The danger of apologizing too soon

Can an apology come too soon? I was listening to an NPR show discussing a national apology for slavery in the US (and reparations). One guest on the show stated that if a government or organization apologizes before there is adequate dialogue about the real effects of that entity’s misdeeds (i.e., support of slavery), it kills further dialogue.

Really? Why is it that if we apologize for hurting someone that we think the conversation is over?

Point of fact: true apologies invite further discussion, including exploration of the effects of the “crime.” When discussion ends because of an apology, we discover that the apology was really cover for, “Will you let me out of jail for what I did to you? Will you forget my bad behavior?”

True apologies are not formed as questions or requests–either explicitly or implicitly. It is offerings of forgiveness that end or at least change discussion regarding criminal activity. When we demand instant forgiveness or apology acceptance we inappropriately tie apologies with conversation endings.

Do you agree with this next statement? The truly repentant do not mind apologizing as many times as necessary nor engaging in conversation about the effects of their misdeeds.

In relationship to slavery, the matter is complicated in that the conversation is happening between those who either indirectly benefit or suffer from slavery. Because of our overemphasis on individualism, we often fail to acknowledge corporate sins and that some of us benefit from those corporate sins. Read Ezra and Nehemiah and you see a different picture. A people repenting for sins done by the previous generation. Now there’s a novel idea.


Filed under conflicts, Cultural Anthropology, Doctrine/Theology, Forgiveness, News and politics, Race, Racial Reconciliation, Repentance

6 responses to “The danger of apologizing too soon

  1. I’m not sure that the NPR guest meant that apologies necessarily end conversations. I agree with you that properly handled, an apology will, in fact, lead to more productive dialogue.

    Instead, I believe the point was that an apology will backfire if an institution issues it before people understand why an apology is necessary.

    In the case of slavery and the subsequent history of discrimination, many Americans remain ignorant of the historical facts which require an apology. They fail to understand that slavery and the slave trade were supported by the entire nation, and not just the southern states; or that the Civil War was not fought to end slavery; or that the former slaves were never compensated for their suffering; or that the brutal subsequent history of violence and discrimination never provided slavery descendants with the opportunity to catch up to others in society; or that Congress or a state legislature would be apologizing for its own support of slavery and discrimination, rather than apologizing on behalf of people alive today who were not involved.

    When such an apology is issued, those who do not understand its context are typically offended and angry. They also tend to believe that an injustice has occurred. As a result, an apology can lead to recriminations and the closing of dialogue, rather than renewed understanding and shared progress.

  2. Scott Knapp, MS

    Some view an apology as a discreet event…and some view an apology as an element of an on-going process. I’ve sinned against my wife in the past, and have apologized…and like most husbands who happen to also be sinners, I find myself highly annoyed when my wife refers to past sin to illustrate similarities in present behavior. I’ve also caught myself falling back on the tired, old line, “but I already apologized for that!” It’s taken quite awhile for this lunkhead to realize that those sins I’ve apologized for disrupted relationship between me and my wife, and articulating the words of an apology may have been for the purpose of cleaning the conceptual slate, but they were not sufficient to mend and restore relationship. The discrete event of my apologies have been the visible/audible indicators of a changed heart toward my wife….the on-going conversation and continuous indications of repentance in my words and deeds is a part of the process of mending and restoring the relationship, and provides the visible substance that should lie behind the apology, the evidence of a repentant and changed heart. In spite of the obvious fact my wife is a sinner as well, in taking responsibility for my own culpability I OWE her the time and effort I must put into the on-going conversation…without it, my apology rings hollow and my repentance is incomplete. It is bad enough that I sin against my wife in the first place, but I add insult to injury when I selfishly demand that she “like me again like before” after I offer an apology and expect her to pretend her soul is not injured and I have no further responsibility in the restoration process.

  3. Scott,

    Great observations about apology! insightful, down to earth, and candid.


  4. I will add some substance to my compliment, since my wife always appreciates it when I give her specific and detailed thoughts about why I connect.

    Unfortunately, I think that in many cases a persons apologies (including my own) amount to my asking, “Are we okay now.” It is completely different from an apology, because it is a hastey demand for restoration, and also a result of insecurity. I think of relative I know who would always ask others, “Are you mad at me?” It was a manipulative way of checking if they were okay, and it ways always a long way from an apology.


  5. Scott Knapp, MS

    Kirk, I appreciate your kind words. It seems that our society has demeaned the restorative power an apology should legitimately have in so many insidious ways! In recent months, I was in a situation in which I had a very strong disagreement with the senior pastor of the church I was attending, and we were expressing our views on a blog that the pastors and congregation participated in. I tried my best to remain articulate and objective, and still make my point…I was met with written vitriol, and ultimately I was told by the senior pastor that my opinion was hostile to the church, and I needed to leave…all in written statements on this very public blog, no verbal face-to-face communication whatsoever! Rather than remain and fight (my usual response), I sensed the Spirit directing me to comply with the pastor’s desires, and move on quietly, so I said my goodbye’s and moved on. One of my closer friends in the church thought this was not right, and offered to mediate between the pastor and me, and broker a discussion to mend fences, and I was agreeable to this at first. Where I balked was when he asked me how I wanted to phrase my apology…and he was greatly chagrined when told him that I’d thought about and prayed about the entire situation for some time, and determined that my conscience was clean and I had nothing to apologize for…I’d disagreed with the pastor, and challenged a tender topic, but I’d remained objective, and terribly supportive of him personally throughout the entire exchange. In frustration, my friend hissed (yeah, that’s the best word to describe how a frustrated man talks) “Don’t you ever apologize for anything?” I was short-circuiting his ability to be a good “mediator” by not giving him anything from me to entice the pastor to come to the table. He wanted me to at least do the act of apologizing to the pastor (whether I sincerely believed I’d done anything to apologize for), so the pastor could save some “face” and “meet me half-way.” I politely declined to meet with the pastor under those circumstances, but left the door open in the future to meet for a legitimate purpose of reconciliation. My friend left that breakfast meeting frustrated with me…I left feeling consonant with biblical values. I think when we use apologies for any other purpose than making a sacrificial, repentant offerings to the one we’ve wronged, we’re disingenuous and not showing true respect for the other person to whom we’re offering it! It becomes nothing short of a manipulative tool, or a self-protective piece of armor…and if it were germane, I’m quite certain the serpent of Eden would have found some insidious way to use a misguided apology to entice Eve to eat the forbidden fruit…it’s an effective tool to misuse! Thank you again, Kirk, your comments are humbly appreciated.

  6. Great comments here. Thanks for enriching my simple post. James, your observations are good. If I apologize before you understand the ramifications of what I have done AND then refuse ongoing conversation, then that is bad. If my apology encourages your exploration and understanding then that is better. And you are right that others on the sidelines can get upset if I make a corporate confession but they do not own their part in it. That is the complexity of the slavery matter. If I do not get white privilege, I’m likely to feel that I’m the one being sinned against in the race relations conversation.

    Scott and Kirk. Thanks for your honest and vulnerable additions.

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