Thursday, June 21, 2018

Repentance is Easy

What do these two men have in common? Neither is good at apologizing.

All you have to do is repent.

It's amazing what repentance can accomplish. Simply words like "I'm sorry," "I was wrong," "I apologize," "How can I make it up to you?" can make all the difference to a wounded or broken relationship. Estrangements can be healed, reconciliations accomplished, friendships restored, marriages renewed, careers salvaged.

Provided, that is, you mean it.

An false apology, however sincerely delivered, sets the stage for estrangement to become divorce. Apologize and then go back on the apology, and sadness becomes distrust, anger, even hatred.

I've experienced this in my own life. Relationships with family members and friends that have been damaged by one or the other of us causing pain, even for what is perceived by the actor to be righteous reasons, merits an apology, even if it's the mediocre "I'm sorry you feel that way"--though I'd much rather hear (or say) "I'm sorry I hurt you," which still leaves room for  believing the hurtful act was justified.

On further consideration, though, I've often found that, however much I may blame the employer/co-worker/partner/friend/sibling for hurting me, I have at least partial responsibility for bringing about the action. I played along with the co-dependent games much longer than I should have. I reacted to what the other person did with hostility and fear, rather than seeking dialogue to explain why I felt the way I did and, at least equally importantly, to understand where the other person was coming from. I took an action without consulting the people who would be affected, and potentially hurt, by what I was doing.

The benefits of repentance far outweigh the minimal righteousness that may lead one to stubbornly refuse to apologize. When an apology comes to me from someone who has self-estranged our relationship, an emotional floodgate opens within me. I find all my anger, resentment, fear, hostility, and grief over a broken relationship dissipating almost instantaneously. When, on the other hand, someone who has wronged or hurt me does not come around for months or even years, I feel as if I've got a seeping wound inside me. I mourn what we once had, and have to intentionally turn my thoughts away from this person I can no longer communicate with. The world is diminished; a part of me dies.

This lengthy homily on repentance is here because news this week has been dominated by politicians, mostly men, who are incapable of sincere apologies or, in the case of the president, of any apology at all. To repent of an action, one must acknowledge that it is in some way wrong, a mistake, hurtful, unjust. A through-and-through narcissist like Donald Trump is incapable of understanding that anything he does may be a mistake--unless he can pin the blame for it on someone else. Thus his every reference to the fiendishly cruel Trump policy of separating the children of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers from their parents, transporting them sometimes thousands of miles from where their parents were being detained, and holding them in facilities that resemble kennels more than dormitories was by turns enthusiastically embraced, blamed on the out-of-power party who had nothing to do with it, used in an effort to extort cruel immigration concessions from Congress, and, even in the act of signing an order to finally alter it (in ways that are as problematic as the policy itself), claimed as proof that the abuser-in-chief was a man of mercy. Within minutes of signing this questionable document, he was back to his old race-bating tricks. This is a man who will never apologize for anything.

Similarly, attorney general Jeff Sessions claimed divine authority for the policy using an oft-abused passage from the apostle Paul's letter to the Romans, conveniently ignoring the many injunctions against child abuse attributed to Jesus Christ. Admitting wrongdoing and seeking repentance--hallmark behaviors of sincere Christians--were completely absent from Sessions's press conferences and interviews.

The other unrepentant male who caught my ear with his dunderheaded refusal to accept responsibility was a man who has, in the past, proven far more adept at apologizing for misbehavior: former president Bill Clinton. Asked in an interview about whether he regretted his abusive relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton went into defense mode, focusing on the hurt to his own reputation and family life, blaming the press for bringing it about, and not seeming to understand that the nation had been torn apart by his own thoughtless indulgence of an adolescent male fantasy.

Perhaps it's harder for men who've grown accustomed to power and fame to admit their errors and seek to set them right. Perhaps they simply don't understand how badly the people they've hurt need to hear that acknowledgment, the apology that goes with it, and the commitment to reconciliation and healing. I find it hard to believe that none of them has ever had to apologize to an intimate acquaintance--though that could, in fact, be the case when it comes to the president.

To wrap it up, though, let's look at a different response to being proven wrong. Last winter, as the #MeToo movement went into full swing, Senator Al Franken was revealed to have engaged in some boorish and inappropriate behaviors with female colleagues and subordinates. There was a brief debate over how he should respond, cut short when he issued a strong apology and resigned from the Senate.

I'm sorry it had to end that way, but I'm glad it did. By giving up a position that he had filled with intelligence, humility, and dedication, at a time when his gifts were desperately needed, Franken demonstrated how harmful his actions were, and how important it is that there be serious consequences for such behavior. It went far beyond a simple apology to the Old Testament concept of repenting in dust and ashes.

Would that Bill Clinton, Jeff Sessions, and even Donald Trump could demonstrate even a modicum of this kind of repentance, the repentance that admits the truth of damage done, accepts that the consequence must be extreme, and releases all the privileges and responsibilities of power that could be held up as meriting a lesser punishment.

Don't get me wrong: I believe the impeachment of Bill Clinton was a political abomination, and the GOP deserved to suffer for it in the midterm election that followed. But more than that, I believe that, when Bill Clinton admitted he had lied under oath about his relationship to Monica Lewinsky, he should have resigned. Had he taken that step, Al Gore, with two years' experience as President, might very well have won the 2000 election, sparing our country from the inept foreign quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan created by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and very possibly dispelling much of the partisan animus that ultimately led to the election of the unrepentant clown who currently disgraces the Oval Office.

But no ego as big as Bill Clinton's could ever seriously contemplate resigning over a dalliance with an intern. He still can't admit he made a mistake by engaging in it. And the enormous ego of Donald Trump, along with the satellite egos of all his defenders in the Cabinet, Congress, and the media, has no room for admitting and apologizing for mistakes. They'd rather burn the nation down than take a single sorry step toward repairing the damage they've done.

And on that note, I'm off to Britain, Belgium, and Ghana. Here's hoping my next post is less sermon than travelogue.

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