Language of “Apology”

Last night I read this article on CNN.

Quick recap if you haven’t read the article: 20,000 Californians were forcibly sterilized by the state from 1909 to 1963, in order to rid society of people thought to be undesirable: people labeled “feeble-minded” or “defectives.”

Today, some of those people are seeking justice, and not finding much support. One person says, “I hate to sound so cynical, but I think they’re just waiting for the victims to die and forget this whole thing ever happened.”

The most telling part of the article states:

CNN’s attempts to contact politicians have been unsuccessful.

The governor’s office referred CNN to the state Department of Developmental Services, which sent a two-sentence statement: “The State of California deeply regrets the harm caused to victims of involuntary sterilization that occurred through the first half of the 1900s. This was a sad and painful period in California’s history, one that should never be repeated.”

When CNN asked Brown for his stance on reparations for sterilization victims, press secretary Gil Duran sent an e-mail referring to the statement. “There’s nothing more to add,” he wrote.

In contrast, the governor of North Carolina, where a similar agenda was carried out, has sought out victims of forced-sterilizations and “held hearings where she apologized personally and heard their stories. She also set up a task force to help the victims and recommended that each receive $50,000 in reparations.”

I have to say, the contrast moved me. I immediately tweeted, “After reading this, I can’t help but think: true apologies honor the wronged by being willing to hear their stories.”

I was deeply grieved when I read the unwillingness of California politicians to engage this matter or to enter the stories of those who suffered injustice and victimization at the hands of the “system” – a system whose proponents included, by the way, the President of Stanford and the publisher of the LA Times, as well as “the country’s intellectual elite such as doctors, geneticists and Supreme Court justices”.

“There’s nothing more to add”

These words stirred up something deep within me. How often is this our response?

As individuals or organizationally, we may have created or perpetuated systems that marginalized, abused and victimized a group of people. Perhaps this was brought to our attention, and a sincere and concerted effort was made to change. For many of us, the responsibility stops there. If someone approaches us about the past harm inflicted or its lingering effects, our response is “there’s nothing more to add.” Perhaps, if we are Christian, we even chastise them for not forgiving and we encourage them to show us a little more grace next time.

I’ll stop speaking in generalities and be a little more blunt: I think this ties in so well to what my ethnic minority friends experience, as well as potential default reactions in myself. I’m well-aware that the CNN article deals with eugenics and not racism, but I think what these stories illustrate about apology, restitution and reconciliation has much to teach me, if I’m willing to learn.

I’m young in my service with Cru so by sheer “luck” of my birth year, I have avoided being part of some hairy, icky things that have happened in our organization regarding ethnicity and ministry and yet, being also young in my own cultural journey, I’ve also contributed to the marginalization that others have felt. Maybe I’ve apologized for those things; maybe the people who were more involved in the “ickier” parts have also apologized for the role that they played.

But after reading this, I am even more resolved: if someone has the courage to approach me and tell me how I’ve harmed them in the past then, whether I feel I’ve apologized for that before or not, I’m going to apologize again. I’m going to ask them about their hurt. I am going to be willing to enter their pain, whether or not I feel it’s “legitimate”.

And then I’m going to apologize again if I need to.

And maybe again.

As long as it takes for them to feel heard and honored.

Our goal is to bestow honor and to restore dignity to those who have been harmfully treated at our hands, and that will require that we humbly put aside our embarrassment at being called out yet again, and our potential frustration at having to address an issue yet again, and we will do what it takes to show love to other sons and daughters of Adam. Perhaps we will even need to follow in the footsteps of Bev Perdue, governor of North Carolina, and set up venues for these voices to be heard, and then we will need to actually listen.

An apology without conversation and without story is a self-serving tool which can be effective at making us feel better, but has no real power to touch the heart of the wounded or to move us forward in authentic reconciliation.

Because true apologies honor the wronged by being willing to hear their stories.

Related, here’s another story of yet another frustrating non-apology: http://bit.ly/xV4o6N

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7 responses to “Language of “Apology”

  • Margaret Yu

    I love this post TJ. Well put and a great theology on the dignity of a soul and the real issue of loving the other well. As one in this organization, often times, being a minority means we struggle between wanting to speak up (which for some of us is counter-cultural) to knowing that even as we speak there may still be a huge potential of not being heard or being dismissed as you alluded to. The second one as you can imagine is actually more painful and can only happen as we exposed ourselves to the potential of more hurt.

    I have often found it to be tempting to stay silent for the pain it could provoke in others because of their ill ease or discomfort for acknowledging my hurt. I often want to give up; but I try not to because it is also a loving thing to love and continue to share and speak truth even if the other majority person will not understand. My hope is that in my speaking, they may listen and thus, avoid hurting other marginalized people in the future. But honestly, I find it hard to do this at times because it requires alot of energy to stay faithful to God in this.

