I was meandering around the foyer of my church one Sunday evening and the front page of Eternity Christian newspaper caught my eye. I had been pondering the former Prime Minister’s apology to the indigenous stolen generation (a day known as “Sorry Day“), and I saw a the word “SORRY” in triplicate on the cover.
Sorry day had been on my mind as I pondered on how my nan might come to be open to Christ. Not in the way of “how will she become open to believing in God”, but rather, “how will she forgive the church and come to know who God truly is”?
That is, how do you share who you are with someone as a Christian when Christians who had collaborated with legitimate evils that affected that person, such as carrying out a government’s plan to wipe out an entire race of people for example?
Sorry Day was a meaningful day for me. Not because I felt some deep empathetic connection with it’s full implications. (Rather, I regard myself far removed from the aboriginal identity). It was meaningful to me because I knew it would mean something profound to my nan.
I remember the day of the apology. I was at work, and many of us had gathered in the cafeteria to watch the apology on national TV.
The Prime Minister used the word “sorry” explicitly several times throughout his speech. He acknowledged the profound impact that the government’s actions had had on generations of indigenous Australians.
It didn’t matter that he was not personally responsible, nor did it matter that the current politicians in power did not personally carry out the callous removal of aboriginal children from their families. It also did not matter that the government may be opened up to financial liability by acknowledging a historical truth that reflected unfavourably upon them.
What mattered was that it was that it would be a step of reconciliation towards those whom, until a few decades ago, were classed as fauna in the Australian constitution. And it was an effort that the government could make, that was in their power to do, that would assist in the healing in the hearts of aboriginal people who had been forcibly removed from their communities, stripped of their cultural identities and placed in facilities manned by government officials and church leaders which were home to every kind of abuse.
The article by Michael Jensen touched on a few current affairs and gave some guidelines on what makes a good apology. It really connected with what was already swirling weighing heavily on my mind.
“In a good apology, we are looking for the right words, the right attitudes and the right actions. The best apologies contain no self-justifications and no explanations. There is an acknowledgement of responsibility for the actions involved. There is no demand placed on the victim or victims, and no expectation of forgiveness. There is no avoidance of consequences: an apology is not an attempt to avoid the justice that may come as a result of your actions.”
(Emphasis my own).
Regarding the case of recent comments made by shock jock Alan Jones about the death of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s father, (that he “died of shame”), Jensen writes:
“My friend Tim Patrick put it this way: “For an apology to succeed in being an apology, it must be a real apology, that is, a humble admission of guilt, request for forgiveness and commitment to living differently“.”
Whilst many were moved by Mr Rudd’s apology to the stolen generation, there were mixed views among the indigenous population as to whether the words of this apology was reflected in the government’s actions. My nan seemed satisfied with it, marked with posters plastered around her living room (bordering on a shrine) relating to “Sorry Day” – one detailing the apology word-for-word and others with pictures of a former Prime Minister who had instigated unprecedented reform concerning indigenous policies.
After a couple of century’s worth of woeful government policies and the numerous complex social issues that continue to plague aboriginal communities, it has not been so easy for the government to “fix” the long term, deep seated, complex issues that continue to plague the aboriginal people. However, a meaningful and heart-felt apology in “the right words” with “the right attitudes”, was certainly the start of something really positive . A new season perhaps.
All of this got me thinking about my own experiences. My experience of knowing my own sin and knowing God’s forgiveness and of coming to a place of genuine repentance. And my experience and observations within Christian circles and organisations where people have been legitimately hurt, yet some Christians (often leaders within an organisation) would often sidestep the issue or attempt to defend or justify the sinful actions, as if God or the faith were “under attack”.
It also reminded me of how I once was. There was a time when I just would not hear criticism of my church or its leaders, and when I believed that anyone who had criticism needed to just go away and sort themselves out.
It also got me thinking about the emphasis that some churches or leaders place on forgiveness, yet they seem to entirely miss the aspect of making amends to those who have been wronged.
It adds insult to injury when a Christian leader or organisation demonises those who have been hurt as being “bitter”, “resentful” or “unforgiving”. Even if that were true, that does not nullify their experience, nor does it in any way mean that the leader/ministry do not have equally important matters to address themselves. It is equally as dismissive when a person trivialises the ongoing impact of a trauma on a person and carries the attitude of “get over it and get on with it”.
