talking about.”

 Next a Mullah approached him who said, “Today by the power of Allah you will walk.”The skeptic was once again puzzled.

 Next a Buddhist monk came up and said, “Through the power of Buddha you will walk today.” “But there isn’t anything wrong with me,” thought the skeptic.

 Next a Hindu priest approached him and said, “It is Krishna’s will that you will walk today.”

“But I am perfectly fine,” thought the skeptic.

 Finally the conference ended and as he was leaving he went out to the parking lot and noticed that his car had been stolen. And so he said.

 “Now I believe in all the world’s religions.”

 In the Unitarian Universalist Church we have room for a lot of skepticism but we also pay attention when we hear the same message over and over again in many different holy traditions. This morning I want to talk about forgiveness. And while the religions of the world do not always have the exact same teachings about forgiveness, all of them agree that forgiveness is important and essential to leading spiritual life.

Of course, forgiveness is not only a religious thing. It is a human thing and sometimes it is even a political thing. A few years ago a friend sent me a picture from Australia where a skywriting airplane had spelled out the word “SORRY” in big bold letters across the sky.

The reason for this skywriting is that in Australia they observe a date called Sorry Day. It is a day when the people of European descent apologize to the aborigines for their mistreatment over many years. The history of Australia is similar to our own. European colonizers came and displaced the indigenous people, taking the best land and leaving the worst for the natives. There were also efforts to “civilize” the aborigines including forcibly separating children from parents and making them go to boarding schools where they could be assimilated into Western “Civilization” creating what has been called a Stolen Generation.

National Sorry Day was established in 1998 but it was not until 2008 that an Australian Prime Minister formally apologized to the aborigines on behalf of the nation. The text for his apology reads in part,

Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
We reflect on their past mistreatment….
We apologise for the laws and policies…that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss…
We apologise especially for the removal of children from their families, their communities and their country.
For the pain, suffering, and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry…
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a … future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

The actual apology is much longer but I think this is enough to capture the spirit if not every letter of the apology. The whole statement can be summarized in the one word that was written across the sky, “Sorry.”

When I learned about Australia’s National Sorry Day I began to wonder if we needed to institute something similar in our own country. Tomorrow is Columbus Day. So this might be a good time to contemplate the question, do we who are of European descent owe an apology to the Native Americans? Last week Denver, Colorado, became the 9th city in the United States to give Columbus Day a new name Indigenous People’s Day. The goal of this movement is to move past the traditional narrative that Columbus “discovered” America and celebrate the cultures and traditions of the many indigenous peoples who inhabited this land for thousands of years before Columbus arrived including 532 recognized tribes here in the United States.

A few years back the Knox County Commission in patriotic fervor debated on whether to pass a resolution declaring that God is the foundation for the United States of America and at the time I remember asking the question – whose God? the god of the Cherokee or the Chickasaw, the god of the Catawba or the Muscogee, the god of the Shawnee or the Yuchi? The god of the Apache or the Navajo, the Hopi or the Sioux? Whose God is the foundation for the United State of America? And has anyone considered the possibility that God does not want credit for the foundation of this country? Indeed God might want us to apologize for the ways we as a country have treated many of God’s children.

Last Sunday at sunset marked the beginning of the High Holy Days of the Jewish Calendar. This is a season when it is a tradition to apologize, to give and receive forgiveness, to say sorry. Rabbi Telushkin reminds us that during this season it is especially important for the strong to apologize to the weak, so parents should be sure to apologize to their children, to show that forgiveness is not a quality of the weak but an attribute of the strong. To apologize is to lead. To apologize is to accept responsibility. To apologize is to begin a journey into a better future grounded in mutual respect and positive regard.

The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict has been the backdrop for the High Holy Days for more than half a century reminding us that the journey to peace and reconciliation is not an easy one. However, I have an early memory of the peace treaty negotiated by Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin which has held firm for decades. As a child I remember seeing a picture of those three men standing together, a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew with a banner of words, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” That memory reminds me that people of all faiths can work together for peace.

