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Is Saying Sorry Enough?

I would like to start by asking a further question. What is it that we want to achieve by saying sorry? Do we want to achieve healing, closure, forgiveness and reconciliation for ourselves? Or do we want healing, closure, forgiveness and reconciliation to happen in the lives of those who have been harmed?

I think the focus on justice in the process of saying sorry is crucial in answering these questions. Without justice, which includes some form of restitution, saying sorry has only the interest of the perpetrators at heart. If we add justice to the framework of saying sorry we consider the interests of the victim.

The omission of justice in the process of saying sorry has much to do with a distorted theological understanding of forgiveness shared by many South African Christians. This understanding assumes that saying sorry is enough to be forgiven. This theological approach is probably based on a very literal understanding of the Bible: Jesus has forgiven my sins and now you have to forgive my sins as well. A literal understanding of the Old Testament reading in Psalm 103: 12 also comes to mind: “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us”. This type of theological understanding is probably one of the reasons why many South African Christians say sorry, and then continue to walk past ongoing injustice.  They rush with speed towards the future without addressing the behaviour and consequences that caused the pain.  Fr Michael Lapsley often tells the story of a bicycle.  One day a man apologises to his neighbour for stealing a bicycle years ago.  The neighbour accepts the apology, but turns to him and says “where is my bicycle?  Can I have it back?”.

Not long ago I attended an event in a small town and heard a Dutch Reformed Church member pray: God help the black people to forgive us, help them not to focus so much on the past, help them to forgive us so that they can be healed. This prayer was followed by the prayer of the secretary of the local ANC women’s league: Yes God, let us stop looking back at the past, let us forgive now, let us forget the past and love each other. Let us forgive. Needless to say the white church member lives in a beautiful house, has a black domestic worker and drives a good car. The ANC women lives in a shack, makes use of public transport and work as a domestic worker. The distorted theological understanding of forgiveness is thus not limited to the Christian perpetrators of abuse. Survivors of abuse are many times sharing the same simplistic understanding but also perhaps fearing God’s wrath if they do not forgive,

I was recently invited to deliver a presentation at a conference of National Church Leaders on the theme promoting restitution as a vehicle to convey sincere remorse. In the plenary discussion after my presentation white respondents assertively spoke that Jesus has forgiven white South African Christians and therefore other Christians have to follow suit. During the tea break one of the black participants came to me and said “you know, my head and my heart do not want to listen to each other today. My head knows that God wants me to forgive when people say they are sorry … but you know in my heart I wish Malema can become president so that all the things taken from black people can be given returned to them. I do not like this saying sorry without justice”.

During the last years of the 1990’s I arranged for some of my Zulu-speaking congregation members to attend a weekend reconciliation workshop with some members of the Dutch Reformed Church. Opportunities were created to listen to each other’s stories, empathise with each other and even to ask each other’s forgiveness. After the workshop I gave an Afrikaans speaking guy and a Zulu-speaking guy a lift back to their respective homes. I first dropped the Afrikaans man at his nice house in a nice suburb with beautiful manicured lawns. When driving the Zulu-speaking man to his shack without water and electricity in the township I asked him what he thought about the workshop. He was very honest when he said to me that he was angrier towards white people than ever before. At the workshop he got to know the white guy that I dropped first and realised that they had more or less the same intellectual capacity. “When I saw the house this guy was living in I just realised his saying sorry does not mean anything to me. Look how much better is his life from mine. If he is really sorry something needs to happen to address inequality in South Africa”.

Recently Archbishop Tutu caused a huge stir with his call for a wealth tax on white people. Later at UCT he explained his call. When you say sorry you also have to demonstrate that you really mean it and you do that by showing that you really care. He also indicated that the outcry about his statement within the white community was an indication of how guilty they still felt about the past. Their just saying sorry did not assist them to forgive themselves.

Saying sorry without doing sorry is not being truly sorry. The lack of demonstrating true-sorryness when rendering an apology can even damage the relationship further.

Our general theological understanding of forgiveness in South Africa needs to be deepened. It should be preceded by a theology of restitution based on a text like the Zacchaeus narrative (Luke 19:1-10) where Zacchaeus returned three times the tax that he had taken. A theology of restitution is a significant tool to address the residual ills of discrimination as well as other causes of inequity in our communities.  Restitution involves seeking to set right the generational ills of inequality by engaging those who have benefited from the system, directly or indirectly, in transferring wealth and social capital and reinvesting in communities that are still suffering.

I understand this not to be purely a black-white issue, although I believe addressing the apartheid past is a responsibility that heavily rests on the shoulders of the beneficiaries of Apartheid.

There also rests a restitution responsibility on the shoulders of those who benefitted generously since the democratization of the country to share their gains to address the huge inequality in our society.

A theology of forgiveness should make provision for the fact that forgiveness and justice are twins and that forgiveness can and should never be forced upon anyone. Forgiveness is a natural response. In a way it is to be compared with love – an emotion that comes naturally. You cannot pretend forgiveness. It is a journey that each individual will travel in their own way and on their own time.  And it is a journey that will differ from day to day – some days it will be easier to forgive than other days.

High expectations within societies, such as South Africa, affected by prolonged periods of systemic violence often lead to a hope for swift closure and reconciliation and healing which will enable a return to a relative normal way of living.

In reflecting on the feasibility of reconciliation in the early phases of transition processes Weinstein (2011:1-10) argues that 150 years after the end of the American Civil War and more than seventy years after the Spanish Civil War both Americans and Spaniards still have not achieved full reconciliation. It is therefore unrealistic to expect reconciliation to happen in communities who only recently embarked on the peace journey.

Instead of focusing on on achieving closure and reconciliation Weinstein (2011:8) advocates for communities to rather focus on possible ways to co-exist through the promotion of sustainable peace which in turn may create opportunities for . future reconciliation in. Doing sorry and taking restitution seriously are important foundations for sustainable peace within communities.

By Deon Snyman


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