February 13 is the Anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations
As we approach a Federal Election and reflect on the last twenty years of government, it is hard to think of a more encouraging action by any government than the Apology made by the then Prime Minister to Indigenous Australians who had been removed from their parents.
The significance of the Apology was that it was made to Indigenous people, in contrast to the removal of children which was a decision made about them. It inspired hope that the future actions of Governments which affected Indigenous people by Governments would be guided by conversation with them and not made at a distance from them. It was encouraging because it embodied a decency that we long for and try to build in the life of our families, but that we often fear is being lost in public life.
When teaching children a right way to live, there are three magic words: Please, Thank You, and Sorry. If they make these words central in their lives and mean them, they will treat everything in their lives as a gift, not as an entitlement, and will be equipped to make and heal relationships.
That is true also of the vulnerable young people with whom we work at Jesuit Social Services and of our society at large. People who grow up hurt and abused by people who are significant in their lives find it hard to connect with others except through fear, violence or withdrawal. They have learned to grab what they can, use whomever they can. They have learned never to say thank you, never to apologise. To grow and to build a happy life they must retrace their lives by discovering relationships in which they are respected. That is the beginning of learning ways to respect others. They will first learn to say thank you, and later in their journey they may make the crucial discovery of wanting to say sorry. Forming trusting relationships is the beginning of their journey and is central to our programs. And of course it is based on us being ready also to say to them, please, thank you and sorry.
Apology is a devalued art form in our society. In public life apologies often appear to have been purchased in bulk from a PR factory, or to be a form of aggression in which the person hurt is blamed for taking offence. In the social media that are young people’s playground, sorry is a word seldom spoken. Warriors on Facebook and Twitter are typically stone-solid in their convictions, effortlessly deny facts that might argue against their certainties, and are self-righteous in destroying others’ reputation or self-esteem. They are quick to move on but never look back, never apologise. Relationships once broken remain in fragments.
Apologies are about healing and new beginnings, about discovering self-respect to be a gift received when an apology is accepted. Apologies arouse hope and give life; refusals to apologise sap life from both parties involved. That is why the Apology to the stolen generations was so joyfully received by Australians.
The deeper challenge of apologies, of course, is not to say sorry but to mean it. In church language, contrition needs to be accompanied by a firm purpose of amendment. Apologies mark a change of heart that promises a change of life.
But it all begins with saying Sorry.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.