    My hope is in God who can change me and us all.

    I love your humility and heart. Thanks for the provocative thoughts. Cannot wait to see you soon.
    Love,
    Margaret Yu

    • TJ Poon

      Margaret, wow, thank you so much for sharing. I can’t imagine how it must feel and the internal debate that happens as you contemplate speaking up or not. I’m thankful for your model of resilience and perseverance in that area, and inspired by how your motive is to love through whatever you decide.

      It’s one of my core beliefs that spoken truth is always powerful; if nothing else, we are changed and become more whole, in a way, as we speak truth authentically. That does not make it easier to do so, nor is it a band-aid that covers the pain in situations where it does not seem to have made any difference, and we feel more wounded than we did before. This is challenging stuff, but I’m so thankful for you and others who have been willing to engage the challenge and have modeled that for me.
      Love to you!

  • destinokristy (@destinokristy)

    I agree, great post TJ. I watched this on CNN awhile back because I thought it was going to be about the Puerto Rican women we sterilized in the 1930’s-70’s ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsory_sterilization#Puerto_Rico ) so it was sad for me to realize that this was a far more normal practice and a dark part of American history we don’t talk about. It reminded me of the importance of not holding to an “innocent view of history” like Justo Gonzalez talks about in his book Mañana. He said, and I have seen this to be true, that as Americans we tend to want to hide the sin of our past and only teach history from an innocent perspective. Stories like this one from California and the many others (giving blacks syphilis in Alabama ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuskegee_syphilis_experiment ), giving Guatemalans syphilis ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guatemala_syphilis_experiment )) are ones that we need to integrate into our view of who we are as a people in order to ever have hope of getting to genuine apology towards those we’ve hurt.

    As a church we have the opportunity to be a contradictory voice to this and be people that are able to hold in tension the good and the evil of our own history. We are broken and if we become more comfortable with that truth, we can look without fear at ways we’ve inflicted injustices and pain. In doing that, we can then ease our own anxiety enough to enter into the painful stories of others and then be genuinely transformed and seek reconciliation.

    • TJ Poon

      As always, I’m thankful that you have read what sometimes feels to me like my own ramblings, and love what you’ve added to the discussion. I haven’t heard of the things you mentioned, and plan to read those links soon. Probably have a good cry afterward 😦

      You are so right about wanting to hide the sin of our past, and I love that you’ve pointed out our opportunity to “be a contradictory voice” in this. That feels just a bit overwhelming to me, as I have as much desire to gloss over my sins as the next person. It is in reading things like this and hearing the stories of pain of people I love where I find the courage to enter and acknowledge my own sins, both past and present. And I need WAY MORE courage than I currently have 🙂

  • Margaret Yu

    Kristy, I think it is so good what you wrote. I have found that a few things cannot co-exist w/ empathy: self-protection or wanting self control. So, what you share makes sense to me that we as Americans do not want to acknowledge our bad or our sins or we act as if we are all innocent. There lies the problem if we are desirous of status quo or the way things ought to be or longing for the way things used to be in order to live in a comfortable existence. Yes! Love what you wrote.

    • TJ Poon

      Margaret, insightful as always! Agree that self-protection is incompatible with empathy. Much of my first talk at central conference was devoted to dying to our self-protection. It is so hard, because it feels like death, and indeed it is. But so much life is birthed when we enter that space, and empathy is part of that I think.

  • steve hong

    TJ,

    so blessed to read this post. so much that i’m actually commenting (which i so rarely do). but your posts have welled up in me in blessedness. part of that is because i was “lucky” enough to be born, and to be involved in our org when marginalization to anyone who did not fit the mold was so much more sharp, stealth, masked out by popular lingo, and passed over.

    that was slightly facetious. was i indeed “lucky?” IF anything, i’ve seen God redeem tremendous ugliness. and your posts have been, if you will, a distance salve from a sister i frankly don’t know too well. thank you for being you and sharing that with us.

    when i rejoined our org 10 years after i left, i quickly tuned into other “stories” of marginalization from within the org. most of my buddies and i were in our late 30s at the time, and i could feel their pain from being “passed over” in organizational ranks because they seemingly don’t fit the “mold.”

    i’m still in a journey of learning to walk away from “walking wounded.” and your posts are pictures of hope, a picture of heaven on earth…very eschatological in the here and now…the way God intended.

    i think about your title, and think, “this is crazy…a preemptive apology…and it’s REAL.” the crazy feeling stems from the thought that was would have been unimaginable in the previous generation.

    so just wanted to thank you, AND your husband, for who you guys are, and sharing that with us.

    steve

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