Why do Christians not just say sorry?

Scandals in the church seem to happen with far greater frequency than any of us think they should or wish they did. There is something of a well worn path that follows now too. Usually starting with a bit of distancing between people and/or organisations that are clearly, if not actually and directly linked, certainly relationally so. What then follows is often a refusal to just say sorry.

Yesterday, Michael Tinker wrote a blog post making just this point. You can read that here. What I’m about to say is not to disagree with what he wrote. I think the point he makes is quite right. When organisations are rocked by scandals, when they had some level of involvement such that they could have addressed matters, the right thing to do is just say sorry. Sometimes there are others linked in such a way that may require apologies from them too. My purpose in writing this is to press a little further and ask, are there reasons why the elusive sorry is rarely forthcoming? I think there are.

For one, an organisation needs to be clear what it is sorry about. If an individual is caught in a scandal within an organisation and those very organisational structures allowed it to happen, that would be a solid reason for the organisation at large to apologise. Or, perhaps people within the organisation raised the alarm and were subsequently ignored. Being sorry for that seems entirely right. The problem is when we start dealing with relationally linked but technically separate groups or groups even further removed from matters than that.

What, exactly, is an organisation that isn’t directly involved – but clearly has some relational links with those involved – supposed to say sorry for? Sorry we knew the person at the centre of the matter but had no jurisdiction over them? Sorry we worked with them, not knowing anything about the matters that have come to light, but nevertheless sorry anyway? The further the degree of separation – even if we can draw some relational lines – the harder it becomes to know what these other groups and individuals are meant to say sorry for. I suspect, some of the time, that is why they don’t say it. They just don’t know exactly what they are meant to apologise for.

Some insist that as believers we should be clear that all of us are sinners and will therefore err but all of us have received grace and therefore should extend it in the face of repentance. This is Christianity 101. We all sin, we all need forgiveness, therefore confess your sin and receive grace. Why on earth, we may wonder, would a Christian person or organisation not be willing to say sorry or admit fault when that is the case?

I think, if we are honest, we know the answer. Just as organisations and individuals are fallible and may sin, organisations and individuals are fallible and therefore are often less than willing to show grace. Just as the well-worn path of foot-shuffling and buck-passing has been seen enough to know that sorrys aren’t forthcoming, we have also trod this path long enough to know that if and when they do come grace is rarely extended.

Sorry, as we know, is an admission of guilt. Once we have it, let’s be honest, matters rarely stop there. Demands for a mere sorry – and incredulous claims as to why we didn’t get an apology when that is all we want – are either naïve or disingenuous. Because what most want is not a mere sorry, but the extraction of an apology as an admission of guilt from which a series of retributive actions can then be established. I don’t presume any and all people ever asking for an apology are saying or thinking this, but enough instances have occurred for us to see that it is often so. I am left wondering why those who can rightly see so clearly that if sinners will sin they may well sin further by not confessing their sin and apologising cannot similarly see that if sinners will sin those who are supposed to confer forgiveness don’t always appear very forgiving when faced with contrition.

The point here is not that those who have erred ought not to own up and apologise. Nor that there are no reasons you might need to apologise if you are involved in a tangential, relationally-linked organisation. Rather, it is that we cannot be that surprised if such people are not quick to apologise if we have set matters up so that it is evident to all that a mere apology – despite outward calls to this effect – will not cut the mustard. We may be incredulous that we didn’t get our apology, but when people know full well that tangentially related organisations and people that do apologise (presuming they have found something they feel the need to honestly apologise for) will soon find themselves on the receiving end of further calls to resign, clear house, impose sanctions and whatnot, is it really so surprising, if we have set matters up this way, that we will only get distancing and foot-shuffling?

Now, one might argue, such sanctions are just and proper. Certainly, if one is caught in scandal that is true. Again, the greater degree of separation we get (however we judge it) that becomes less and less true. But the point remains, if we are calling for an apology but we all know that apology will only lead to further calls for greater sanctions, who is going to apologise? Particularly, it bears saying, who is going to apologise if they are only tangentially related? Even if an apology might be well received, or helpful in some way, if they know they will be implicated (especially if deeply unfairly so) why would they raise their head above the parapet?

One might fire back and insist it is the right thing to do. Except, what is right is often in the eye of the beholder here. Is it right for a miscreant to apologise for sin? For sure. Is it right for people to apologise specifically for not doing their particular job that would have stopped sin from occurring? Probably. But I don’t know how far we can legitimately expect people, who knew other people, in other organisations, to have been aware enough and in any position to do something about sin to which they are only tangentially related and had little, if any, knowledge of? This is the kind of line-drawing inference that leads to ever expanding circles of implication such that all of us end up being required to apologise for everything anyone ever does if we had any link to them whatsoever. It implicates us all and makes any apologies that ensue hollow.

These things have been going on long enough to know that such calls do end up going out in ever increasing circles. The director that knew a guy who chooses not to say anything because it’s a different organisation soon ends up with people within the organisation being called upon to call out their director who didn’t call out the other director of the organisation in which another person sinned. We can say all we want that we are not calling out the lads with pitchforks – and I am quite sure we don’t believe we are – but as night follows day that is typically where these things seem to end up. Heads must roll and if not the specific head we want then we’ll go after tangentially related ones instead. Any admission of guilt under those circumstances – any chance of an apology – is almost never going to come. Not because it isn’t due, or the person isn’t willing to give one of itself, but because these things are never ends in themselves. I can see if you are not the person in scandal, nor specifically involved in the organisation rocked by scandal (even if you know people therein), why you would choose under those circumstances to keep mum.

Unfortunately, this whole area is one where I think we mirror the world on all sides. Scandals occur in the church, just as in the world. Cover ups happen in the church, just as in the world. Fingers being pointed at ever widening circles – with guilt by inference and then association – happens in the church, just as in the world. Mobs do form in the church, just as in the world. Apologies are hard to come by because they are never ends in themselves in the church, just as in the world. People are not happy unless they see – not so much justice – as retribution and often lives destroyed (on all sides) in the church, just as in the world. Of course, these things should not be. Of course, these things are wrong. Of course, there is a better way. A gospel way.

The problem is we have set matters up in such a way that we won’t get the gospel way. Name one example of a scandal which has led to any sort of restoration for anybody? There is scant evidence that would even be a possibility. One might argue retribution and consequences is appropriate – which may well be true – but it is similarly true that nobody will own up and apologise for anything if they know there is no possibility of forgiveness. Isn’t this how the world operates? They publicly excoriate errant individuals and, once “exposed”, there is no return. Sometimes the judgement may be right, but without any possibility for repentance and restoration, is it any wonder nobody thinks to own up to anything? Most are going to cut their losses and do their best to cover over because, if they don’t, things will only get worse for them.

At the same time, name one scandal that has led to any sort of peace and contentment for those sinned against? I am sure we can all think of people who – even when they get their apology or there is some sanction – rarely feel like justice has really been done. They often feel sinned against twice. A victim of the initial sin and then a victim of weak justice. It is no different to the world, people who dedicate their life to a campaigning for something which – even when they get it – find it isn’t enough, brings little comfort and leads to them pressing for more simply because it hasn’t given them the release they had hoped. In the church, it seems, we have aped the world and managed to create losers on all sides. We have effectively set it up so that is all there can be.