We’ve talked off and on in the past about various Christian “apology” movements–one involving sad, earnest men with squinched-up eyebrows “apologizing” for allowing their silly, mindless, consequences-dodging
slaves womenfolk to access abortion care, others involving Christians in general apologizing for their peers’ all-out culture war against LGBTQ people. Certainly there are many similar efforts. Today I want to talk a little about why these campaigns are so beloved by Christians, but so absolutely ineffectual in impact.
First, Let’s Talk About How Apologies Work in Christian-Land.
An apology is the magic shield that protects Christians from all further criticism. However lame, however insincere-seeming, however self-serving, however untrustworthy, however impotent it might sound to its recipient(s), once one is issued, then the matter is now settled. The person receiving it is expected to make like Jesus and forgive immediately. (At least Catholic priests make people recite some canned prayers first!)
Forgiveness involves pretending the matter never ever happened–within limits, but these limits are generally a lot weirder than outsiders would imagine, which is how a convicted child molester could end up as the pastor of a church filled with Christians who were well aware of their leader’s past. Various Baptist leaders in that area were totally sure that all that was required to restore Darrell Gilyard to everyone’s good graces was a very, very sincere apology to his victims, who no doubt would have been simply delighted about being put into contact with their onetime abuser, and to “the community,” which would no doubt have been instantly relieved to know that Mr. Gilyard was very, very sorry. That worked so wonderfully well in Mr. Gilyard’s previous stomping grounds in Texas after all–oh wait, no, actually, he was very very sorry for the “sexual misconduct” that cost him one post there in the 1990s, and very very sorry for allegedly raping and impregnating a woman during a pastoral counseling session some years later, and very very sorry again for the sex crime he got charged with in 2008. All in all, Darrell Gilyard has been very very sorry on at least FIVE occasions that cost him pastoral posts.
The reason this out-and-out predator could keep moving from pastorate to pastorate, church to church, victim to victim, is precisely because Christians have no idea how to deal with apologies–or, for that matter, with genuine guilt.
Because all humans are seen as sinful no matter what they do, because all sin is seen as equally horrific no matter how minor or massive it is, because even thinking naughty thoughts is a crime in their religion, and because almost all flavors of Christianity threaten one single punishment for any and all crimes, Christians really have no clue how to deal with real-world wrongdoing. Worse, because the religion relies upon the simple utterance of a magic incantation to free a person of all culpability with regard to those misdeeds (which, again, are largely imaginary anyway), and because that incantation is regarded as instantly effective by most flavors of the religion, Christians start coming to see any apology to anyone at all as having ideally the same effect and results.
The problem is that Christians tend to think of themselves as mini-Jesuses. They start thinking that any apology that seems legit must be accepted immediately by them, just as their own apologies are thought to be accepted immediately by “Jesus.” I’ve lost track of how many of them have shown up on various blogs and social media to attack anyone who didn’t feel like accepting this or that golden calf’s crocodile-tear-laden not-pology. They APOLOGIZED, GYAHH, what ELSE do you want here?
The end result of Christians’ total misunderstanding of guilt and apologies is that predators get away scot-free to offend again and again and again, serene in the knowledge that when (not if) they are caught again, they can just apologize and their tribe will ferociously defend them against anybody who disbelieves the fresh round of apologies. Not accepting an apology is tantamount to declaring that one doesn’t believe in the incantations mouthed at the ceiling to “Jesus” either–unthinkable! Refusing to accept apologies garners a Christian one of the worst, cruelest accusations the tribe can fling: being bitter.
Bitterness is poorly-defined but generally means someone who is still mad after the dominant members of the group have decided that nobody should be mad anymore. Anger is a frightening emotion for Christians; I don’t remember very many people I knew in the religion at all, from Catholicism across to Pentecostalism, who didn’t have a really difficult time managing anger and expressing it in a constructive, healthy way–and the further to the right end of the pool I got, the worse the religion’s problematic relationship with anger seemed to get. Christians who buy into this “bitterness” idea don’t have many other ways of handling angry people; they have no way of assessing the validity of anger because outside of very narrow parameters no anger is acceptable in their tribe, and they have no way of figuring out how to handle confrontations in a mature way because nobody talks about how to do that other than to “give it all to Jesus” or follow misapplied, poorly-understood Bible verses that mostly serve to maintain status quo. Once these measures are taken, as inadequate as they are, then the matter is forgiven and nobody’s allowed to talk about it anymore or remain angry about it.
There’s no way that ideology could ever go pear-shaped once translated into real-world behavior. (/s*)
Any Christians who object to this procedure can expect swift and extreme retaliation from a tribe hellbent on maintaining their Happy Christian Community Illusion: this idea that they belong to a group of people who sometimes commit a whoopsiedoodle, apologize and mean it when they do, accept apologies when they’re the injured party, move on from any offense through Jesus Power, and work together hand in hand for a brighter tomorrow while joined in glorious song. It’s a beautiful vision; too bad it isn’t and has never been how this religion works in reality across the board. Squared against this illusion is a growing awareness on their part that quite a few of them shamefully mistreat anyone who steps out of line with their will.
