The trouble with saying sorry


Universe Column for 4th June 2006

by David Alton

Knowing how and when to say sorry is always tricky. Often you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.  If it’s a difficult thing for us to do as individuals, collective acts of regret are even more problematic.

When the Prime Minister apologised for Britain’s failure to save the lives of a million Irish people during the great famine he was accused by some of tokenism.

When Pope John Paul apologised for the crimes of Christians against Jews and to Orthodox Christians for the sacking of Constantinople by Catholic militias, 1000 years ago,  commentators rebuked him and told him that it was all time expired. In any event, they said, how could he atone for the actions of others?

The same reservations will doubtless be expressed when on May 1st 2007 we mark Parliament’s abolition of the slave trade. Cities like Liverpool, heavily implicated in the trade, have already expressed regret at their city’s role. But does that really mean anything to the descendents of those who suffered so terribly?

Can we heal the past? Should we even try?

A lot depends on the spirit in which atonement is made. If it’s just shallow public relations spin, or gesture politics, it will deservedly rebound and be counter productive.

If, however, it is a genuine attempt to “start again” it can mark the beginning of a new and more fruitful chapter. And where else can you start other than with a recognition of the wrong done by you, or in your name, or by those who went before you?

Usually this healing of relationships and the healing of nations begins with personal initiatives, often through individuals and low key relationships which later blossom at the level of leaders  – think of De Klerk and Mandela in South Africa.

This road to reconciliation is a rough one and frequently it leads to misunderstanding or rejection. In the case of Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s leader who reached out to Israel, it led to his assassination.

Tentative moves towards reconciliation don’t happen by accident. They usually require facilitators and encouragers.  Happily, there has been a significant growth of initiatives in this area – pioneered by people like the Manchester based Maranatha Community and the international St. Egidio Community.

One group, who call themselves “Road To Reconciliation” – and are made up of fifty political and spiritual leaders – have made a particular study of European involvement in China’s two Opium Wars and the Boxer Revolution. They say it’s now time to address the wrongs we committed.

They intend to travel to China in September and have arranged meetings with Chinese officials – at which they will address the destructive and humiliating role which Europeans played in those bloody events.

They know that we cannot undo the effects of British and American merchants smuggling opium into China in the mid nineteenth century, or the things which followed:  humiliating loss of sovereignty and the imposition of squalid treaties, like the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing and the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin; the deliberate undermining of the Chinese economy, by swamping it with cheap imports; the burning of the old Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing, by the British and French; the Taiping Revolution, which led to the deaths of between 20 and 50 million people; and, ultimately, the Boxer Revolution of 1900-1911, the abdication of the Emperor, the end of a 2,000 –year-old dynasty and the coming, in October 1949, of Mao Zedong and Communism.

No doubt when the delegation goes to China and admits our part in past crimes of history there will be a “loss of face” – but that is a concept readily understood in the East.  They will not get – and nor should they expect – any reciprocal expression of forgiveness.  But, as the beginning of a historic healing process, this act could be a regenerative and powerful one. And haven’t we always known that for healing to come between races and nations it has to start somewhere and that it has to begin with me?

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