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A scholar of forgiveness explains what makes a good public apology for sexual misconduct

Theologian L. Gregory Jones, the dean of the Duke University Divinity School, on why “forgiveness should always be a gift.” 

Chinese Catholics Worship As Pope Sends Rare Greetings to Nation’s Leader
Different cultures and faiths have different formalized rituals for repentance and forgiveness, such as confession in the Catholic tradition.
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What does redemption look like in the age of #MeToo?

From Louis C.K. returning to the stage to Paige Patterson returning to the pulpit, men accused of sexual harassment, misconduct, or sexism more broadly are going on what are, in essence, comeback tours.

Meanwhile, some defenders of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, now accused of two separate instances of sexual assault and misconduct in high school and college, have argued that Kavanaugh’s youth excuses his behavior. (Kavanaugh has denied both allegations). The American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher argued that to deny the possibility of forgiveness and rehabilitation to youthful sexual offenders sets a “terrible standard” for public life.

But what forms should rehabilitation and forgiveness take? How can we, as a society, establish processes and procedures by which offenders can make restitution for their actions?

In some cases, like that of Harvey Weinstein, in which the accused are facing criminal charges, the path forward seems clear; there is a system in place designed to provide some form of justice, judgment, and rehabilitation.

But what about those who have been accused of behavior that is unethical but not criminal (or, at least, not prosecutable)? What do we want from them — and what would a sincere example of rehabilitation look like?

I spoke with L. Gregory Jones, PhD, the dean of Duke University Divinity School and author of numerous books about the nature of forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Tara Isabella Burton

So let’s start more broadly. How do you conceive of the role of forgiveness in society more generally? What does forgiveness look like? What are the mechanics of it, and what purpose does it serve both individually and societally?

L. Gregory Jones

Forgiveness is really crucial to find paths forward in the midst of brokenness, pain, suffering, wrongdoing, but it’s both a gift that is offered and something that requires a commitment to repentance, to be received well. So it’s an important way to chart a path for the future, but there also needs to be accountability for that to not be cheap and superficial.

Desmond Tutu said “there’s no future without forgiveness,” and I think that’s really important. And yet too often, it’s cheapened by a sense that it doesn’t involve accountability or penance on the part of the person has done wrong.

Tara Isabella Burton

In a 2013 talk you gave for the Faith Angle Forum on forgiveness, you discuss the way repentance and forgiveness have been commodified by PR experts. You say “forgiveness is often used as a way to excuse the past and to spin sorrow, largely as a PR way of managing a crisis,” and argue that “the fact that a lot of the characters who spin their sorrow are actually narcissists, and the problem is that narcissism makes forgiveness and repentance exceedingly difficult because the person lacks the capacity for empathy.” Assuming we can’t actually get inside a person’s head, how can we tell the difference?

L. Gregory Jones

It’s really hard to know in the moment, because what you have initially are words and then you’d have to see if the words actually match deed and emotions. One of the keys, though, that I would say is whether the words have authenticity to them.

A lot of the way of what I call “spinning sorrow” happens is when people craft a language that goes, “If people were offended, I’m sorry.” That word, “if,” usually suggests a hedging of responsibility. When someone says, “I’m sorry for what I did,” or, “I’m sorry that I harmed you,” there’s a much greater level of accountability than the kind of spin that says, “Well, I’m sorry if you had your feelings hurt.”

So the first step is: Is there a kind of owning of the responsibility by the person who did the wrongdoing? And then the second thing is: Is it followed by both actions and emotions that would convey an acknowledgment of that wrongdoing and a desire to either redress the wrongdoing or at least show that it won’t ever happen again?

Tara Isabella Burton

So, something I’m very curious about is the twofold nature of repentance in, let’s say, the #MeToo movement, or any kind of public exposure of wrongdoing. There’s the process of forgiveness or reconciliation between the victim and the accuser. And there’s a separate issue — the public apology — a demand to make restitution, in some sense, to the community. How do those two processes work together, and how do they differ? What does an accused sexual harasser owe to his victim, versus to society at large?

