Some recent political volleys invite another go at the much-parodied line from Love Story that love means never having to say you’re sorry. The 2012 take might be that loving the United States of America means never saying we’re sorry for its misdeeds. Thus we have Mitt Romney’s campaign book No Apology: Believe in America, and the accusation by him and others that President Obama has flown off on “apology tours,” which is by and large a fantasy but involves a few instances in which Obama—like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him—has tendered apologies to people abroad for things done in America’s name. In February Rick Santorum chided the president for apologizing after the U.S. military inadvertently burned Qurans in Afghanistan. Weeks later, Santorum popped up on the apology circuit himself, telling interviewers that America owed one to the families of 16 Afghan civilians massacred by a U.S. soldier.
Contrition can be as dishonorable from a certain patriotic view as it is desirable from a theological perspective. But as the Christian season of Lent draws to a close, it’s worth noting the times when a spirit of penitence has helped transform relationships at various levels of fractious societies.
The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, which fashioned a peace there in 1998, was built in part on myriad acts of apology. Catholic and Protestant religious leaders helped set the tone by exchanging mutual apologies for atrocities committed historically by their communities. Paramilitary leaders on both sides followed with their own gestures of repentance, some more heartfelt than others.
In a number of strife-ridden countries, apology and its near twin, acknowledgment, have lighted paths to justice and social healing. In South Africa, those who committed human rights crimes during decades of white minority rule were given a choice: tell the truth for all to hear or face prosecution. In Rwanda, repentance became the signature piece of national reconciliation efforts following the tribal genocide in 1994.
At times theological resources have helped bring crucial acknowledgments to the surface. In one of the longest-running efforts at post-conflict reconciliation, people who took warring sides in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s have come together for ecumenical and interfaith seminars in church basements. These are mostly laypeople from the Croatian Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, and ethnic Albanian Muslim communities. With the help of third-party facilitators, they have dug deeply into the tradition of laments, the communal expressions of grief and distress in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Rev. David Steele, a United Church of Christ minister and an American conflict-resolution expert, led many of the original seminars in the wake of brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns in the Balkans. He explained to me recently that the purpose of ritualized lamentation in ancient Israel was to “offer up to God all injury and hurt so that God could heal the pain and bring justice.” Steele’s own purpose is not simply to help people voice their grievances against other communities. He also brings them to the verge of acknowledging wrongdoing by their own groups. This too is part of the lament motif. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, identifies the suffering of the Jews but also asks his people to critically examine themselves and their society.
In another conversation I had with Steele almost a decade ago, he related that during one Serb-Croat seminar, it was time for the Croats to acknowledge how they as a community have afflicted the Serbs. One Croat man reversed the dynamic, however. He began recalling a horrible atrocity committed by Serbs during the war, in which soldiers dragged patients out of a hospital in eastern Croatia and executed them en masse in a field nearby.
As he was talking about it, he was getting more and more agitated, more angry. Finally, one Serb who had been a soldier during the war, a layperson, simply spoke up and said: “That happened. I know it happened. And it was wrong.” And there was silence at that point. And what happened was, even though this Croat was turning the whole thing around, attacking the other group rather than his own group, this Serb man was sensitive and courageous enough to recognize that this needed an acknowledgment that it was a terrible crime. And that was enough, at least at that moment, to satisfy this Croat.
The process can be volatile, whether in a post-conflict setting or in the election-year partisan crossfire. Different groups may have drastically different perceptions of the reality surrounding their conflicts. And there’s always a chance of miscalculation: in the Balkans, people were constantly worried that a confession of terrible deeds done to their enemies would only serve to justify retaliation.
Still, a contrite word has often given people what they seem to need the most—not vengeance, not even procedural justice, but a painfully honest telling of injuries they have suffered. And that’s worth acknowledging.