Weak-kneed Apologies

Michael Metzger

So sorry.
“If my remarks offended anyone, I sincerely apologize.” Heard that one lately? The pope is the latest in a lengthening line of public officials who have crafted a novel form of apology that feels like no apology at all. For example, Senator George Allen is apologizing profusely for using the word “macaca” to describe a member of his opponent’s staff. These two men line up behind athletes and politicians, along with business and religious leaders, who offer weak-kneed apologies (some crafted by their press agents and advisers).

I personally don’t believe the pope said anything he needs to apologize for. But that’s grist for another mill. My point is the modern apology has become an art form that, according to recently published research, leaves the aggrieved feeling patronized and pacified rather than healed. Peter Kim, an organizational psychologist at the University of Southern California has studied which apologies increase trust and which ones do not. It appears that leaders making these weak-kneed apologies “are seen as no better than officials who deny such crimes but then recant when the allegations prove true.”¹ We fail to distinguish between when an apology is adequate or when something more stout is required. That demarcation line was drawn long ago by the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition.

First of all, if my hammer mistakenly strikes your thumb, that requires only an apology (along with me hiring a contractor and paying your medical expenses). The word apology comes from the Greek to give a defense. Apologies are essentially defending our actions. They don’t work in an age where 56% of graduate students in business admit to cheating and plagiarism is rampant due to the Internet.2 Lying, slander, groping – these are all inappropriate actions. Defending these actions is indefensible. The implicit message in this kind of apology is my actions can be explained. Peter Kim’s research indicates this kind of apology is very unsatisfying. On NPR this morning, I listened to the plaintive cries of an aggrieved mother who recently buried her 15 year-old son. At yesterday’s sentencing, the convicted murderer apologized over and over, mouthing “I’m sorry” to the mother. “I was insulted” was all she could spit out.

The Judeo-Christian faith offers a different response than weak-kneed apologies. First, being sorry leads to repentance.3 Repentance means to change direction – not change the message, bob and weave, or explain why we blew it. It leads one to confess; not apologize. Confession comes from the Greek to agree with. For over two thousand years, the Christian gospel has been known as a “four-chapter” story – creation, the fall, redemption, and the final restoration. In this story, confession is agreeing with the way things ought to be when we blow it. It’s admitting to the way it is and agreeing with God, regardless of whether the aggrieved was upset, offended, provoked, or was even aware of an error. It’s saying, “I was wrong… I sinned.”

Second, the Judeo-Christian tradition demands that offenders ask for forgiveness, if we have done wrong. Asking “Do you forgive me?” brings about a world of good – believe me, I have lots of practice! Third, this faith tradition calls for the aggrieved to respond with “I forgive you.” People who blow it need to hear they are forgiven. When anyone embraces the Christian faith, they hear God say I forgive you. I can’t tell you how many late nights Kathy or I endured waiting until the other could honestly say I forgive you. But when we finally did forgive, the healing began. That’s why the Scripture reads: “confess your sins to one another and you will be healed.”4

Peter Kim notes that apologies are a two-edged sword. “People who apologize are confirming they did something wrong, and therefore should be trusted less. But the fact that they are coming clean means they should be trusted more.”5 Maybe apologies are not what we long to hear. I bet a great deal of our mistrust of public leaders along with our growing cynicism is partly due to the endless litany of weak-kneed apologies. And even though some have said confession is good for the soul but bad for the reputation; it might ultimately be healthy for both.

1 Shankar Vedantam, “Apologies Accepted? It Depends on the Offense,” ( Washington Post, September 25, 2006), p.A2
2 Richard Morin, “Captains of Industry, Masters of Cheating,” ( Washington Post, September 27, 2006), p.A2
3 Paul wrote: “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10)
4 “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)
5 Shankar Vedantam, “Apologies Accepted? It Depends on the Offense,” ( Washington Post, September 25, 2006), A2


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