Saying sorry

Saying sorry

Politicians and celebrities have developed a very special mode of apology. Routinely they say “I’m sorry for any offence I might have caused”. This is pretty offensive in itself. It shifts the burden of regret from whatever was said or done to the reactions of the offended, and of course apologies are always easy when the words are so cheap.

Incidentally there’s a common Protestant misunderstanding of the Catholic act of penance, a misplaced assumption that all you have to do is say you’re sorry and your sin is washed away. I’m not much of a Catholic these days but really the belief here deserves a bit more respect. For absolution to be given Catholic doctrine demands not only true repentance, but also restitution if this is possible.

Critics, and some priests, like to emphasise the sin, the burden of guilt but more enlightened Catholic thinking demands a bit of self-compassion, a little more understanding and a little less judgement.

This I guess is a good thing to bear in mind as we’re forced to regard the moral turpitude of so many in our political classes, and those who prop them up. Then again, since they’ve placed themselves in the public eye and since their actions and words can have serious consequences for so many people there are plenty of occasions when we should be demanding blood.

Oliver Letwin is the latest offender, called out for some obnoxious remarks written in a private memo 30 years ago about the moral qualities of black people in North London. Letwin is now an advisor to David Cameron, as well as an MP, and has as usual apologised for the offence these remarks may have caused. Opponents are calling for his resignation.

Others have argued that you shouldn’t be judged on things you said 30 years ago, but that’s where the nature of the apology matters. If Letwin had said something like “I apologise unreservedly for the stupid things I wrote 30 years ago and their baleful influence on public policy – I am now working with the Prime Minister and others to reverse those consequences”, then I think we should forgive him, and judge him on the work of restitution.

Instead of course not only did he attempt to shift attention to the sensibilities of the offended, but even tried to excuse himself by saying his words had simply been badly chosen. This is patent hogwash: Letwin may be many things but he’s not inarticulate, and there’s no reason to accept that he meant anything other than all he wrote.

He should be sacked, as an important gesture of disavowal but he won’t be, because Cameron believes in the power of weasel words and despite some public posturing probably doesn’t care too much about a bit of casual racism. So the debasement of public life continues.

Easter on-message

Easter on-message

It says something about our times that just about the most plangent critiques of the state we’re in are coming not from political leaders but from Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile we’re told our prime minister, who has kicked off his election campaign with an unprecedented series of unabashed lies, took his place on Easter morning in church near his home in Oxfordshire.

Perhaps he believes sincerely that he’s building a society in which people take better responsibility for their lives, and that this is somehow in keeping with the Christian message. I know conservatives with an upper and lower case “c” do believe this sort of thing, though it’s a position that can only be sustained by ignoring quite a lot that Christ is reported to have said. But the lies are inexcusable by any Christian standard. An “h” word comes to mind for Mr Cameron, and it’s not humility.

I wouldn’t call myself a Christian these days, though was I brought up as a Catholic and indeed until about ten years ago was a practising member of the Church. Even when I was practising I thought Catholic ideas about life after death were at best ridiculous, and I wanted no truck with their bigoted ideas about women or homosexuality, or indeed sexuality generally. After many years these contradictions became too difficult to bear and I went my own way.

I’m still on that way, even if I can broadly welcome signs that the Pope wants to set the church on a different course from his predecessors.

But the contrast between our political and religious leaders also bears thinking about.

It’s worth thinking about in the light of the good things that most religions have in common. I’m well aware in saying this that historically and still in many ways today religion can foster crude judgementalism and some crazy ideas about how things are, that it can be divisive and full of hate (even while preaching love). I don’t want to excuse any of this. What’s more, because we can say nothing sensible about life after death, and because the eschatological ideas religions have put forward are apparently driven by a mixture of self-interest and wishful thinking the only sensible thing we can do is say nothing at all about heaven, hell, reincarnation or whatever other stories we’ve made up to comfort ourselves or give us power over others.

The “good thing” I want to focus on is a kind of disposition towards experience, common to all major faiths from Buddhism to Islam. It could be summed up by the notion of “love” though I think that notion needs some unpacking. It’s an openness to the needs and diverse nature of others, an acceptance of our responsibilities towards others; it’s a joyful sense of wonder at the world, a wonder rooted in an awareness of that world’s indifference to us.

There’s a paradox here. We need to embrace our own irrelevance in a bigger scheme of things while seeing the being of others as insistently important. This contradiction is more apparent than real though it’s difficulty has some bearing on the frequently twisted knickers of religious thought.

It feels very like a sense of gratitude, though gratitude requires an object, a being we can be grateful to, and perhaps this is part of the reason why we have had to construct a notion of a creator in our own image (because we need a human-like object to carry this kind of emotion, an entity which at least in our imaginations could offer the reciprocity on which our moral feelings generally depend). But then we can understand this emotion as being like gratitude, without it needing to be gratitude; it could be better understood as a kind of gladness.

Clearly you don’t have to be religious to feel these things, and some religious people don’t seem to feel even this much. There are other good aspects to religious feeling which go beyond or deeper than this generalised disposition to love, and specifically to love the fact that the world is bigger and more enriching than the small circles of our own lives. But it is one of the defining characteristics of good people, including religiously good people, and it carries obligations to other people which our neo-liberal political orthodoxies have tried to sideline.

It stands too in opposition to crude materialist or mechanistic views of how we see ourselves: this is not to usher in any kind of mysticism, but to note that a crude materialism certainly under-describes common human experience. We need a better answer to that crudity than fantasies of universal connections; we need to be careful to describe our experience fully while being mindful of the limits of what can be sensibly said.

This disposition underpins the way Pope Francis and Justin Welby see the world, and it’s taken them to a place of opposition to the political mainstream.

You might say that politicians need to concern themselves with more practical things. I’d argue that their approach to practical things (at least in the West) in the last thirty years has been dogmatically detached from reality. Moreover, the separation of personal ethics from political decisions has very clearly not improved those decisions. I don’t suppose the Catholic Tony Blair would ever pick up a gun and start shooting strangers, and yet he was prepared to support a chain of events where this slaughter was always going to be part of the outcome.

As for Cameron and his lies, no doubt he’d see them as part of a game that must be played for what he believes is a greater good. But in this he is as deluded as he is deluding. We need our politicians to throw off their blinkers. Perhaps then they might start offering us an authentic vision of how even the political world could be inspiring.

This is a big (and important) subject. Your ideas and comments would be very welcome.

The image, by the way, is a painting by my brother Mark, which he presented as an Easter greeting to his many loved ones. If you like it you can find more of his work at