Tuesday, July 06, 2010

apologies are hard, non-apologies are harder


[This entry was started all the way back on July 6 but I didn't finish it until much more recently]

Non-apologies are a continuing art form with people. This blog entry struck me because I have seen some disconcertingly memorable non-apologies, thankfully virtually none of them directed toward me. The thing about non-apologies is that they can come in just a few forms. One is simply defiant justification, which doesn't fit into the non-apology form, does it? Another is the self-rationalizing "I'm sorry but" in which a person can insert a defense of their actions to establish that they are sorry they offended you but they're right so their actions or words were inevitably justified. But there is another, more invidious non-apology that expresses regret that what happened got somebody upset without claiming any moral culpability and without granting any legitimacy to the grievances of the aggrieved. This looks and sounds roughly like, "I'm sorry that you feel that way." Or, "I'm sorry you're offended by what I said/did/think." Not merely amongst Christian circles the best of the worst non-apologies is "We've been over this already and you just need to forgive me and move on [because I'm right and I'm never going to concede even the possibility of being wrong]."

Sadly the people who I have seen display these last sorts of non-apologies at the worst end of the spectrum are also, paradoxically but unsurprisingly, the most indignant and resentful toward other people. An insincere apology is worse than defiance. It is better to know that "we" are far from okay than to have an apology that is pro forma while subsequent actions and deeds reveal no change of heart. I was once advised in a situation to offer an apology with the addendum, "You don't have to actually mean it, you just have to say it so that the other people accept it." Call me stubborn but I can't condone that sort of apology that functions as a lie. If I disagree with someone I'll continue to disagree, I just might change my approach to disagreement.

The people who have excelled at the non-apology have often been through a phase where if someone else is offended that is a revelation of their own moral weakness while their own capacity for outrage indicates their good character. Sadly these people are people I have witnessed within the church. Really, where else would they be most prominent? Oh, yes, I suppose in politics and every other walk of life, too.

To speak an apology is to admit you have done a real and in some cases irreversible wrong. Many people find it difficult enough to admit to physical weaknesses but it is an even great feat of swallowing pride to admit to moral weakness, which is invariably what an apology, at some level demands. Just as acknowledging a physical weakness is to acknowledge a physical defect or limitation so is an apology acknowledging the consequences and existence of a defect in character. It can be very tough to do this. It isn't ALWAYS very tough but it's always very tough when it is most important to do! Apologies for your mistakes not only humiliate you but reveal that you are aware of the reasons why you have humiliated yourself or someone else. The non-apology at its best evades the issue of wrong-doing and at its worst becomes a pretext for pinning full blame on whomever you or I have offended! "I'm sorry you feel that way." can end up being nothing more than a tacit accusation of being overly sensitive in the face of having done or said something terrible.

I had a roommate in college some sixteen years ago. He said the thing that bugged him most about Christians (and he was one at the time) was that they always seemed to see forgiveness as obligatory toward them without having to ask for it while demanding it of others when they got offended. He didn't understand how that worked or how Christians could be so hypocritical about it. He was kept up very late at night frustrated by these things and on a few occasions kept me from falling asleep because he needed to talk about this. I humored him because, honestly, at that point I had no idea I had two different kinds of sleeping disorders and I figured I wasn't going to fall asleep for hours anyway so if I humored my frustrated roommate who was frustrated by the hypocrisy of Christians, well, perhaps Christ could be glorified by my providing an admittedly not-entirely-willing positive example!

My former roommate eventually left the faith, returned, and for all I know left the faith again. It is one of the sad paradoxes of the Christian life that we should not be too dependent on the encouragement of other Christians. That, perhaps, is the thing that in every generation Christ's people will never really apologize for. Christ's hanging on the cross for people who were not yet His, however, has always been good enough an apology for me even when so many Christians, including myself, have never thought once about apologizing for anything. Father, forgive them, for the don't know what they are doing applies to me just as it applies to those whom I wish it didn't apply to as well as to those to whom I wish it did and to whom it does.

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