By Canon Chris Palmer
This is a perennial question, but it’s being repeated a lot at present in the face of coronavirus. Why can’t policy makers and those in government say sorry for their mistakes?
I think we shouldn’t kid ourselves that politicians are worse than the rest of us. All of us find it hard to say sorry. We think we’re good at saying sorry, because we’re used to doing it with our families and loved ones – but that’s different from owning faults in public life. Faced with the faceless scrutiny of the press and public opinion, we would all be as bad.
The Christian Gospel helps us understand this. Christianity teaches that God’s grace – God’s love, God’s desire to forgive – are the first move. God in Jesus reached out to love us before we were even aware of our wrongdoing. God has already done everything needed to restore us when Jesus died on the cross and rose again. Christians call this prevenient grace: grace that ‘goes before’ us. And in the light of this amazing love we get a sense of just how bad our sins are and are able to say sorry, to repent.
Christians have a word for this ‘being sorry in response to love’; we call it contrition. In the face of love, saying sorry feels hopeful, because it restores relationship. God is ready to throw arms around us and welcome us home when we say sorry, as described in the story of the Prodigal Son. We experience something like this in a loving family: we already know we’re loved enough that our sorry will rebuild relationships.
There is a lesser version of being sorry, traditionally called attrition – which is saying sorry in order to avoid punishment. And God accepts this penitence too, though with this kind of sorrow it’s not clear that we are open to restored relationship, even when God is.
But when we talk about politicians (and all of us) saying sorry for our public mistakes, neither contrition nor attrition apply. The press is not waiting to throw their arms around public figures who say sorry and welcome them home with love; it’s not even offering to stop blaming and shaming them. In fact there’s a good chance any ‘sorry’ will be followed by public humiliation and that ever after they will be described as ‘disgraced’.
In such a context saying sorry is pretty impossible. And we need to own that the fault is not just with public figures who can’t say sorry, but with a public culture which is addicted to apportioning blame and creating scapegoats.
It must be said that healthy forms of penitence and forgiveness in human relationships do involve the wrongdoer making restitution. Restitution is an important aspect of genuinely owning the harm we have done. But the context in which this happens is a constructive and hopeful one. Projects in restorative justice – such as the well-documents Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa – show that this can work, and that it’s hard work.
And most of the time we don’t want to work that hard. So we stick with pointing the finger, blaming public figures on social media, and making sure we don’t look weak by admitting mistakes.
But God still comes to us with ‘prevenient grace’, offering us love, and opening up the possibility that we might say a heartfelt sorry for our sin and seek to make amends for the harm we’ve done. When we’ve experienced God’s ‘welcome home’ ourselves, we might be able to embody this spirit in the public sphere: we acknowledge our own contributions to the dysfunction of society and we offer public figures the chance to be reintegrated when they own their faults.
Here’s a story from the Bible that has it all – prevenient grace, public grumbling, contrition, restorative justice, and forgiveness:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”