It is no surprise that this past April, after China returned the crew of an American spy plane that made a forced landing on Hainan Island following a mid-air collision with a Chinese jet, the Bush administration went out of its way to insist that it had resisted China’s calls for an apology. The president was not only under political pressure to stand firm on America’s right to conduct surveillance flights off China’s coast; as a Texan and a conservative, he was equally aware of the historic aversion we have to our leaders apologizing to foreign governments for their actions.
We should not, however, allow the Chinese spy plane controversy to obscure a far more important and surprising phenomenon: the rise in America and the world at large of a new culture of public apology.
The breadth of this new culture of apology could be seen in the Day of Pardon Mass Pope John Paul II gave a year ago when he apologized for the errors committed by the “children” of the church during the last two thousand years and declared, “The church, strengthened by the holiness that she receives from her Lord, kneels before God and begs for forgiveness for past and present sins.” Six days earlier the Vatican’s International Theology Commission anticipated the groundbreaking nature of the pope’s apology. In a lengthy treatise, “ Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past,” the commission acknowledged that it could find few precedents in Catholic history for ecclesiastical authorities—the pope, bishops, councils—expressing regret for faults of which they themselves were guilty.
What makes the pope’s apology even more striking is that it does not stand in isolation as the act of a powerful leader defying expectations. It reflects the degree to which public apologies, historically a rare event in the lives of nations and institutions, have become a vital part of the global culture. A speech act once considered a sign of weakness, the tribute those lacking power traditionally pay to those with power, has in just over a decade emerged as a strength, a sign that one has the confidence to own up to mistakes.
Among religious groups there has been an outpouring of mea culpas for the damage done to those who were vulnerable to their power. In the United States the Southern Baptists, declaring “we lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery,” apologized for the pro-slavery stance that led to their formation in 1845. The Evangelical Lutheran church apologized for the anti-Semitism of its founder, Martin Luther, and for the harm done to Jews in his name, and the United Methodists apologized for the 1864 massacre of one hundred and fifty Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, which was led by a Methodist lay preacher in Sand Creek, Colorado. In Brazil the Catholic church, in a special ceremony on the beach where in 1500 the Franciscan friar Henrique de Coimba presided over the first Mass in Brazi...
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