Kevin Rudd has done it again – and I believe is to be commended for it. Today, at Parliament House, the Australian PM apologised to the ‘Forgotten Australians’ for the pain inflicted on them by tortuous and abusive treatment when they were forcibly moved to Australia over forty years ago. All indications are that the British PM, Gordon Brown, will apologise in the New Year – a move which was made easier today by the first stage of the process taking place – a visit to the British High Commission by some of the survivors. When Rudd came to office he also issued a national apology to the Aborigines – another brave and welcome move. Last week, Gordon Brown apologised to Mrs Janes for the way she had been hurt by his letter to her after her son Jamie Janes, death in Afghanistan. Mrs Janes was (in my view) shamelessly and cruelly manipulated by The Sun newspaper – but no apology from them?
Why do we so often find it hard to apologise? Is it because we have created a society and culture where acceptance of making a mistake equates to admission of weakness? And why is it that we expect out leaders to be perfect? I think the ability to accept when you get it wrong and to learn from it is an indication of a growth in maturity and leadership ability – not a bar from leadership. We often call for apologies from our leaders, then we get them, cry out that their mistakes make them unfit to lead. Why? Which human being hasn’t made a mistake? Which one of us grows without failing? I know I don’t.
Maybe we find apologies hard because we feel like we always have to get it right. Maybe we find them hard because we actually belief we never make mistakes! Maybe we find them hard, though, because we have allowed ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking failure is fatal. If it is, then we are all doomed. Failing to learn is fatal – and if we have created a culture (politically, socially, educationally or spiritually) where we disdain failure and turn our backs on those who get it wrong, then we would have barred some of the greatest and most wonderful men and women from ever achieving. This isn’t just a sociological or political point – it’s a deeply theological one too. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Hezekiah, Moses, Paul, Peter, Andrew, Mary Magdalene, Euodia, Syntache – the list is endless. People who have never failed have never lived.
I don’t need to look too far down my own history and track record to see mistakes and failures. But if we let them, every one will make us better people – more able to lead, stronger, clearer and with increased integrity. Apologies may be bad for our egos – but maybe what is bad for our ego is sometimes good for our soul? I’d rather have a leader who was able to say sorry when it mattered than a leader who never felt the need to say sorry at all. But maybe we are to blame for the fear of apologies (both within and out with the Church) after all, cultures and moods are not created by others – they are created (and maintained) by us.
All this apology thinking got me thinking too – and led me to some pretty challenging questions. What could or should we, as a nation, apologise for? Our role in crusades? The Highland clearances? The failure to support the Irish in the Great famine? The way we marginalise some asylum seekers? Exploitation of an underclass? Bloody Sunday? Miscarriages of justice? We could debate all those things till the cows come home.
What about the Church? Have we anything to say sorry for? Exclusivity? Behaving like a club for the privileged few instead of a family for the forgotten? Failing to practise what we preach? Ignoring the cries of the poor in our communities? Self-righteous aggrandisement of our own little empires at the expense of God’s Kingdom? Talking about Jesus but not living like Him? Permitting discipleship to become something that we think we learn in our heads without it affecting our wallets and hands and feet? Again, the list could go on and on.
But perhaps the most important question – the greatest challenge we have to face is not the question of governments, national identities and the responsibilities of ‘The Church’ but the piercing question that we are each confronted with in the darkness of the night and the cold light of dawn – in what ways have I failed to love God with all my heart and mind soul and strength and my neighbour as myself. The journey toward a genuinely open approach to apologies, repentance and humility doesn’t start somewhere else, I think. It starts in my heart.