So now these Christians are mounting increasing numbers of campaigns based around apologizing to people for anything they think people are mad about.
They’ve got no idea what is and isn’t actually harmful to others, no idea how to construct a meaningful apology, no idea what constitutes meaningful guilt or even shame, no real feeling of having committed any wrongs, no desire to materially change anything they’re doing, and no idea how to engage with people who don’t buy into their decidedly surreal views.
There’s no way anything could go wrong with that mindset either. (See preceding parenthetical remark.)
The plan is to issue these blanket apologies that outsiders will see, which will make them all realize that the Christians issuing these apologies are the TRUE CHRISTIANS™, not nasty fake Christians like the ones who were so mean to them. Hopefully they will then magically realize that these TRUE CHRISTIANS™ practice the real live best possible flavor of Christianity, and will disregard all those nasty mean flavors of the religion that were so mean to them. And maybe hopefully they will join up.
The motives are quite plainly stated by one church in New Jersey, which was at one point apologizing for a variety of things. The pastor, Mark Barnish, paid for signs that read “We’re Sorry” on billboards and signs around the area, and outright told people, “We’re sorry for being judgmental, we’re sorry for being too political, we’re sorry for being anti-homosexual, we’re sorry for being boring.” He was also open about the fact that this campaign was intended to attract young people to his church, which I’m guessing was not exactly echoing with the pitter-patter of teenaged feet.
Why This Strategy is Doomed.
1. Nobody asked anybody to apologize.
This is probably the main problem with Christian apologies: nobody asked for one. The Christians who would be most likely to apologize sincerely for their tribemates’ nastiness are the ones least likely to actually behave in especially nasty ways. Their religion might stress the wonders and joys of innocent people getting punished in place of the guilty, but in Reality-Land we don’t tend to go for that. Just as nobody is asking for any white people to apologize for the systemic racism in American culture, nobody is asking Christians for a mass apology. We’re asking them to listen to us and to stop with the overreach, nastiness, and control-lust. Until that starts happening, I don’t think many non-Christians really care about any apologies Christians care to make. Oh, and incidentally, I’m guessing that the Christians actually committing the mistreatment are even less eager to hear their peers apologizing for them than the non-Christians who have to hear these apologies.
Because we know the apologies are being made to convert new members or at least retain existing ones, they have a whiff of the self-serving about them. But worse than that, the offensive behavior ostensibly being apologized for hasn’t actually stopped in any of these cases. The people making the apologies are either totally powerless to affect genuine change in their peers, or else unwilling to do so. Either way, apologizing for behavior that hasn’t actually been addressed makes for a terribly insincere-seeming apology. It’s a lot easier to mouth meaningless apologies than it is to do something about the culture that has produced the nastiness in the first place.
3. These apologies re-center the conversation around the Christians apologizing rather than around the people they are hurting with their nastiness.
Sometimes apologies are more about the person making them than the offenses that caused them or the people receiving them. This is one of those times. A lot of Christians’ mass apologies focus very intensely on the wishes, intentions, and desires of the Christians making them. They didn’t mean to hurt anybody. They’re sorry they were boring. They’re sorry their peers, who they don’t even know and who were likely not even in the same denomination, did this awful thing to others. Everyday Feminism calls these sorts of apologies “intent[ion] conversations,” where the focus is on the person apologizing–as opposed to “impact conversations,” where the focus is on the person who was hurt and the specific actions that led to that hurt as well as how the person who did the hurtful thing will specifically redress the wrong and learn from it. Impact conversations are immediate, focused, and powerfully relevant; intent conversations, not so much.
See the difference? The way Christians are wording their mass apologies very specifically puts the focus on themselves and what they meant to do and how they feel rather than exactly what they did and what their victims think of those actions. You can see that difference in stark color in Josh Duggar’s not-pology. He mentioned his victims only a few times; almost every part of his statement focused on himself in some way, especially on how hard his life’s been since he repeatedly and egregiously sexually abused five little girls. He learned this style of communicating from a community that is so intensely self-focused that they’ve turned narcissism into an art form.
4. These apologies display Christians’ self-interest at its worst.
Back in May I wrote that one way we can tell an apology isn’t sincere is that it only gets issued when the “apologizer’s” hand is forced, as Josh Duggar’s was. In the same way, any Christian minister today who doesn’t know perfectly well that people are leaving the religion in droves is an idiot or willfully ignorant or both or worse. I’m not really surprised that they’re pulling out all the stops to regain people’s trust and allegiance. I view the issuing of meaningless apologies as an abusive behavior, and gang, that’s exactly what abusers do: they say and do whatever it takes to reel their victims back in and back under control. It’s meant to put victims at ease and get the trust flowing again–but it’s a trust gained under false pretenses.
It’s not hard even for someone as oblivious as I can be to know when an apology has an ulterior motive; I’ve been the target of quite a few over the years, almost all from Christians. Incidentally, I’m not talking about 12-step programs; at least they tend to require working to redress wrongs done. No, these were just people who wanted to break old wounds open again so they could feel like they’d done a noble thing.