That treaty was meant to be the first step, followed closely by a second step, the resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but that next step, despite the efforts of many, has yet to be taken and this failure to follow up on a hopeful start is something for which we all should feel profoundly sorry.

So perhaps we need to institute a Sorry Day. Here in America we can use the occasion to say sorry to the Native Americans and the African Americans who came to this country in chains to serve as slaves, the slaves that literally built the White House and Nation’s Capitol Building. This year a candidate for president has suggested we need to ban Muslims from entering the United States because some may be terrorists. How quickly we forget that many Muslims came to this country against their will, stolen by slave catchers, forced to endure the agony of the Middle Passage, to bear the shame of the slave block, the whip, the lynching tree and the worst forms of terrorism that human beings have ever devised. I am willing to bet that some prayed to Allah as they laid the foundation of the White House and the cornerstone of the capitol building. So maybe it is Allah who is the foundation of the United States of America.

Perhaps, we need a National Sorry Day so that we can remember our own history accurately and thus lead the world more honestly. When we confront genocide in the world we can say honestly, we have been down that road and we do not recommend it. There has to be a better way. When we confront human trafficking we can say we’ve been down that road, and by most estimations are still going down that road, and we must choose a better direction and a better future.

According to Jewish tradition it is wrong to ask God to forgive us for something we’ve done to someone else. We must apologize directly to the person or persons who have been hurt by our decisions. God does not want to be your middleman. Instead we should take responsibility for our actions, talk directly to those affected and offer personal apologies whenever it will not cause additional harm.

An apology should never be a disguised form of egotism, where we apologize and feel better and the other person feels worse. The goal is to help heal the hurt, to build up the broken, to repair the damage. For this reason it is not enough to say “Sorry” one must seek to make amends for the wrong done and take steps that it will never happen again. Interestingly enough each one of these elements of forgiveness plays a role in Australia’s National Sorry Day. The day is not about regret about the past but about taking tangible steps to right a wrong and co-create a better tomorrow.

Of course, making amends is no easy task. How does this generation make amends for the actions of past generations? How does one make amends for genocide, for the forcible separation of families, for treating others as less than human beings? How does one make amends for centuries of wrongdoing? There is no quick fix here, no simplistic formula. Part of the reality of forgiveness is that it requires us to face damage that can’t be undone, words that cannot be unsaid, hurt that cannot be healed.

The Stoic philosophers use a natural image to describe this reality about how damage cannot always be undone. The Stoics tell us that humanity is organically one. We are one. All human beings are like branches from one tree. A branch that becomes disconnected from an adjacent branch will be disconnected from the whole tree. Once we allow ourselves to become detached from the tree it can be difficult if not impossible to restore this original unity. There is always a scar when the branch is grafted back on to the tree and for every re-grafting addition damage is done.

Sometimes when we apologize we are working for restoration and reconciliation and other times we are simply trying to graft the pieces of the tree back together with a certain knowledge that things will never be exactly the same again. Nevertheless, even when we can’t undo all the damage an apology can still be a good thing. It can be very important to say or spell out that one word, “Sorry.” And it can be a very big step to accept an apology. There is definitely hard work on both ends of that equation, giving and recieving.

So what we may need is a National Sorry Day here in the US for the Native Americans and for those who were slaves but also for every other kind of wrong including the more pedestrian wrongs of every day life. We need to set aside a day to apologize to our loved ones, our family and friends, our co-workers and fellow congregants. We need a time to apologize for our mistakes, our poor judgment and our acts of anger and hostility.

But don’t just take my word for it. Draw wisdom from the practices of Judaism during the High Holy Days. Draw inspiration from the example of a Christian president, a Muslim president and a Jewish prime minister negotiating peace. Draw insight from the actions of the Australian people and their government. Remember that all the world’s religion teach the value of forgiveness. All the religions of the world remind us that we need to give peace and forgiveness not only lip service but life service. We need to pay attention when all the world’s religions are saying the same thing so that we can move beyond “talking the talk” and start “walking the walk.” For when we forgive we show that we truly believe in all the world’s religions.

This sermon was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, October 9, 2016


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