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A Lesson on Apology for Soldiers and Diplomats - Religious Context Driven Differences
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Article Index
A Lesson on Apology for Soldiers and Diplomats
Religious Context Driven Differences
Recommendations and Conclusion
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Religious Context Driven Differences
Differences in religious heritage contribute significantly to differences in forms for apology. In Christian tradition, God forgives sins when his people confess them and take responsibility for them. Accordingly, no one can make restitution for his or her own sins. Only God can do that. Theologically, it's called "substititionary atonement." Historically, it involves the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. As a result, in personal and corporate relationships, restitution frequently comes through third parties like the government or insurance companies rather than directly from the responsible parties. Relationships are often restored with no restitution occurring at all. American apologies typically require the words "I was wrong" (confession), and "I am sorry" (regret). Often they include the words, "I will try not to do that again" (repentance).


Apologies in most of the rest of the world do not require these words of confession and accountability. To an American, omitting these sentiments would not really be an apology. And yet reconciliation happens all the time around the world in families and between tribes without anyone ever admitting guilt or accepting responsibility.

In American culture, the main glue of relationships is trust, an important ideal in relationships is innocence, and a major destroyer of relationships is guilt. In most of the rest of the world's cultures, the main glue is respect, an important ideal is honor, and a major destroyer is shame. American apologies seek to restore trust. For Americans, humbly admitting guilt enhances trustworthiness. Apologies in most other cultures seek to restore respect. Respectability involves honor, status, and appearances. Admitting guilt takes humility and undermines honor.

In both Christianity and Islam, relationship with God begins with identity as God's people through profession of faith. In Muslim tradition, however, God forgives the sins of his people when they demonstrate that they are good Muslims by performing the ritual works of Islam (like the five pillars of Islam: fasting, praying, pilgrimage, alms giving, and reciting the creed). Confession is not necessary. Respectability is maintained. Humiliation is avoided. God forgives sins based upon good deeds outweighing bad ones.

The equivalent form in personal and corporate relationships is making restitution and asking for forgiveness. Restitution is like a good deed. It affirms the dignity of both parties. Just as a government or insurance company can restore what has been lost without being at fault for someone else's wrong-doing, a wrong-doer can restore what has been lost without ever admitting responsibility. Asking for forgiveness is different than saying "I am sorry." It surrenders control to the other party. It moves responsibility for restoring relationship from the guilty party to the offended party. It admits to imperfection, but it does not admit to all of the details of the offense. That kind of detail would be a confession.

Making restitution and asking for forgiveness, while blaming circumstances or others in order to avoid responsibility, is the principle apology form in cultures with Muslim majorities. In many years of living and working among Muslims, I have rarely heard a Muslim say "I am sorry," but I hear them asking for forgiveness all the time. In fact, requesting forgiveness from friends and relatives is an important feature in Muslim holiday celebrations. Humility in cultures with Muslim majorities isn't demonstrated in the ability to admit faults but in the ability to depend upon grace from others to forgive faults that remain unconfessed. From the perspective of the people in these cultures, it is the American form for apology that sabotages reconciliation by undermining the dignity of the parties who need to reconcile. It publicly humiliates one party, it embarrasses the other, and it gives relational control to the offender rather than to the offended.

Some Practical Implications
These different forms for apologizing have different strengths and weaknesses. One form may even be objectively better than another. One may spark better social harmony than the other. For example, when reconciliation depends primarily on repentance, its highest price becomes humility. On the other hand, when it depends heavily upon restitution, a satisfactory price for justice may be too high to pay. However, such comparisons are irrelevant to diplomacy and stability in places like Afghanistan where Americans are not called to change religiously grounded
reconciliation systems but to work within what's there. American entities must accommodate the preferred apology form of the culture with which they are dealing.

The consequences of failing to respond in a culturally-appropriate manner were demonstrated in Mosul, Iraq, in early 2009. A civilian sedan drove deliberately in front of aheavy American tracked vehicle as it was on patrol. The automobile driver and achild passenger were killed. The Americans made restitution to the family of the child
and driver. They also apologized to the family and community by saying that they regretted causing the unfortunate accident. However, the insurgency-affiliated driver had deliberately driven in front of the Army vehicle in order to cause the collision. Antigovernment elements had actually staged the incident to inflame hostility towards the Americans.

The American admission of responsibility actually played into the hands of insurgents who were waging an information campaign against the Americans and against the American-supported Iraqi government. On the very day that the American battalion commander of the unit that had been involved in the accident was on his way to meet with community leaders to underscore his apology and deliver compensation, a member of the dead child's family exacted revenge by driving into the commander's vehicle with an explosive-packed car that killed the commander.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 April 2013 15:36