Janet Onnie, Intern Minister

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples

I’m Sorry


Monique Bondeaux has a bee in her bonnet about apologies – saying I’m sorry.   She feels so strongly about our apparent inability to deliver an authentic apology that she scored the highest bid at the auction just to hear my thoughts on the topic.  I’m sorry I answered the phone when the auction committee called.


Let’s start by being clear on what we’re talking about.  There are several definitions of apology.  We are not talking about a very poor or inadequate example of something.  Like, “that’s a sorry excuse for a sermon”.   Nor are we talking about a reasoned argument or writing about something – usually a religious or philosophical principle, for example, Plato’s Apology.   What we’re going to investigate this morning is the art of apology – of being able to credibly and regretfully acknowledge an offense or failure.  


I think what befuddles and irritates some of us is the self-justifying apology that sounds like, “I’m sorry, but….”  The defense is embedded in the apology, rendering the sentiment completely unsatisfactory as either regret of an offense or a reasoned argument.  It says  I regret you are too uninformed/stubborn to see my point of view.  It’s a variation on the ‘blame the victim’ theme.   We’ve all heard it:  I’m sorry you’re upset, but I was only trying to help.  Or, I’m sorry, but you should’ve looked to see the gun was loaded.   Somehow the offender twists the apology to justify his/her action, which lets him/her off the hook but does nothing to acknowledge the wound, heal the hurt, and restore right relations.


Then there is the pre-emptive apology, “I’m sorry if …”.  This is frequently heard in medical offices:  I’m sorry if this hurts you.  It’s a warning that something unpleasant is about to happen, and that the inflictor regrets his/her action in advance.  The “if” implies an element of uncertainty – it may not hurt as much as someone else anticipates, thus engendering an element of hope.  It’s a variation on the theme, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, which is usually way more unpleasant and long-lasting than an injection or blood letting.  The pre-emptive apology can easily segue into the self-justifying apology, as in I’m sorry if I hurt you, but I told you I might.


My least favorite form of apology is the one dripping with sarcasm:  I’m sorry???  This is particularly effective when you lower your chin and peer over your glasses with narrowed eyes.  Parents are particularly skilled in this form of apology.  I’m sorry – I didn’t really hear you call your brother that name, did I?


Believe it or not, there are web sites devoted to the science and art of apology.   I’m not making this up.  At www.perfect apology.com you will find all sorts of categories for apologies – business apologies (I’m sorry I trashed your retirement savings, but my boat needed fuel) or medical apologies (I’m sorry your father died of lung cancer, but he really should’ve quit smoking).  There’s even the formula for the elements of a ‘perfect’ apology.  It’s pretty good.  It includes  a detailed account of the situation, acknowledgement of the hurt or damage done, taking responsibility for the situation, recognition of your role in the event,  and a statement of regret.  Then it advises an ask for forgiveness, a promise that it won’t happen again, and a form of restitution whenever possible.  That’s the ‘science’ part. 


The ‘art’ part of an apology is the manner in which the apology is delivered.  And maybe that’s where it breaks down for Monique and me.  It’s hard to deliver an authentic apology unless one approaches it with a sense of humility… of understanding that we momentarily slipped our moral leash and caused hurt.  I think that so many of these public apologies by our public figures seem so inauthentic is that they’re lacking in humility.  In last Friday’s statement from the Vatican I sensed regret, but regret that they had been caught out.  Asking all Christians to atone for something a few people covered up seems disingenuous, to say the least.  The apology might have carried more authenticity had the Vatician offered to pay the counseling fees of the victims of the pedophile priests.  Likewise, the motives of one group of people apologizing to another group of people for an incident that took place several generations ago is suspect.  Are we really prepared to give back the land taken from the Native Americans – the Indians?  Back in October Rev. Korb addressed that very subject, calling the exercise “Sort of a ritual cleansing”.


Ritual cleansing.  That leads directly into the theology of wrongdoing … of sin and atonement.   I know this sends shivers up the spines of some of you, but let’s unpack it for a minute.  If we can accept the premise that none of us are perfect all the time -- that all of us come into the world with the potential to do harm,  then we are able to catch of glimpse of our interrelatedness as broken people.   It is comforting to me to think of myself as part of the great mass of humanity that often falls short of expectations of ourselves and others.  And it’s also nice to know that when I mess up, I have recourse for my shortcomings.  I can apologize.  I can atone. 


