One fun thing about being a young preacher is that I have many “first” sermons: a first Christmas Eve sermon, a first sermon without notes, and many first sermons from different books of the bible.
Last week I had the opportunity for two first sermons: my first Ash Wednesday sermon and my first sermon to the congregation where I received my baptism, Conyers First United Methodist Church (UMC). While Jesus said, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown,” they accepted me and the challenging message of Ash Wednesday with open hearts.
The truth about ourselves
Some of you know that I majored in political science in college and worked on a political campaign just before I headed off to seminary. I’ve always enjoyed keeping up with politics. I love campaigns and elections. And while I rarely watch sports on television, I love following the always-changing nature of the political world through the news, debates, and the fast moving world of twitter. But like many of you, there are times when I get disillusioned and discouraged with the current political landscape. And the times I get most down about things are when I hear a non-apology apology from a politician.
Now I wasn’t aware that there was a proper title for these types of apologies until I began working on this sermon. And while you may not have heard of a non-apology apology before, I think you’ll know one when you hear it.
Here’s one that was offered by Congressman Joe Barton after he made a controversial statement about the government’s dealings with BP in the midst of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a while back. Congressman Barton lamented, “If anything I have said this morning has been misconstrued to the opposite effect, I want to apologize for that misconstrued misconstruction.”
Or there’s this one from the chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, John Sununu, after he was caught violating some White House travel rules. He stated, “Clearly, no one regrets more than I do the appearance of impropriety. Obviously, some mistakes were made.”
But as you probably know, non-apology apologies aren’t just limited to the political realm. When Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunctioned at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show Justin Timberlake’s agent offered this apology, “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance.”
Scholars have even documented the common features of the non-apology apology and have defined a few characteristics that are common among them. First, they tend to offer a vague and incomplete acknowledgement of the offense. Second, they usually use phrases like, “I’m sorry that you were offended.” Third, they tend to minimize the offense. And finally they tend to question whether a victim has actually been harmed or damaged.
I don’t need to spend all this time explaining this phenomenon, because if you’re like myself, you’ve probably had decent practice forming these types of apologies yourself. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but if I did…” “It’s regrettable that our relationship ended this way…” “I guess I was wrong.”