The Power of Apology

By Neil Earle and Curtis May

In today's society human relations skills seem to be at a new low – but there are antidotes.

Consider this. The police chief of a major city, a leader in community reconciliation, recently confessed to a colleague and me a severe lapse in judgment. He had sat down at a restaurant where the waiter serving him was Turkish. Suddenly, deeply buried resentments inside the chief's psyche rose to the surface. He proceeded to make life miserable for the young waiter.


The chief was of Armenian descent. Inside him were deep feelings he had heard around the family table concerning the Armenian genocide of 1905, one of the 20th century's most despicable crimes. “The Turks have never apologized for that episode,” the chief told us. “Still, it was no excuse for my behavior toward that young man.”

Events 100 years old came hurtling out of the past as if they were fist-fights from yesterday.

“Land of the Living Past”

Remember “ethnic cleansing?”

In the 1990s, millions of people in the Balkans found themselves caught up in hatreds and resentments that went back to squabbles and atrocities of the 1300s. One journalist called this area, “the land of the living past.”

In the face of such deeply rooted hatreds can a simple apology be of much help?

Counsellors and ministers get such questions often. One e-mail to us expressed it this way:

“Why should I apologize to the descendants of slaves, or the holocaust, or the Northern Irish? I didn't do it. It happened before I was born. How can apologizing for things you didn't do help anything? Is it biblical? Can you back it up? Aren't you just stirring up trouble?”

These are logical questions. They deserve an answer.

Biblical Jacob later had to apologize to brother Esau for stealing his birthright and this led to a deeper reconcilation.

“Archaeology of Revenge”

The example of the Balkans and the Armenian genocide should remind us that, in writer William Faulkner's words, “the past isn't over, it isn't even past.” Ancient hatreds and animosities still exist. There is what one Israeli writer called “an archaeology of revenge” that people carry around inside them. The trouble is already out there walking around. The dead hand of the past is not so dead. People still living carry around bitter folk memories of wrongs inflicted on their ancestors, wounds that have been passed on down.

A phrase from Exodus 20:5 comes to mind: “the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

Hatreds take on a life of their own – the Capulets and the Montagues in “Romeo and Juliet,” the Martins and the McCoys in early America, the pain felt by victims of abuse from religious schools across Canada. In Bosnia the hurt went marching down the generations. Faced with such realities it is only logical to ask another question: who is responsible for trying to break such cycles of hatred? The dead? Obviously not. Who, then, will step into the breech, and how?

“Attitudes have a kind of inertia,” wrote M. Scott Peck. “Once set in motion they will keep going, even in the face of evidence. To change an attitude requires a considerable amount of work and suffering.”

Sins of the Fathers?

Many counsellors believe that an indispensable first step in shutting down any cycle of hatred is to work toward an apology. “What—a simple apology?” Wait. No apology is simple. That's why it has to be “worked towards.” This is a process. It requires emotional and spiritual commitment on the part of the one offering it and...for the injured party to accept it. Which is to say that neither a merciful nor an apologetic approach is easy to implement? On anyone's part.

Jesus alluded to this in Matthew 5:23-24, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

Consider this: Only humble people – the truly meek – can offer a sincere apology.

Office of Reconciliation Ministries (ORM) director Curtis May with Evelyne O’Callaghan-Burkhard. ORM's mission is put the teachings of Jesus Christ into action by advancing relationships between people of different beliefs and points of view.

Attitudes unchecked go from bad to worse. They harden into obsessions. It's the stuff of our nightly news – teens against parents, landlords and tenants, employee against employer, gender against gender, race against race. On the national scene seething resentments often show up as crusades, vendettas, pogroms, and purges – the ugly lexicon of hate.

But what about things that happened generations ago? Can a living generation be held accountable for what their ancestors did? Apparently so. 2 Samuel 21 records a severe famine in Israel in the time of King David. David sought God's advice. He was told: “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death.” Centuries before, the Gibeonites had been promised protection as resident aliens in Israel (Joshua 9:15). Saul had broken that pledge. Now David's generation was paying the price. “David asked the Gibeonites,'What shall I do for you? How shall I make amends?'”

A gruesome penalty was exacted until mercy finally triumphed.

Later, the prophet Daniel, living in a different era than ours, discovered God's intention to remove a curse some seventy years before. That moved Daniel to prayerful intercession, to fresh confession and repentance for the sins of his fathers' generation (Daniel 9:16).

And what of our ultimate example, Jesus? Wasn't he put to death for a process of sin that began with Adam and Eve, as well as personal sin (Romans 5:17-19).

Offenses are personal. To deal with them often takes a personal response. Even on the family, parental level we can see the power of an apology. When a father or mother or minister sincerely apologizes to a young person for overreacting too harshly, immense good will is created. It begins to melt the frozen crippled relationship where everyone stumbles around in a half-evasive daze, not sure of what to do next.

Breaking the Cycle

Eveleyne O'Callahan Burkhard, a GCI member in Southern Ireland, and a reconciliation specialist with experience in Rwanda, reports, “the first step towards peace is to talk truthfully about what went wrong.” This takes courage. A sincere intercessory apology often clears the air. It can be as simple and objective as saying, “Look, at least believe me what I say I'm sorry we're having this problem.” Where the archaeology of wrongdoing is deeply layered it takes courage to break down barriers. Eveleyne also worked in Cambodia after Pol Pot's terror. “There are many examples in history of nations who have tried to bury rather than face the past,” she told us. “If we try to ignore or bury the past it will haunt us and may even destroy us.”

Forgiveness is a gift. It is an act of release. It can be graciously extended after a generous apology is offered. But when there is a refusal to admit that someone somewhere did something very, very wrong relationships remain frozen in a spiritual ice age. Human nature being what it is, the next step is often to blame the victims for inflating the situation. “You're making it up. It's not that bad.”

And so, the cycle continues. The bitterness remains. Everyone loses.

But the good news is that there is a better way. It often begins with a heartfelt, godly apology. Jesus put it starkly and simply: “Settle matters quickly with your adversary... Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-25).

That's state-of-the-art advice for all of us.