Home > Our World > News > News - Recent Headlines
Ethicists examine authenticity of public apologies

A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*

March 5, 2009

Are the recent public apologies heard from celebrities, athletes, government official and others accused of wrongdoing sincere or manufactured by publicists trying to minimizing the damage?

Bishop Kenneth Carder
Bishop Kenneth Carder

United Methodist ethicists and others answer the question with a yes and a no.

“I fear that apologies have become techniques for diminishing the consequences of behaviors that are destructive and damaging,” said Bishop Kenneth Carder, professor of the practice of Christian ministry at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School.

Apologies mean different things to different people, he said. In some cases, an apology can simply be a polite expression used for a relatively minor indiscretion. More often, he added, the phenomenon of today’s public apology is part of political spin or a mechanism used to repair public image or minimize damage.

Recent apologies in the news came from Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez, who apologized for using steroids; Olympic gold-medalist swimmer Michael Phelps, who apologized for smoking marijuana; The New York Post, which apologized for but defended a cartoon with racist images; and former U.S. Senator Tom Daschle, who apologized for not paying taxes that he owed.

“When apologies are deeply rooted in confession, contrition, a recognition of the damage that one has done and one’s implication in the hurt of others-- in the context of genuine repentance and confession with a goal of restoration of integrity, restoration of relationships and restitution for damage done, then apologies have depth,” Carder declared.

Acts of Confession

One way the church has failed the broader society “or contributed to this superficiality” of apologies, Carder said, is in not helping the broader culture know how to confess. “I am troubled by the elimination of prayers of confession in so many worship services,” he explained.

The Rev. Katie Cannon 
The Rev. Katie Cannon

At the heart of the Christian community is the practice of confession, assurance of forgiveness and reconciliation. “But, when we, as a church, no longer practice confession, forgiveness and accountability, we should not be surprised if the broader culture substitutes for genuine confession a political spin or superficial healing of wounds,” he said.

An apology of confession means a change of behavior or way of life so that misdeeds do not continue, Carder said.

“Authentic confession takes place in a community which holds me in love and holds me accountable,” he noted, referring to the model the early Methodist bands or small groups used when they asked one another what sins had been committed and temptations had been faced since they last met.

The rash of recent apologies has resulted in cynicism and skepticism, leaving the public to wonder if they are apologizing for their conduct or because they were caught.

“The apologies we hear today are mea culpa,” said the Rev. Katie Cannon. “ Repentance means being willing to make restitution or reparation and a sacrifice has to be offered and some good faith act needs to follow so that it is not cheap or an action that has no substance behind it.” Cannon is professor of Christian social ethics at Union Theological Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education, Richmond, Va.

The science of apology

The World Wide Web is full of sites that teach people how to apologize and promote the science of how to say “I’m sorry.” The slogan of one site is “saying I’m sorry is an act that can change the world.”

the Rev. Rosetta Ross
The Rev. Rosetta Ross

The Rev. J. Philip Wogaman said that while there is truth in the slogan, such Web sites might be indicators that “we have not made it a habit to say I’m sorry and we have not cultivated within ourselves the capacity, the grace or readiness to say I’m sorry.” Wogaman is a Christian ethicist and pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church, Omaha, Neb.

Cannon agreed. “Some basic human social skills are gone,” she said, noting that today’s high-tech culture has lost the ability to learn from human interaction. “We need these sites for education of the high-tech generation or for those who live their whole lives on the computer.”

She also agreed and disagreed with the “change the world” slogan. Change could come during one-on-one, face-to-face communication where one person has really trespassed on the other person and asked for forgiveness, she said. But just because someone apologizes, it does not mean that the victim of the offense has to accept it.

Web sites that teach the science of apology show that society has lost some measure of civility, according to the Rev. Rosetta Ross, dean of academic affairs at Howard University in Washington. Today’s culture has invested a lot in saying biting and hurtful things to people and such sites indicate a loss of appreciation for being kind, compassionate and sensitive, she said.

In an era where the idea of living with integrity is challenging for some people, the increase in incivility, antagonism, intolerance and self-centeredness “make for all types of offenses both to individuals and to society, so a lot of apologies follow.”

Change in behavior

Earlier in the year, news reports highlighted the apology given by a former Klux Klux Klansman to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who was a civil rights worker in the 1960s. The man attacked Lewis and nearly 50 years later he apologized to Lewis and to other African Americans for his numerous acts of hatred.

The Rev. J. Philip Wogaman
The Rev. J. Philip Wogaman

A true apology communicates that something has happened and is something that one would not willingly do again, Ross pointed out. “That he (the Klansman) apologized, even though it was 30 or more years later, was a reflection of behavioral change or a complete turnaround,” she said. “In terms of a public behavioral change, that obviously is one.”

The sincerity of other recent apologies is difficult to judge without looking at the immediate and progressive change in the individuals involved. “Otherwise, it is a patch for the public embarrassment or the loss of potential revenue,” she added.

One cannot always know the authenticity of an apology when judging the content of another person’s heart, Wogaman pointed out. An authentic apology does more than convey a sense of regretting a wrong, he said. Real people have been hurt and trust has been violated. “If they (apologies) are very vague in general, it conveys something less than a grasp of why it matters.”

According to Carder, apology involves some type of restitution. The depth of apology cannot be a technique to manipulate others. “It has to be deeper than a polite, magnanimous expression of regret,” he said.

A phenomena that Theodore Dalrymple calls the False Apology Syndrome relates to historical sins and the crimes of ancestors.

“A false apology is usually accompanied by bogus or insincere guilt, which is often confused with appropriate shame,” said Dalrymple, a physician and author of “Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses.”

“False Apology Syndrome is a therefore rich but poisonous mixture of self-importance, libertinism, condescension, bad faith, loose thinking, and indifference to the effects it has on those who are apologized to.”

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Related articles

I’m Sorry

A Real Apology Means You Won't Do it Again

I'm sorry for my bad apology

Are apologies good enough

The Ethics of Apologies


St. Luke United Methodist Church

Duke Divinity School

Howard University

Union Theological Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education

Ask Now

This will not reach a local church, district or conference office. InfoServ* staff will answer your question, or direct it to someone who can provide information and/or resources.


*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

Not receiving a reply?
Your Spam Blocker might not recognize our email address. Add this address to your list of approved senders.

Would you like to ask any questions about this story?ASK US NOW

Contact Us

This will not reach a local church, district or conference office. InfoServ* staff will answer your question, or direct it to someone who can provide information and/or resources.


*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

Not receiving a reply?
Your Spam Blocker might not recognize our email address. Add InfoServ@umcom.org to your list of approved senders.