(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reservedapology

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In 1932, the United States Department of Health began a study in Tuskegee, Alabama.  It was to examine and note the affects of untreated syphillis on the human body.  The study recruited 600 African-American men to participate – most of them from rural areas where they had never before seen a doctor.  399 of the men were found to have syphillis but they were told instead that they had “bad blood”.  They were purposefully lied to in order that the study produce desired data – symptoms of untreated syphillis.  Even after penicillin became the standard treatment of the diseased in the early 1940’s, the men were not told either of their diagnosis or of a way to cure it.  Over a hundred of the men died of syphillis.  Many more went insane because of it.  Over forty wives and 19 children were infected also as a result.

The scientists involved demanded that participants remain in the study until its final conclusion – in other words, until death and final autopsy.  It was not until 1967, when a Department of Health employee learned of the study and protested to his superiors, that any question was made about its morality.  The employee was told to keep quiet.  The study continued since several infected men were still alive.  But the employee finally shared his knowledge with the New York Times which published the shocking story and brought about its conclusion.  A 1.8 billion dollar class action lawsuit was filed in behalf of the remaining survivors but it was quietly settled for 10 million dollars.  The story was soon forgotten.

It was not until 1997 that any official US apology was offered.  President Clinton assembled the five remaining survivors, the press and all of the Congressional Black Caucus at the White House.  He made the following apology:

“The United States government did something that was wrong — deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens.

To the survivors, to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you know: No power on Earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish. What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry.

The American people are sorry — for the loss, for the years of hurt. You did nothing wrong, but you were grievously wronged. I apologize and I am sorry that this apology has been so long in coming.

To Macon County, to Tuskegee, to the doctors who have been wrongly associated with the events there, you have our apology, as well. To our African American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist. That can never be allowed to happen again..”

          Immediately after his statement, Clinton appropriated funds to establish a memorial to the men in the study as well as money to build the Center for Bioethics in Research at Tuskegee University.  The governemnt then established a Department of Health and Human Services bioethics fellowship for minority medical students.  Clinton finally substantially strengthened and amended the charter of the National Bioethics Advisory Committee which examines the morality and ethics of all federally funded research.  Not content with mere words of apology, Clinton tried to insure that the government could never, ever sponsor such a study again.

This story certainly exemplifies one of the horrors perpetrated by our nation on African-Americans.  But, it also highlights one of our nation’s redeeming moments – President Clinton’s apology.  Whatever one thinks of Clinton politically, it is clear that he was and is a master at showing and expressing empathy.  Using blunt words and phrases like “racist, morally wrong, and shameful”, his apology is a case study in how sorrow ought to be expressed by a nation, organization or individual.  It was perfectly done.

Just this past October, the apparel manufacturer Lululemon showed how an apology must not be done.  After millions of pairs of its women’s yoga pants had to be recalled because they became see-through while women wore them, the company founder and CEO, Chip Wilson, issued a YouTube apology.  While saying his company was sorry its customers were angry, he noted that many women’s bodies “do not work well” with stretch pants and went on to imply that women were buying and wearing pants too small for their figure and this was the cause for the defect.  He only apologized to the company’s employees who would lose wages because of the problem.  What he never did was to accept blame for poor design and manufacture of the garment.  Nor did he apologize to the real victims – the humiliated customers who paid almost $100 for the pants.  His corrective solution was not re-design the defective fabric but to add extra material to certain areas of the pants while still charging the same high price.  Just this past week, earnings reports for Lululemon showed a dramatic decline.  It’s stock price plummeted.

This is my third and final message on uncommon New Year’s resolutions that we might adopt for 2014.  Much as I did last year, I’ve tried to choose resolutions that, in my opinion, are rarely undertaken but nevertheless represent significant issues in our culture.  Failing to genuinely apologize to those we have hurt or wronged is one such issue.

In an op-ed piece published in the New York Times this past December, the English writer Henry Hutchings bemoaned the extreme overuse of the word “sorry” by many Englanders.  He recounts being rudely bashed by a backpack worn by a careless teenager who quickly muttered “sorry” as he rushed by.  A mother steered a baby carriage over his foot and she too said “sorry” without stopping – and Henry found himself saying “sorry” to her as well.  He spilled a cup of tea at a restaurant as the waiter rushed over and said “sorry” – for an act clearly not his fault.  A British newspaper wrote recently that it believed the average middle class Brit says “sorry” eight times a day while Hutchings believed that figure far too low.

The cause, he writes, is that the English use the word as a way to defuse and deflect guilt. Saying “sorry” absolves one of guilt even as it is uttered in such an offhand manner as to lose all meaning.  This same trend is noted in Japan where expressing sorrow is a culturual norm.  Even so, many Japanese now routinely say “I’m sorry” before they intentionally do something rude like cutting someone off in traffic.

As much as we might say this is a problem unique to other cultures, the failure to express genuine apology is endemic in the US too.  From politicians to businesses to everyday citizens, people often fail to either apologize or they do so in a way that is not sincere.  This phenomenon is a product of ego and glorification of the self.  Not only do many fail to recognize they have hurt others, others are almost pathological in not caring if they do.  To error is clearly human but to admit error, apologize for it and then work to change the behavior is something that is nealry superhuman.  Bad apologies blame shift by making someone else the wrongdoer.  There is no humility in a bad apology.  Excuses and self-defense are often the focus of a bad apology when it should, instead, be direct, simple and blunt in admission of total wrong.  Indeed, as much as failing to apologize is bad, it is much worse to offer a false apology that only makes feelings worse.