L. Gregory Jones

The most important step should be in terms of an apology or repentance to the person or people who’ve been harmed. That’s the most important step in the process. The broader recognition of society is really a way of saying, “I accept that my responsibility has had consequences beyond the victim himself or herself or themselves.” It’s to say that “I acknowledge that what I have done harms folks indirectly as well as people directly.” What you really want is a full-throated apology that both says, “I harmed this person, or these people directly,” and, “I’ve also compromised standards that really matter to society, and so hurt a lot of people indirectly.”

Tara Isabella Burton

So let’s transition here to talking about those societal standards. When it comes to something like #MeToo, we have two issues at stake. One is the individual responsibility of alleged abusers for their actions. The other is the responsibility of a patriarchal society that has, at least until recently, normalized behavior and promoted toxic attitudes. When we talk about responsibility and rehabilitation, how do we balance these two senses of responsibility without either “excusing” away the behavior of the abuser or failing to sufficiently weigh the vast nature of collective guilt?

L. Gregory Jones

I think it depends to a certain degree on how egregious the wrongdoing is. To what extent the conscience of a person should be stronger even than a broken or corrupt or distorted culture. There are some things that are gray areas, and that’s where the line that you’re asking about is difficult to draw, in terms of what would have been a normal cultural assumption — and so understandable, if still regrettable, the way ordinary people had bad assumptions and bad habit.

I think most of the time, particularly at the societal level, it takes the more egregious examples that highlight a lot more of the gray area. I don’t think there’s any doubt, for example, that Harvey Weinstein’s behavior was reprehensible in relation to a lot of women over a long period of time. Even in a culture where the standards may have been different, he still was way beyond acceptable.

That is a hallmark to then start looking at more of the gray areas. Every case is different, and you have to look at the particularities of every situation. I don’t think in general we ought to excuse bad behavior because of cultural assumptions. Even though it might mitigate the forcefulness with which we judge that behavior to have been wrong.

Tara Isabella Burton

Can you think of any stories of rehabilitation and repentance from the #MeToo era that you’d hold up as a model of what a good example of the forgiveness process looks like?

L. Gregory Jones

I can think of a lot more bad examples. The challenge is that the best examples of repentance don’t require a public outcry and exposure, but wanting to clear one’s conscience on their own. Rather than waiting to be found out by somebody, somebody who would take the initiative and say, “I’ve got this in my past and I want to come clean about that.” That’s a much harder task to do, and particularly in this environment, it’s risky because things often feel much more punitive than focused on real rehabilitation. The environment makes it harder when it looks like, as soon as somebody is accused, there’s a rush to judgment.

But in general, much of the #MeToo movement has been an important moment of women acknowledging pain and events that have been kept quiet or buried for many decades. And now being able to talk about it, because the social circumstances have changed, is the most important step. What I wish was happening is more perpetrators wanting to come clean rather than waiting for something to become a very public and dramatic thing.

Tara Isabella Burton

Okay, so let’s speak a little more broadly, not about those accused of sexual misconduct but more generally. What’s a good example of a rehabilitative process?

L. Gregory Jones

What I would point to is actually, I think, probably the process in South Africa [after apartheid] had very good impact — the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. People who came forth and confessed to significant wrongdoing — sexual, violent, financial. There was a process of both confession and acknowledgment of responsibility and a genuine desire for reconciliation with victims. The process had a huge amount of integrity to it. The victims often showed considerable heroism in being willing to take steps toward a different kind of future. The difference I see there was that there was really a quite well-structured and well-designed concept to enable that to happen. It was almost like a secular liturgy.

We have much less of that in the US; far more of it has been a kind of dynamic where somebody does wrong, their PR team comes out with a kind of “sorry people were offended.” They take a ritual departure for a few months, then resurface again on a kind of “now I’m much better” tour. But it doesn’t have much of a genuine process of repentance or desire to live literally into the future. Forgiveness isn’t only about healing the past; it’s also about creating a different kind of future. We’re not very good as a culture right now about transposing the healing of the past into pointing to a different future.

Tara Isabella Burton

I’m struck by a word in your answer there: “liturgy,” a word we usually associate with, say, the ritualistic structure of a Catholic Mass. In your 2013 talk, you quote a book by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who says we’ve lost a sense of remorse as a culture. And, of course, forgiveness and repentance often have quite specific, ritualized forms within theological contexts: confession in a Catholic Church, say, or Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition.

