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Should Leaders Apologize?

Natalia J. Garland

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Pope John Paul II has been seeking forgiveness from groups which the Roman Catholic Church has harmed over the centuries. He has apologized to the Eastern Orthodox for the activities of the crusaders which led to the fall of Constantinople. He has apologized to the Jews for the wrongs inflicted upon them during the Holocaust. And, he has apologized to the victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by the priesthood.

Many people regard the pontiff as a saint and some expect he will be canonized upon his passing away. His expressions of contrition are a unique and surprising step toward an ecumenical roundup.

Lately, Billy Graham has apologized to the Jews for certain remarks he made back in 1972. Among all the religious leaders to achieve worldwide recognition, Pope John Paul II and Billy Graham, a Catholic and a Protestant, have maintained impeccable reputations. There has never been any scandal dug up on either one. Their apologies, I believe, reflect their genuine spirituality and humility. They want, by all ethical means, to heal the broken-hearted and save souls.

There is a difference, however, in the nature of their apologies. Billy Graham apologized for himself, for his own doings. Whereas the Pope apologized for others' doings and for the impact of history. The Pope apologized as a leader, as a representative of an organized religion, on behalf of those who committed atrocities in the name of God, and on behalf of the corrupt and depraved segments of his religion. Billy Graham acted as a man of honor and conscience. The Pope acted as a Christlike figure, taking on the sins of others.

Can political leaders do the same? What if President Bush apologized to the Arab world, for example, for any unfairness inflicted upon them by the American government and American corporations which may have acted under the leadership of past presidents? Could this have prevented the World Trade Center attack? Would this bring all the current anti-American tendencies to a halt? Would we all live in post-apology peace? Is an apology even what the extremist faction wants?

Before making a sweeping apology, it might help to do some sort of Step Four. As taken from the The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, Step Four means to "Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." This is very personal. I can picture Billy Graham doing this as he pondered his comments of 1972. I can picture the Pope doing this as he lamented the abuses by his church. But I cannot imagine any president answering for the ills of any previous administration. Otherwise, why have elections? We may as well elect presidents for life. The whole idea of free elections is to make positive changes if we do not like the way things are going.

Using the Twelve Steps as a model, it gets more complicated as we move toward Step Eight and Step Nine. Step Eight reads: "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all." Then, Step Nine reads: "Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others." There has been so much harm done throughout history. It would take several lifetimes to make amends to everyone for every injustice done. We can condemn and disagree with policies of the past, but to undo is impossible and to provide compensation would be an enormous task (and unfair to a current generation that played no part in the injustice even though they may have indirectly reaped benefits from it).

This is not to say that victims should not go to court, or that governments have the right to break treaties, or that people in recovery should overlook Step Nine. Laws have to be enforced. Citizens need to be protected. People will grow as they accept responsibility for themselves and the impact of their actions on others.

This is only to suggest that rather than focusing on the damages of history, most people and nations would do well just to stop the hate of the present. Correcting the ills of our current society is enough to keep us all focused on doing good. If we all did good in our own time and generation, there would be no more need for collective apologies. Perhaps people would feel less intense about the sufferings of their ancestors, if they felt secure about their children's opportunities for a bright future. A simpler, quicker solution to history's toll is to become examples of peace for the next generation. (Written 04/01/02 - Revised 12/01/03: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2002, 2003 Natalia J. Garland