Most of you are familiar with the hymn “Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire” which we often sing in here.  The song paraphrases the Biblical Paul’s famous words in his first letter to the ancient Corinthian church.  If I speak words of great courage, but do not love, I am like a clanging cymbal.  If I have tremendous knowledge, or spiritual faith that can move mountains – but do not love others, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor – but am not motivated by love, I have offered nothing.

A similar condemnation of hypocrisy was echoed by Jesus.  Don’t pray in public or act as if you are a good and pious person if you harbor inner jealousies, anger, hate or bitterness.  Jesus’ brother James wrote much the same – if one professes to be a Christian, show it with deeds of love, humility, gentleness and compassion.

As a Pastor, I fully support such declarations.  They should define each and every church congregation.  Don’t just sit in your Sunday pews, warm and comfortable, and listen to the Pastor speak what you like to hear, as he or she preaches to the symbolic choir.  Don’t just speak of social justice, compassion and love for others.  Show it.  Act on it.  Do it.  Get your hands dirty.

These declarations implicitly support my topic for today – that apologies for the mistakes we make, the hurts we cause – they should be honest, heart felt and backed up not just by words, but by actions that give evidence of a desire to change.  Though I may speak words of apology for mistakes I make, but feel no real sorrow, I am a callous hypocrite.  Though I may claim to be a good and decent person, but fail to apologize for how I have hurt others, I am haughty, arrogant and indifferent.

As with many other spiritual disciplines, practicing genuine apology demands basic humility.  It demands the foundational ethic people should live by – that life is not about the self.  In that sense, an honest apology begins with oneself and one’s full admission of a mistake.  There can be no self-justification in admitting a wrong: “I am sorry for speaking in anger but he is such an irritating person.”  No!  Accepting blame for causing a hurt does not justify it in any way.  A wrong is still wrong no matter what.

In our mistakes, we must admit that truth and feel it.  We must increase our empathy cues so that we are able to intuitively sense and know when we have hurt another.  Too many people have callous or indifferent hearts that fail to perceive how they have hurt another.  Instead, we must be able to examine how we have acted from the Golden Rule perspective: Is my behavior how I would like someone to treat me?

After admitting to ourselves that we have made a mistake, we must then directly apologize to the injured perso – and do so in person if at all possible.  Again, there can be no excuses or blame shifiting in the words we use.  An honest apology should be simple and direct.  I was wrong.  I hurt you.  I will work to see that it never happens again.

Employing our empathy muscles, one should state in a genuine apology an awareness of the hurt that was caused.  This involves understanding the feelings of the other – how words or actions caused the other to suffer.  I understand how my anger made you feel frightened and demeaned.  I understand how my language was not respectful of you as a person.

Next, one should briefly detail steps one will take to insure the mistake won’t be repeated.  Honest sorrow for a mistake involves a desire that it never happen again – why would I want to again inflict pain on you?  After the verbal apology, concrete steps should then be taken to prevent further mistakes.  In this way, we make our words of apology have real meaning – my sorrow at having been verbally abusive of you is translated into learning anger management strategies and gentle speaking techniques.  Words are meaningless in love, in faith, in charity, in social justice AND in apologies – unless they are backed up by action.

Finally, one must be prepared for an awkward conclusion after an apology.  The offended person may not immediately offer forgiveness.  It takes time to process hurt feelings as well as the apology.  To forgive is a wonderful spiritual practice but it is rarely instantaneous.  Our apologies should be clear, direct and relatively short.  We should know when to shut up and allow the other to simply think.  An apology is, after all, not about us but about the person who was hurt.

In sum, we recognize three important steps for any apology.  Fully and completely admit wrongdoing.  Second, deeply and empathetically apologize without excuse or blame shifting.  Third, take steps to prevent a repeat mistake.

To truly say we are sorry is the ultimate form of humility.  Instead of living by the false adage that one should never say “I’m sorry”, believing that to do so is to show weakness, we must learn that being honest and authentic is the greatest form of strength.  It takes courage to give up the control of our offensive words or actions and admit we were wrong.  It takes strength to give control to the one we wounded – to allow them the power to forgive us.  We refuse to deeply and sincerely apologize because we don’t want to appear weak or soft but, the opposite is true.  Arrogantly holding on to false pride by refusing to accept blame is cowardly. To say I’m sorry is, instead, very brave.

I ask us to imagine a world at peace with no conflict, no wars, no hate.  To achieve that, we can begin by imagining our better selves – people who may not be perfect but who are willing to acknowledge and correct our imperfections.  Practicing genuine apology is a way to bathe the world in a soothing balm.  It is a way to diffuse anger and hurt.  It is a way to humbly accept that we are flawed but that our work in life is to improve ourselves so we can better improve the world.  Being able to apologize is about self-awareness, empathy and humility.  These are foundational spiritual practices that we too often deride as soft, un-manly and weak.  Let us, however, give evidence of our true strength and power by resolving to practice the art of genuine apology.