But, of course, we’re living in an increasingly religiously diverse and in many ways increasingly secular society. To what extent are some of our difficulties figuring out how to conceptualize repentance, as a society, the result of lacking a cohesive, shared vocabulary within which to contextualize what forgiveness and repentance mean?

L. Gregory Jones

In countries like the US or South Africa where you have multiple faiths, you nonetheless have a sense — and this is kind of the power that Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu exhibited in South Africa, or Abraham Lincoln had in the US — that the future involves some kind of healing of the past, and forgiveness, and in the process of doing that, you need some kind of ritual or liturgy to make that possible. It doesn’t have to be theological or religion-specific, but something that has a clear formula.

The courtroom has its own version of liturgies. As do some restorative justice processes. The point is to say that when possible, even without any convictions about God, a process that enables somebody to confess and somebody else to release them from the burden of that in a [formalized] process of exchange of words spoken or some kind of relationship repair.

In Yom Kippur, for example, there is a ritualized approach that’s designed to create a structure designed to make reconciliation more likely than not. We depend on those kinds of rituals. You even see them in [old-style] etiquette books like Gloria Vanderbilt’s — some of the assumptions of forgiveness articulated in those rituals. The problem is that we’ve lost most of those rituals, even in a secular sense, and that’s weakened us as a culture as a whole. In a religious or secular context, there’s something that inspires us about seeing somebody doing that: offering forgiveness.

Tara Isabella Burton

There’s been a wealth of literature, though, about — particularly for women in instances of sexual abuse — the glorification of forgiveness that puts an undue burden on victims to re-traumatize themselves in order to heal a community. A woman is pressured to forgive her abuser, and thus becomes doubly victimized by the idea that his rehabilitation is her job. How do we avoid that pitfall?

L. Gregory Jones

I think it’s important to remember that forgiveness should always be a gift and not an expectation. It’s unfair to expect any person who has been victimized, especially if it’s raw, to be ready to forgive.

And — this is particularly important in domestic violence and other kinds of forgiveness — the expectation of forgiveness is also used as a weapon to punish and perpetuate a cycle. It’s often the case in domestic violence, for example, where the abuser will come and say, “you need to forgive me because you’re a Christian” and the person feels obligated to do that. All that does is perpetuate and intensify the violence rather than remedying it.

To even have it be viable expectation as a societal level, forgiveness needs to be understood as the offer of a gift, and it needs to be linked to a presumption that the other party or parties are going to engage in repentance. And that’s not just a onetime gesture. It’s a commitment to a different way of life.

Tara Isabella Burton

As I scan the media in recent weeks, reading about, say, Louis C.K.’s return to comedy or Matt Lauer’s attempt to return to TV, there’s a lot of discourse about “are we ready for this?” Well, who is we? Who gets to officially make that call about who gets rehabilitated, or gets to return to public life or employment, and when? We don’t really have a cohesive society sense of authority — of who is the person or body who gets to make that call.

L. Gregory Jones

It’s the tail end of celebrity culture. The whole process is messed up. There’s not any kind of decision-making or authority other than what people think can be tolerated or what pushback there is going to be. I think the deeper question is, when there’s a broader organization, the expectation should be embedded in the whole organization.

So for Matt Lauer, say, [the question] isn’t whether he can come back and be a celebrity again, but rather what kind of organization NBC wants to be. What kind of expectations does it have embedded in its culture for its employees across the board. Lauer should be held as accountable as a person working in the mailroom. The questions about rehabilitation is, what would it mean for them to still be a viable member of a community?

There is a danger of holding people too accountable — for which there’s never any opportunity for redemption. The greatest example of this is in the book and Broadway musical Les Misérables [the story of an escaped convict, Jean Valjean, and the police officer, Javert, who doggedly pursues him]. Javert is literally hell-bent on ensuring that Jean Valjean never has a future anywhere with anyone at any time. And that can be as destructive as a kind of spinning sorrow that says, “Just stay out of the public limelight for two or three months and you can come right back.”

We need a broader and healthier discussion about the dynamics of forgiveness, repentance, and community — in organizations and more broadly — and to recognize that every case is different. We need to look at every instance as it occurs, in public or our personal lives, and recognize the differences and the complexity. So it’s not that we have a conversation [and] then we know how to apply the rule in every circumstance. We have to develop the kind of practical wisdom of both the broader conversation and then the ability to make very careful distinctions.