Political life and religious life often present contrasts, but none is more pointed than the question of repentance.
Donald Trump has been making the rounds of talk shows, insisting that he has nothing to apologize for, including the string of ugly epithets he applied to women. He says that his objectors are at fault for being hostile or politically correct. Apparently, no fault inheres for bullying or boorishness. At the same time, his critics are offering few apologies for dismissing him repeatedly when it’s clear that he’s touching something deep in the national psyche. Accusations fly, and regrets are sparse.
It’s characteristic of people to have trouble saying “I’m sorry,” but it seems there is an epidemic of unapologetics in the world of politics.
When apologies are offered in public life, they tend to be the sort that subtly shifts the blame: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” This is, of course, another way of saying, “I’m sorry you are so sensitive.” No one was ever mollified by such an apology, but somehow it remains in use.
In religious life, apology is encouraged, essential, and even praised. Contrition is seen as the mark of a strong character, not a weak one. The rule of Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition is that the offender must offer sincere forgiveness three times as part of the obligation to seek forgiveness. Wounding another without apology is redoubling the offense, adding the sin of callousness to that of cruelty.
To admit fault seems to many an invitation to be attacked. But most of the time it disarms, rather than encourages, one’s critics. What can one say when anger is met with,”You are right, and I’m truly, deeply sorry?” It’s a gesture of self-humbling, a willingness to be less powerful and give the other space for grievance. Moments of genuine apology are blessed moments.
Even when the apology can do no real good, the gesture can be genuinely healing. In 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeled in front of the monument for the Warsaw ghetto uprising and atoned for something that his nation, not he, had done. The effect was electric: His sincerity and the power of the gesture captured worldwide attention.
If I were a political consultant and had to offer a candidate advice, I would say: “From my experience as a Rabbi, I know a technique that demonstrates ego strength, draws other people closer, shows your deep sensitivity and costs you nothing. Try it. It requires only sincerity and three words: ‘I’m really sorry.'”
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