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