On admitting guilt and offering forgiveness

By , 17 October 2008 8:13 pm

There’s a lot to be said for a careful reading of the popular press and a careful listening to what people say on the TV and radio. Getting dressed this morning, I listened to the excellent Today programme on BBC Radio Four where the redoubtable editor John Humphrys was interviewing Angela Knight, head of the British Bankers’ Association. Towards the end of the interview he said it was an awful pity that the head of one of these banks would not come onto his programme and admit they had made dreadful mistakes and offer to make it up. The smooth answer came back: ‘John, let me tell you that there is not a single person in the banking industry who is not extremely concerned about the state of things.’ And despite further pressure that was as far it went: no admission of guilt, no confession, only an expression of that wonderfully ambiguous concern. Concern about what one wondered – loss of reputation? loss of earnings? Who knows?

And of course isn’t that the way of the world today? Admission of guilt is extremely rare. We try not to even say sorry. There has been a recent and rather sordid case involving the head of Formula One and what was claimed to be a Nazi-themed orgy. What has emerged in the legal cases (and, friends, I have not followed it closely) is that there is no question that this married man was involved in the orgy; only the Nazi theme is disputed. The upshot though is striking: far from admitting any wrongdoing, the man concerned is now brazenly trying to implement legal measures to prevent newspapers reporting anything that infringes on an individual’s privacy without consulting them first.

I’m reminded of my conversations with the number of Lebanese in the 1990s about what history calls the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-88, in which some appalling events took place. (I know: I was there for some of it). ‘Oh it wasn’t our war,’ they would say dismissively with a shrug of the shoulders, ‘it was the others. The Israelis and the Syrians (or the Palestinians) fought each other on our territory. We were innocent bystanders.’ Well, of course that is a big, bold lie; many Lebanese were active participants. But denial is easier than admission of guilt.

Let me make one obvious, and one less obvious, point. The obvious point is this: although denial of guilt is attractive, it is not a wise strategy. To deny that you are ill is one of the few things that utterly rules out any possibility of healing and to reject guilt is to completely eliminate the possibility of forgiveness. The less obvious point is this: admission of guilt is only really likely where there is a culture of forgiveness. The problem is that we are now in a post-Christian culture where any idea of forgiveness has largely been overlooked. The result is a vicious circle: to admit guilt is to invite a merciless punishment so we don’t admit guilt. We have no culture of forgiveness so we do not dare to seek forgiveness.

I have no idea which comes first: the readiness to forgive or the readiness to admit guilt but we need desperately to bring back both.


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