When 'sorry' is not enough

I don’t wish to appear cynical, but saying sorry seems to have become a fashionable trend. In recent days the media has reported that the England cricketer Kevin Pietersen has said sorry for inappropriate tweets that he allegedly sent out, criticising his teammates. Soon afterwards, the chief executive of the pharmaceutical company Gruenenthal apologised to the many thousands of people who were born with birth defects caused by the drug Thalidomide. Hot on the heels of that breaking news it was reported that, in Northern Ireland, the Royal Black Institution had apologised “for any offence caused” by Protestant loyalist bands playing outside St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Belfast. And now, in the aftermath of the conclusions in the Hillsborough report, apologies are flowing from the police, the Prime Minister and even from newspapers.

But for many families of the victims of Hillsborough, more than an apology is required; likewise with some of those affected by the deformities caused by Thalidomide. The apology from Chief Executive of Gruenenthal, Harold Stock, has been referred to as “insulting”. Clearly, in many cases in our society where people have been hurt, damaged or had trust destroyed, saying sorry is not enough. Perhaps a measure of scepticism is understandable if the apology appears to be no more than mere words.

Without doubt, saying sorry is a step that has become increasingly complex in the commercial, political and public arena. For a start, to what extent do Governments, organisations and multi-national companies carry moral responsibility for the actions of previous generations? The Hillsborough tragedy took place twenty-three years ago, and it is more than fifty years since Thalidomide was first put on the market, and the employees responsible have long since gone. Can an apology half a century later, by people who may not have even been born at the time, make any meaningful contribution to healing the anguish of the victims? Even within the Christian church, this issue has sparked debate. Should Christians apologise to Muslims for the Crusades in the Middle Ages? Are we responsible for the actions of past generations?

Secondly, in the commercial world particularly, the act of saying sorry could be construed as an admission of guilt or negligence, which would potentially be the catalyst for litigation and unsustainable compensation claims. Churches, too, have to grapple with this one. The most obvious issue that springs to mind is the ongoing scandal of child abuse by clergy who abused their office by preying rather than praying. For the governing denomination to express regret is understandably deemed to be essential, but the deeper and potentially far-reaching legal ramifications of so doing make this a minefield of unlimited proportions.

Thirdly, an apology can simply be an empty and convenient ‘political’ act, designed to draw a line under an event and enable the politician or company to continue to function without ongoing controversy or negative publicity. Saying sorry suddenly makes everything all right again. Used in that way, apologies can be merely a flippant act of rhetoric, with little credibility, designed to pacify the offended, but without any genuine remorse or belief that a mistake has been made. It raises the question: to what extent is it justifiable to go ahead with an act that will undeniably cause hurt and distress to some, provided it is followed by an apology “for any offence caused”? These are hugely complex issues in a society where, for example, free speech and conflicting moralities generate all sorts of controversial scenarios.

What can be affirmed, however, is that saying sorry is fundamental to forgiveness and restoration. It is also a central plank of the Gospel message. But of course repentance, as the Bible calls it, has to be genuine. It is easy to be sorry for having been found out, rather than sorry for having acted wrongly in the first place. The Apostle Paul recognises this when he wrote, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). In other words, genuine repentance admits wrong and is committed to changing behaviour to do better.

In a world where ‘saying sorry’ can easily become a trite and meaningless act of expediency, Christians can themselves be tempted to see repentance as an easy formula to ensure favour with God, without having to fundamentally change one’s lifestyle. But true sorrow should prompt change in our thinking, a sincere humility, and practical steps of restoration and change. Without that, ‘sorry’ is not enough. But repentance flowing from a Holy Spirit inspired conviction definitely is. And being the people that we are, we need to seek that daily. May the public apologies of late be more than empty words so that the wounds of those affected may truly start to heal.

Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He currently lives and ministers in Bristol.