5. Absolutely nothing is going to change as a result of these apologies.
Yes, yes, they’re very sorry about whatever. But because no real changes have been made to Christian practices and ideology, whatever caused their apologies is going to keep happening. Christians don’t have a very good understanding of supply- and demand-side behavior–they don’t seem to get that behavior is an outgrowth of systems, practices, and attitudes. Without changes to those things, behaviors can’t and won’t really change (conversely, if you can change those things then behaviors will pretty much follow right along).
And that’s just when the apology is fairly sincere-but-misguided. Other times, I’ve seen Christians apologize for their religion’s war on LGBTQ people–while not intending to actually change a single bit of their own focus as anti-LGBTQ. In 2010, a Christian group gained some fame by hanging out at pride parades wielding signs and wearing T-shirts reading “I’m sorry,” meaning they were sorry that Christians had mistreated LGBTQ people. But it soon emerged that their “sorry” was meaningless; not only were they largely not the people persecuting LGBTQ people, but you can go look at their webpage yourself to see how they dodged and clipped around any questions about the “sinfulness” of being LGBTQ out of a wholly justified fear of mortally offending their own bigoted tribemates.**
Oh, and remember Mark Barnish, the “I’m sorry” New Jersey pastor I mentioned above? Want to guess exactly how far his “sorry” extended?
I had to hunt quite a bit to uncover the church involved. I can’t even tell if he’s still there in a leadership capacity. Here we learn that Mr. Barnish might have been a youth pastor before becoming this church’s founder–which makes sense given his desire to reach young people. Either way, Crossbridge Community Church is part of a denomination called Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA). Buried in the denomination’s various policy pages, I found this page detailing that why yes, they totally think being gay is in and of itself a total sin because it is “detestable because it is out of harmony with the purpose for which God created human beings.” (I guess they don’t know what a prostate is, or exactly how common same-sex behavior is in animals.)
I could not even find a cache of the apology website listed in that news story, “weresorry.net.” It’s long defunct and doesn’t seem like it was extant for long in the first place.
Apparently “weresorry” lasted until the domain name registration ran out.
The Bottom Line.
The thing is, Christians know what we want out of them. They’re just not willing to do it. They think they are in the right–and this applies to most of the ones making magnanimous apologies on behalf of their brethren. Hell, a lot of them deeply resent non-Christians for being mad at them in the first place. Quite a few even think that any pushback they get for their various cruelties, dishonesties, misdeeds, and overreach is actually a sign of divine approval and favor.
What I really think they want is to feel like the bigger person in the fight they envision between themselves and everyone else. The bigger person apologizes, and the person being apologized to is obliged to then accept that apology because otherwise they are bitter. These apologies are meant to make these Christians feel like they’ve extended an olive branch, so when it gets refused they can feel properly indignant.
These apologies are just another salvo in the culture war, in other words. They are issued with the sole intention of gaining ground for Christians who are so desperate that they’re willing to go even this far to regain some of their lost privilege. We are under no obligation to accept those terms–or even to pretend these apologies are valid just to make Christians feel better about having mistreated so many people.
If I could tell Christians anything, it’d be this: If you’re not doing harm to anyone, then you don’t need to put shoes on that don’t fit you. We know you’re not responsible for other people’s misdeeds. We don’t hold you personally responsible and don’t need you to personally apologize. Just do the best you can, and if you feel like it’s safe to do so then it’d be super if you could maybe speak up when you hear your peers being hypocrites and/or mistreating others. If you’re already doing all of that, then we’re good. Your self-label as Christian matters way less to me than what you’re like as a person and how you treat other people. <3
Incidentally, gang, Saturday we’re doing a review of the Kirk Cameron movie Fireproof. Mr. Captain is laying in the booze as we speak, though he did give me the weirdest look when I put in this particular request. Thursday night we’re probably coming back to the Handbook and talking about “the original Greek and Hebrew.” See you soon!
A clip from the cartoon “South Park,” parodying exactly these sorts of apologies. In it, an oil-company executive “apologizes” for ruining the environment. NSFW for a brief flash toward the end.
* /s means “snark” or “not serious” or “sarcasm”; take your pick. It’s a Reddit convention I’ve taken to this blog. When you say something and want to make sure everyone knows you’re just kidding, use this tag. It’s sort of like a wink emoticon for people who don’t like emoticons. j/k–“just kidding”–works too.
** Incidentally, later on the leader of this group would go on to describe a decided “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality around LGBTQ people, forgetting that turning orientation into a huge secret and stripping people of their own self-labels actually feeds into the stigma and exclusion of those who are in the quiltbag. Dan Fincke has written a downright fascinating post about why labels like “gay Christian” are desperately needed: they provide validation, legitimacy, and even the possibility of reaching our consciousness–especially for those who are not LGBTQ and not used to engaging with the idea of people who are. Highly recommended read.
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