Another attitude that I find common in unhealthy faith environments is a demand for forgiveness (which is no doubt an important aspect of the Christian faith), however it appears to be in response to some wrong that has been done by the leader or the church in general, and there is nothing to be said about the other side of the coin: genuine, heart felt repentance of sin on the part of the perpetrator. If forgiveness of another’s sin is important, then surely repentance of ones own sin is equally as important.
When I was coming to terms with abuses I had encountered at the hands of a Christian ministry, I began very slowly and carefully opening up to a couple of women I had grown to trust over several months. They volunteered for a healing ministry that I had sought help from, and I was at a point where it just needed to come out.
What really struck me was that one of the women expressed her utter shock, grief and anger about what I had shared. But not towards me (which is what I had truly learned to expect), but towards this organisation. She explained to me that what had happened to me was spiritual abuse. She proceeded to apologise to me, saying that this should not have happened, it was not from God, and that it was not something that should ever, ever happen in a Christian ministry.
Now, SHE had not personally carried out those actions, or turned a blind eye, or condoned abuse. SHE was not even involved with this ministry. Yet she was a Christian woman who simply listened to my story and acknowledged the deep wounds that were inflicted in the name of Jesus. And in the midst of media statements where churches and individuals were blaming victims and distancing themselves from any form of responsibility in what had happened, here was one Christian woman who apologised to me. Instead of trying to stuff scriptures into my head about how I needed to forgive, this women simply grieved with me – in her words, her attitudes and her actions.
I just remember how instrumental this woman was to my recovery and the healing of my spirituality. If this is the fruit of this woman’s impact on me on that occasion, a woman who was hardly at fault herself yet acknowledged the sin carried out in the name of God, the same God that she represented, then how much more powerful would the impact have been from the abusers themselves?
As Mr Jensen states, an apology must include the “right words, right attitudes and right actions“, involving “humble admission of guilt“, “request for forgiveness” and “commitment to living differently“.
GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) work with organisations to address and prevent instances of child sexual abuse in church and ministry environments. They have shared the following thoughts on social media throughout the past year, which very poignantly highlight serious issues of ministries and leaders who shy away from authentic apology, and thus repentance:
“What prompts institutional transformation as it relates to abuse? Authentic sorrow and repentance OR public relations and the “need” to survive?”
“An institution who responds to abuse disclosures by immediately emphasizing forgiveness and reconciliation has little understanding or care for the abused.”
“An institution that promises to pursue truth requires an institution that embraces authentic transparency and a willingness to be vulnerable”
“Institutional self protection will always result in protecting a rotting core. Institutional change requires transparency and vulnerability.”
I think this has implications for all of us. Whether you consider yourself an individual hurt at the hands of a ministry, or a perpetrator who has hurt others, we have all hurt someone at some point in our lives. We are to be like God, imitating His character, and imitating Paul as he imitated Christ.
I know that for me, even though I was a victim of serious abuses in God’s name, that my attitude towards others has changed – and changed for the better.
As mentioned earlier, I had been defensive of the church I was at, and quick to invalidate anyone who voiced criticism or claimed to have had a negative experience.
After I was abused in a big way, it forced me to confront my prejudices and examine why I had previously been defensive to others who had been hurt.
I don’t have all the answers on why God lets us suffer in life, but one very valuable thing I did gain through that time of suffering is a humility and compassion for those who have been hurt by church individuals and organisations. Had I not been through this experience, my voice would have been heard among the chorus of those who defended this corrupt ministry when the truth came into the light in a very public way.
Having had so many friends who have been hurt by Christians and shied away from the Christian community for that reason, perhaps God was preparing me for this. Perhaps God wanted to mold me into a person who could be a friend to those who had experienced pain at the hands of the church. Even though I may not have been personally responsible for their woes, perhaps I can be one representative of God who will simply listen, who will acknowledge and sympathise with their experience, and express my grief and sorrow to them, and offer my apology as a representative of Christ, without defending the perpetrator out of some idea that protecting them is by default the will of God. Perhaps this is my ministry.
Perhaps God will work through me, with the wisdom and insight he has given me into institutional abuse and the power of repentance, to reach my nan. Perhaps my words, attitudes and actions as a de-institutionalised Christian will open her eyes and heart to a loving Saviour.