On Friday, Christianity Today‘s Leadership Journal gave a platform to an imprisoned former youth pastor who had emotionally and sexually abused an adolescent girl in his care, by publishing his anonymous article “From Youth Minister to Felon.”
Also on Friday, President Obama visited Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, only the 4th of 44 US Presidents to visit a reservation while serving in office.
Also last week, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson testified that he was uncertain whether he knew, while serving previously in Minneapolis and St. Paul, that sexual abuse of a child was criminal.
Before the day’s end on Friday, Christianity Today‘s CEO and Leadership Journal‘s editor posted an apology for publishing the sex offender’s article.
In 2009, President Obama signed — but, significantly to some, did not read aloud — the Native American Apology Resolution.
In April of this year, Pope Francis apologized for the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, as Pope Benedict XVI had apologized before him.
When pressured by protest or confronted with evidence, institutions (occasionally) apologize. But can they, really? Can institutions apologize? Certainly anyone — institution or individual — can string together a series of words that form a statement of apology. Those of us who have experienced abusive relationships know the hollowness of “I’m sorry” when spoken as part of a cycle of injury. Likewise, those who experience continual harm by an institution or social system — think racism in the school-prison pipeline, think modern debtors’ prison, think abusive priests still active in ministry, think potential governmental authorization of the Keystone XL pipeline with its environmental threat to tribal lands — are justifiably reluctant to trust the words of an institutional apology.
“I’m sorry” simply isn’t convincing when abuse, neglect and discrimination continue.
Nevertheless, the presentation of an apology often prompts calls for the person who has been harmed to respond with forgiveness. We Christians like to pull out Jesus when we want someone to extend forgiveness following an apology. “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.'” (Matthew 18:21-22) In other words, we tell someone who has been wronged: “An abundance of forgiveness is the Christian way, so as soon as an apology is made, you cannot be reluctant or slow to forgive.”
Often we are eager to see a speedy apology-forgiveness exchange. It may be that we dislike conflict, so we need the apology-forgiveness sequence to bandaid our anxiety. It may be that we have a stake in or an affection for the offending party, so we want the offended persons to see the offender’s goodness as we see it. These dynamics can be true whether the perpetrator is an individual or an institution.
We make two mistakes, however, in our eager rush to witness or accomplish an apology-forgiveness exchange. (1) We remove attention from the perpetrator. That is, almost immediately after an apology is stated, we shift our critical gaze from the offender to the offended and we ask scoldingly, “Aren’t you going to forgive So-and-So?” (2) And when the person who has been harmed concedes, “I forgive you,” then we consider the matter closed and we forget to return our attention to the perpetrator to hold him/her accountable for his/her past and future behaviors.
Apology and forgiveness, however, are two distinct and non-contingent efforts, which may or may not unfold sequentially and may or may not occur through the direct interactions between the offender/offended.
An apology not only includes an expression of regret but also and necessarily conveys an understanding of the harm one has caused. The related word apologetics offers some help here: apologetics is the explanation of an event or an idea; Christian apologetics is the theological defense of Christianity. An effective apology explains an event (i.e. demonstrates understanding) and takes responsibility for its impact on others.
The anonymous writer of “From Youth Minister to Felon,” for example, demonstrated zero understanding of his impact on the middle school girl. Leadership Journal, in its apology, gave a broad nod to the “hurt” expressed by protesters — not, however, a reflective explanation of the impact that a journal about leadership had on the wider church when it published an article with the purpose of telling ministers, “Don’t go to jail” rather than “Do not harm your flock — and as a whole, the Journal‘s apology navel-gazed at its own character flaw by stating that the article “illuminate[s] our own lack of insight and foresight.”
Forgiveness, thankfully, is not contingent upon the quality of an apology. Forgiveness is the choice not to hold back another’s life — even though you have good reason, in a quid pro quo world, to require restitution for harm — and simultaneously, forgiveness is the decision not to hold back your own life in waiting for such restitution to be made. Debt forgiveness provides a helpful example: should the federal government ever decide to forgive student debt (O God, hear my prayer!), the lives of students and graduates will no longer be held back or hindered by their debt.
The young woman who was emotionally and sexually abused by the writer of “From Youth Minister to Felon,” for example, may have already forgiven her abuser by not allowing his actions to hold her back from life, by pursuing healing of mind, body and spirit. (Which is precisely why forgiveness is needed seventy-seven times and more, because each day and each relationship and each touch and each glance in a mirror necessitates forgiveness yet again — necessitates yet again the choice for life and healing.) When Sioux people danced at Standing Rock on Friday during President Obama’s visit, for example they demonstrated the continued choice to claim life, even as federal government policies continue to impede and impoverish reservation life, which in turn necessitates (and here is the difference between individual vs. institutional forgiveness) that an element of the people’s forgiveness must be resistance and protest.
Institutional apologies — thankfully — are not needed for forgiveness to begin or for life to be cherished, reclaimed, fought for if need be, pursued, healed. And, if/when forgiveness begins and as forgiveness continues (because it is not a once-and-done event), the work of institution’s apology must continue.
Because the institution, if it is truly repentant and if it has genuinely developed an understanding of its harmful impact, must then commit itself to change. In contrast to an individual’s work of apology, an institution’s continuing work of apology needs a rubber-meets-the-road investment of time, personnel, and money. I’m not convinced, for example, that Christianity Today‘s publication of a new article on child sex abuse fulfills its commitment to the work of apology, if the editorial and executive staff do not change with an investment in diverse leadership, if the culture of the company does not take the time to examine the intrinsic patriarchal bias of its theology, if the magazine contributes only advertising revenue from site hits — part of its apology statement — rather than financial resources from its own budget to organizations that support abuse victims.
It’s fine for an institution to make a statement of apology. It’s better if the apology demonstrates a clear understanding its impact on multiple entities (in Leadership Journal‘s case, not only abuse victims but also the wider church). The fullness and sincerity of an institutional apology, however, requires concrete investment in order to ensure measurable change within the institution and a trackable record of just behavior toward those who have been harmed.
And while we wait to see how Christianity Today‘s or the federal government’s or the Catholic Church’s or any other institution’s apology is put into action, we who are injured and discriminated against and abused and neglected must continue the work of forgiveness not only through our pursuit of personal healing (choosing that our own lives not be held back by another’s harm) but especially through our commitment to protest — believing that the institution’s best possible life should also not be held back by its own wrongdoings but must be provoked and encouraged into a healthier, more equitable and life-giving institutional being.