Thursday, March 13, 2008

The modern apology

In the news this week, moral crusader Governor Spitzer was caught frequenting very expensive call girls. Amidst this, he offered the prototypic modern apology: "I have ... failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself."

This type of apology has both practical & theological implications.

Practically, it's a great way to get out of trouble and still look good. Basically, there's nothing wrong with the person, in fact they should be praised for having such high ideals, they just didn't quite achieve them--like one doesn't quite make a new year's resolution. Think of how useful this is:

When I mess up at home & with the family (a fairly frequent occurrence): "I'm sorry that I did not live up to my standard of being a fabulous, wonderful and all around outstanding husband and father."

When I forget or am late doing delivering on an obligation at work (again not infrequent): "I didn't live up to my own expectations of being one of the premier faculty members on campus--an ideal professor and colleague."

Theologically, it's a way of affirming the individual's moral correctness by casting the action as an almost unexpected deviation from an otherwise morally-outstanding life. Basically it reaffirms the person's belief that they are indeed a fine person. "I was, and am, a good person, but somehow this happened." What a wonderfully modern moral sentiment--self-esteem held on to unto the end.

In contrast, Christianity, as I understand it (and that's a big caveat...) holds that we are already a moral mess, have been, will be, and it's only by grace that we can leave it behind. We're always broken, and any good that we manifest is close to miraculous. Basically, the person is bad, and any moral rightness is a gift.

From this perspective, Spitzer would have been more accurate to say: "I am a lying, cheating, morally-bankrupt person who has abused the privileges of my office and the love of my family. I have consciously broken all that is good in my life. I am a fraud, and I need help."

As Christians, we can't get too caught up on condemning Spitzer or others because the same words apply to us as well. Our response to others immorality is "there but for the grace of God go I."

Our response to our own immorality: "duh."


J. R. Miller said...

It reminds me of Romans 2

2 1 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. 12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

Benjamin said...

Good stuff Brad, though I would caution against the hyper-Calvinist theological claim that we are incapable of doing good.

It creates the bizarre (and unhealthy, let alone untrue) idea that everything we do that is good is because of God and everything we do bad is because of us. But the scriptures are actually pretty clear that we are capable of good (ethcially, morally, aescetically), creativity, innovation, etc. In fact, this is part of what it means to be created in the image of God (imago dei).

While certainly that image has been marred by original sin (and our own sin), it has not been fully destroyed.

The parable of the Talents and Matthew 25, etc, all imply that Jesus expects that we can, in fact, create good--and that we are responsible to do that! And as redeemed people, we certainly have that responsibility! (already and not yet, of course).

Even Paul's argument in Romans supports this idea. Grace is that we are still alive at all ("for the wages of sin is death...) and given that God has graced us with life, how to we respond? How do we worship him?

I think it is a dangerous path when Christians begin to see themselves of only capable of failure, sin, and the negative.

That said, I certainly appreciate your call for grace in light of Spizter, et al.


Brad Wright said...

Thank you JR... seems relevant.

Hey Ben, yeah, you're right, this post overstates the matter. I agree that good comes from God's image, both in-born and situationally-given.

Still, the larger point, I think, is that Christians might buy into the idea that we're so good it's a surprise when we do bad, and our own moral standard should be praised.

Benjamin said...

Fair point Brad, though in my experience, in today's church the problem is more likely a "oh-is-me-resigned-to-sin" theology or a defeated approach to the Christian life or a excuse not to be held accountable for sins of omission, as much as sins of commission...

At least that is what I see among younger Christians more than a moral self-righteousness or naive approach to sin and our own capacity for it.

Interesting stuff...

Doing Better Than I Deserve said...


There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Janet said...

I definitely appreciate your version of the apology more than the original. It's more honest and authentic.