Apologies and How Massacres Don’t Just "Happen"

I was pleased to read that Lt. William Calley, convicted of the My Lai massacre in the early ’70s, offered an apology this week for the murderous rampage he took part in and for which his name will forever be a source of anger and shame.

I’m not in a position to gauge the sincerity of Calley’s apology for “what happened in My Lai;” it’s not difficult to imagine that more than four decades later, he would be left with a lingering remorse for the mass killing of these Vietnamese women and children. What bothers me, and what bothers me more and more lately, is how his and other public apologies are worded.

My sons will go to their graves long after I’m gone with the words “‘Sorry’ isn’t an apology — ‘sorry’ is a word . . . ” In our home, offenders young and old believe that an apology is only an apology when it’s specific, personal, and represents true accountability for the offense. Even as pre-schoolers, my sons knew that “Sorry you’re mad for me taking your Legos,” or “Sorry if I hurt your feelings for laughing at your painting,” or even “Sorry the vase broke, Mom,” wouldn’t cut it. We don’t apologize for other people’s feelings; we apologize for having trampled on them — specifically, personally, and as soon as possible.

And just as vases don’t “just break,” bloody massacres don’t “happen.” We’re all sorry for what happened at My Lai — but as the one accountable for it, Calley’s apology would be far more effective, far more meaningful, if he had used the first-person indicative: “I’m sorry for what I did in My Lai.” Better, the specificity: “I’m sorry I took part in razing a village, killing innocent people, and terrorizing the survivors.”

We see this in Michael Vick’s “regret” over brutalizing dozens of dogs in operating a dogfighting ring, in Mark Sanford’s lament that his heart took over his decency and common sense, in rock stars, athletes, televangelists and politicians whose remorse — whether for the offense itself or for simply having been caught — are couched in words that acknowledge that something bad happened, something that makes them feel bad — but something that evidently was the product of cosmic events quite out of the control of the one offering the apology. These are the public ones. Unheard are the millions of instances when wives “apologize” with a seemingly sincere “Sorry your Mom didn’t get a card from us for her birthday,” or a husband offers a contrite “Hey, sorry you’re mad that I got home late.” Whether the children they raise grow up to embrace the honor of full accountability, responsibility, and transparency or adorn their “Sorry”s with tears, a description of events, and an acknowledgment that it caused pain — with no “I did this” — isn’t too hard to guess.

I do a lot of stuff that’s wrong. But I’m determined to own up to my errors and sins in the way I hope I’ve demonstrated on Prevailing Winds — publicly for public errors, in person for personal ones, and always specific, prompt, and with that pesky “I” word that really constitutes an apology. We confess our sins to our Savior only when we take full ownership of our failings; that he is omniscient and already knows doesn’t excuse us from glossing over our specific errors when we offer to the not-omniscient our mea culpas.

I’ll end this with the Roman Catholic Act of Contrition I learned as a kid. I’m no longer Catholic, but it’s a wonderful model for what really, truly constitutes regret and accountability:

Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee,
and I detest all of my sins because of Thy just punishments.
But most of all, because they offend Thee my God,
Who art all good and deserving of all my love, I firmly resolve,
with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid
the near occasion of sin. Amen.

2 Responses to “Apologies and How Massacres Don’t Just "Happen"”

  1. Your basic distinction is correct but your terminology is off. The correct distinction is between “apologizing”on the one hand and “repenting and seeking forgiveness” on the other. Apologizing — or what you refer to as saying “sorry” — does not bridge the gap between two people. If someone comes to you and says, “I’m sorry,” he has not asked you to do anything. All he has done is to tell you how he feels. When someone says, “I sinned; will you forgive me?” he immediately tosses the ball to you by asking you to make a commitment to him to put the matter behind you for good. Apologizing (i.e., saying “sorry”) involves no mutual commitment whatsoever, no resolution, and no requirement that the person wronged put the matter to rest.

    I think it is pretty clear you are making essentially the same distinction but just using a different (less precise) choice of words.

    Repentance and forgiveness for our wrongs to one another are part of God’s special grace to us Christians. The unbelieving world is incapable of truly giving and receiving forgiveness, and substitutes in its place this notion of making expressions of regret such as merely saying “sorry.”

  2. Thanks, Chris. You make some good points, and of course I understand the distinction between apology and repentance with seeking forgiveness. I was primarily trying to address the “it happened,” not the “I did it,” mentality in our culture, but I appreciate the distinction you’ve made here.

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