Confessions and burnt Qurans

In the wake of the burning of Qurans at a NATO military base in Afghanistan, the Afghan reaction and the controversy over President Barack Obama's apology, I am reminded of a recent article by Paul Wilkes that appeared on the Huffington Post. Wilkes notes the extent to which contemporary culture conflates confession with weakness. He writes, “Because it has been so trivialized, confession has lost its power and vitality. In our society today to confess is often considered foolish, weak, even corrosive to our self-esteem, unnecessary.”

Recent comments on the Quran burning controversy by some politicians seem to bear this out, but I wonder how we seem to have lost our way in this regard. Far from equating confession with weakness, I was raised to believe just the opposite. In fact, one of my formative moments as a child reflects the strength that confession requires.

When I was in fourth grade, I decided to impress my friends by pulling a false fire alarm. As the fire box began to buzz, we all ran away in a rush of nervous energy. For that moment, I was the coolest kid on the block. A few minutes later, though, an overheard phone conversation had me caught and waiting nervously for my father to arrive and punish me. I was prepared for a whooping, but what I got was much worse. My father walked in the door and asked me to come with him. Hopping in the car I was confused, for he was neither yelling nor visibly upset. Was I getting off easy? Was I not going to get the belt? What on earth was going on?

A few (silent) minutes later, we had parked at the Fire Department. What Dad had planned for me was far worse than any spanking could ever be, as I was to knock on the door, introduce myself, admit what I had done and apologize. As it turns out, I was crying before the door was even opened. At that moment, I learned a lesson that is apparently lost, at least according to Wilkes, on most people: confession requires strength because it is difficult.

In the dust-up resulting from the accidental burning of the Qurans, presidential candidate Rick Santorum has suggested that not only did apologizing show weakness on behalf of Obama, but also that an apology was not necessary. Apparently, the president did not need to apologize because the act was both not deliberate and less offensive than the response to it. Despite the fact that I was under the impression that the appropriateness of an apology is unaffected by whether the offending act was deliberate, I am stunned that someone who claims to understand the importance of Christianity in the public sphere could so publicly ignore one of the central tenets of the faith. That is, what exactly is Christian about refusing to admit a mistake? What is so Christian about ignoring the need for both confession and forgiveness?

As a Christian, a parent and a thinking adult, I realize the importance of being strong enough to admit when I have made a mistake and apologize for it, regardless of whether I have also been wronged. This is something I am trying to teach my 4-year-old daughter (and she seems to be grasping the concept quite well). I also understand that recognizing your own sin is the first step in the redemptive process that is the Good News. In this regard, I find Luke 18 instructive. We learn that honest confession “justifies us before God,” but we also learn the danger of ignoring our own sins at the expense of focusing on those of others.

As we watch the news and consider Obama's apology, let us consider only our own mistakes, not the sins of others against us, so to make prophetic Wilkes' words: "Confession, as I seek to redefine it … is wise and strong and necessary, unburdening both the soul and the psyche to live a forthright, productive and fuller life. Confession is not only for those who have committed some great public or private 'sin.' For most of us, our 'little murders' - our duplicities, the daily hurts, neglects, and carelessness we inflict upon others and upon ourselves - need to be confronted and acknowledged.”

What Do You Think?

  • Did you feel Obama's apology over the Quran incident was appropriate?
  • Do you see confession as a sign of strength or weakness?
  • What role has confession played in your faith life?

 

Comments (4)

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Obama's apology actually reminded me of Abigail's apology for Nabal. David's reponse was "Thank God for your good sense! Bless you for keeping me from murder and from carrying out vengeance with my own hands." I Sam. 25:33. Maybe Afghanistan needs a David.

That said, I think as a culture we sometimes associate "I said I was sorry" with the idea that we are now off the hook for any consequences, like a trump card to play if you get caught doing something you know is wrong.
I think we need to differentiate between personal relationships and national relationships, especially with those who have stated they want to destroy us...
This was well written and the analogy was equally as impressive. As a youth minister, I think about how often my youth end up in fights over someone offending them or vice versa and how it takes nothing away to see the other person's point of view on a given situation and to simply apologize because if intentional or not a person's feelings are at stake.
I think it's very important to distinguish between apologizing and confession; this article seems to use the two interchangeably, but they're not. Confession does require strength of character and I think the author is spot on in his story about the fire alarm. But it also requires actual guilt (either intentional or through carelessness).

Apologizing requires no guilt; it is an acknowledgment that my actions harmed you, or even more generally that someone was harmed. When a student recently told me her grandfather had been diagnosed with cancer, my first response was to say "I'm sorry" - not because I'd done wrong, but because of the pain I knew was ahead for her. Apologies like this are submissive, because they give the other person's needs and feelings precedence over our own. But that is not weak either.

I think the president was right to apologize for practical reasons and for moral ones. War involves accidents like this and we went into a foreign culture in order to make ourselves more free. Apologizing for harm we cause along the way is the right thing to do and needn't imply that that harm was caused by any particular wrong-doing on our part, at least beyond the issue of being there in the first place. (I'm not saying the war is right or wrong; I am saying that war always brings suffering, often on those people who don't deserve it and as a result of our choice to go to war. So there are moral issues there.)

 

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