One of the foundational documents of our Unitarian Universalist movement is Hosea Ballou’s “Treatise on Atonement”, published in 1805.   Very simply, it counters the Calvinist view of trying to pacify an angry God.  Ballou regarded sin as finite, and therefore took it far less seriously than did the Calvinists.  He said, “[sin is] the violation of a law which exists in the mind, which law is the imperfect knowledge men have of moral good.”   Ballou thought that the most that human beings can do is come to the best understanding of moral good that is possible for them and act accordingly. To sin is to do otherwise.  He held that Jesus' mission on Earth was indeed to save us from our fallen and sinful selves, but not through an Act of Atonement by way of his death; but rather through his life and teachings that can call and guide us from our sometimes broken selves to a more wholistic and restored and reconciled-to-God state of living.  Jesus' death was held up as an example of what it can sometimes mean to remain faithful to your principles, values, and calling, rather than as an act of atonement for the sins of humanity.   Our theologian James Luther Adams stated this rather more simply 150 years later by observing that Unitarian Univeralist Christians are distinguished by following the teachings OF Jesus, rather than the teachings ABOUT Jesus. 


So What?


I hope you’ve noticed that nowhere does this theology of universal salvation let us off the hook from apologizing for our wrongdoings.  But as we become freed from the hellfire and damnation and images of an angry Deity who sees all and punishes all, I think we have become less careful about checking our moral compass in the ways we relate to one another.  I do wonder what Ballou might have thought about our current “ best understanding of moral good that is possible”.  Remember 200 years ago the Universalists were Christians.  Christians devoted to reason, to be sure, but still people who relied on something greater than themselves – call it whatever you wish -- for their moral compass.   In this secular age we rely on each other to reign us in.  How’s that working for you?  For me I see us as confused and easily swayed by convenience and conformity, rather than moral conviction.  As a result we have rude shouting matches with each other with no one actually doing much listening.  Consequently there’s a lot of anger and fear circulating in modern life.


The electronic age has widened the scope of ways in which we can hurt each other.   Back in the day Penmanship was taught in the schools and people handwrote their thoughts.  The process was slow enough to give one time to think about what one was communicating.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I got a handwritten letter.  Now we have email, and the SEND button is way too convenient and seems to always take precedence over the DELETE button.   We text, we twitter, we tweet  and most of the subject matter is ME, ME, ME.  Now we have the internet, with no oversight whatsoever on what gets posted.  Now we have cable television.  I won’t even begin to address the lack of restraint in that medium. 


All this makes it easy to exercise our freedom to say whatever comes into our rugged individualistic heads.   And often our internal braking monitor – our moral compass – seems broken.  So if we are going to exercise the responsibility that comes with our freedom to express our opinion when-and-however we wish, we are going to spend a lot of time apologizing for our thoughtlessness. 


Now What?


Back in the 1960s there was a book called “Love Story” about a rich young man who marries a poor young woman, only to discover his new wife is dying.  They made a movie out of it staring Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw.  The marketing folks called it the ‘story that defined a generation’.  If that’s true it would explain a lot about the shallowness of my generation.  One of the memorable lines in this truly maudlin tale was, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  I beg to differ.  That’s only half the story.  Love means ALWAYS having to say you’re sorry. 


We Unitarian Universalists have promised each other – have covenanted – to stay in relationship and work on loving each other even when we don’t like each other very much.  I’m sorry to break this to you new members, but we come to this community, not to find people we love, but to love the people who are here.  This is the essence of covenant.  In this close relationship, we will eventually and inevitably have disagreements and say things that wound.  None of us are exempt from hurting and being hurt.  That’s why love means ALWAYS having to say you’re sorry; not from a stance of groveling, but from an authentic attitude of humility and a willingness to restore right relations ... to mend fences.  A mended fence will look different from the previous one.  Some of the pickets are slightly askew.  Some are elegantly nailed back onto the frame.  Others are strapped to the frame with wire or even duct tape.  Some are affixed with a glue than comes unstuck as the humidity level of our lives fluctuates.  Other pickets are still torn, with pieces flapping around waiting to be mended with whatever apologies we can muster from our hearts.  This fence may not win any beauty prizes, but as long as we are still clinging to the framework of free religion and are willing to say I’m sorry – we will strengthen and renew and grow into the Beloved Community for which we say we yearn.  To be engaged in that process, no apology is needed.   Amen.

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