An Empty Apology: Liturgies of Repentance & Risking Identity

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about apologies and repentance. On an inter-personal level, I recently received an apology from someone who said some very hurtful things to me. Collectively and institutionally speaking, I have lost count of how many articles, tweets, facebook posts, and blogs I have read by Christians calling for repentance in the face of Syria, Gaza, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown…and so many many more. I thought of the liturgies of repentance and lament that I’ve read and spoken in progressive white churches at times like this, times of great violence, grief, and fear. Indeed, having grown up in a church that gathered to worship God each Sunday without hardly a word said about what was going on in the world that this God created, I’ve been very grateful for these liturgies. I thought, at least there were white Christians who were gathering and naming the violence, the grief, the fear, the injustice, and their complicity in them. It was like a breath of air in the suffocating insulated apolitical worship scene of white Christianity.

What is an apology? From the Greek apologia the classical definition is “a speech in defense.” From there springs an entire genre called apologetics, essentially self-justifying speech. But what if we were to take a different etymological route with regards to the word apologia? What if we were to think of it as apo-logos where apo signifies a negation of logos, a dominant discourse?  What if an apology then were not a self-defensive speech used for the maintenance of something but a self-offensive or negating speech that effectively decomposes the logos in question? Such an apology would certainly be risky.

Bracket that for a moment. I will return to it shortly.

What is an empty apology? In contemporary nomenclature an empty apology is usually one that carries no weight: it is empty of regret, empty of sincerity, empty of change, and certainly seems empty of any kind of attempt to negate a dominant discourse.  Indeed, we usually acknowledge that empty apologies keep the current, dominant relation of things in place.  But again, in this thought experiment, I am thinking of a different understanding of “empty.” I am thinking of kenosis: self-emptying. What would constitute a self-emptying apology?

To put these two together: What is an empty apology? A self-emptying negation of a dominant discourse.

What does this mean? As my friend and fellow contributor to this blog, Tapji, articulated so aptly: “a good empty apology, if there were such a thing, would be an empty apology with no future, no expectation.  It would be a fragile apology. One that doesn’t do any work, or doesn’t intend to do any work. It’s more like a statement of decomposition. There’s no shift in responsibility; no movement from you to me.” (Thank you Tapji for helping me think through much of this post!)

Apologies, whether they are self-defensive or expressions of regret, have a way of imposing responsibility on the recipient whether intentionally or not. Particularly expressions of regret can be particularly culpable in this regard (next time you give or receive an apology for something listen closely to the rhetoric and look for subtle forms of self-defensive language and phrasing, it may surprise you). Apologies are weighty, as I suggested above. They are filled with the weight of regret, guilt, and all sorts of desires to do better next time, and to make right what has been wronged. Filled with all these things, apologies are weighty. Anyone who has offered a sincere apology has felt this weight in themselves. Certainly this weightiness can be harmful when bottled up and carried around. More could be said about this. But what I want to address here is the way in which the weightiness of apologies can further harm those it is meant to assuage, those to whom it is offered, those who have already been harmed. They do this by placing the onus of responsibility on the victim, the oppressed, the one who has been harmed, in an effort to alleviate the offender, oppressor, the one who has caused harm.  Most commonly, an apology is initiated as an exchange, with the expectation of forgiveness, grace, or something else in return. But with an empty apology, there is only a self-emptying negation of the dominant discourse, of that which caused the harm.  An empty apology, then, does not carry any weight: the burden of responsibility, the expectation, the exchange with the one who has been hurt. An empty apology, fragile in its lightness, bearing no future.

I am thinking of inter-personal apologies in part. But I am moreso thinking of apologies offered collectively or by institutions to groups of people for harm caused (Harper’s apology to residential school survivors, the churches’ apologies for residential and day schools). I am also thinking of liturgies of repentance that the church is constantly called to in the face of violence.  I am thinking of the call to repent of our complicity in socio-economic-political systems that marginalize people of colour and our participation in the discourses that perpetuate this. I’m thinking of the calls to repentance being made facing Indigenous genocide, colonialism, and missing and murdered Indigenous women. I’m thinking of the calls to repentance being made facing slavery, gentrification, and the murder of black bodies from lynching trees to the streets of Ferguson. White Christians are calling each other, themselves, to repentance. But what does this mean? The liturgies that are written that name our complicities in ongoing violence in the world, our countries, other countries, our cities, our backyards?

I have spoken these liturgies. I have written these liturgies. But I am wary of them. My wariness doesn’t simply stem from a pessimism towards apologies. I want to get at something else here. I want us to ask this of ourselves, of each other: when you participate in liturgies of repentance, are you aware of how much risk is involved?

Whiteness doesn’t need to risk its identity in repentance. I mean, it is not necessary for the survival of white bodies to risk their identities, their discourses, etc. in repentance.  One of the Hebrew words translated as “repent” in the Christian Old Testament is the word shuwb, which literally means “to return” or “turn back.” To turn back is risky. To turn back one one’s identity is risky. To empty oneself and negate dominant discourses is risky. To repent is risky.

The problem with apologies and with repentance is not that they don’t do enough, it’s that they do too much. Or rather, we think they do more than they do, we think they can effect social change. So often I see appeals to liturgies of repentance being made as a panacea for our complicity in violence.  But this whole frame of reference for measuring regret and change is problematic. I don’t think that we should therefore stop writing liturgies of lament, confession, repentance. I do want to think about how these liturgies interact with our identities.

I have proposed to think of apologies and repentance as self-emptying negation of dominance and turning, respectively. In this sense, repentance and apologies do nothing, no-thing (apo-logos).  Apologies and repentance risk their own efficacy by way of the kenotic gesture.  Thus an apology and repentance necessarily involves self-emptying, negating, decomposing ones identity.  What I mean by self-emptying negation is not self-effacement. I mean decentering oneself. And decentering means risking ones identity. When Whiteness is decentered it is destabilized.  This instability, this fragility risks decomposition. We might think of this decomposition as a kind of “turning” of identity (i.e., repentance).

So decentering identities on the one hand. On the other, identities are not static, they do not stand still. And so we must also think about the movement of identities, especially dominant ones that are decentering. The position of bodies matters vis a vis identities.  Inevitably, bodies take up space. The question then is one of posture and movement. Kenotic posture, apo-logos posture, is based on proximity. It requires standing in the same place with others and recognizing the violence of presence, of taking up space. And this kenotic posture moves negatively with relation to dominance. This movement is constituted again by decentering, by acting behind others, by stepping back (turning back), or by walking alongside them, by stepping to the side. This can also lead to the decomposition of dominant identities; because they are no longer centered, dominant identities become destabilized. This is the kenotic, self-emptying position of the fragile identity. The movement of repentance that negates the logos of whiteness and hetero-patriarchy by decentering itself, a kind of turning inside out.

I have no conclusion to write for this post. I leave my unfinished thoughts here. I only want to link to Osheta Moore’s poignant post “I Raise My Hands: A Prayerful Response to Ferguson” and invite you to think about whether and how you can indeed speak this prayer, and whether and how you will respond to her question at the end.



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