When President Benigno Aquino 3rd finally finds the courage to apologize to Hong kong leaders for the tragic hostage-taking incident on August 23, 2010, he will not be the first or most important leader in history to say sorry.
The list is long and decorated by some of the great leaders in history, including even a saint-to-be this coming April (Pope John Paul II).
On March 12, 2000 at the Vatican in Rome, Pope John Paul II, wearing purple vestments (the color of repentance) and with five cardinals and two bishops in attendance, celebrated what was called “a Day of Pardon” mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. In his stirring homily, he formally asked forgiveness for the various persecution sins committed by the Catholic Church over the last two millennia. He declared:
“… we cannot fail to recognize the infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren, especially during the second millennium. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions.”
John Paul drew a fine distinction between the church per se and the erring men and women who make up the church. Whatever evils were done by Catholics, the Catholic church itself remains unsullied. The sins were a deviation, a falsification of the church.
As for the specific sins for which he sought pardon, it was clear that John Paul meant primarily the Crusades, the Inquisition and the terrible inaction and silence in the face of the Holocaust during the second world war.
During his historic pontificate, John Paul issued public apologies for over 100 wrongdoings, including:
• The legal process on the Italian scientist and philosopher Galileo Galilei, himself a devout Catholic, around 1633 (apology issued, 31 October 1992).
• Catholics’ involvement with the African slave trade (9 August 1993).
• The Church Hierarchy’s role in burnings at the stake and the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation (May 1995, in the Czech Republic).
• The injustices committed against women, the violation of women’s rights and the historical denigration of women (10 July 1995, in a letter to “every woman”).
• On 20 November 2001, from a laptop in the Vatican, John Paul sent his first e-mail apologizing for the Catholic sex abuse cases, for the Church-backed “Stolen Generations” of Aboriginal children in Australia, and to China for the behavior of Catholic missionaries in colonial times.
In February 1990, president F. W. Clerk of South Africa announced the unbanning of the African National Congress, the Pan African Congress, and the Communist Party, and the release of political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela.
Mandela, despite 27 years of incarceration, instead of being consumed by a lust for revenge, demonstrated an extraordinary magnanimity, a nobility of spirit, wishing to forgive. By agreeing to negotiations with the nationalists, Mandela put his reputation and his life on the line. He inspired hope in the future of South Africa.
In August 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the second world war, Japanese Prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa, a descendant of a prominent samurai family, in his first official address to the Japanese parliament explicitly declared: “I would like to take this opportunity to express anew our profound remorse and apologies for the fact that past Japanese actions, including aggression and colonial rule, caused unbearable suffering and sorrow for so many people.” The words were unprecedented for a Japanese head of government.
On May 8, 1985, President Richard Freiherr von Weizsacker of the Federal Republic of Germany, in an address to the Bundestag (German parliament), delivered one of the “great speeches of our time” according to Anthony Lewis of the New York Times.
What impressed the world about this speech was its lengthy, unflinching, excuseless enumeration of Nazi crimes and many degrees of association with those crimes by millions of Germans in the years 1933-45.
Weizsacker declared: “No feeling person expects (young Germans now) to wear a hair shirt merely because they are Germans, Yet their forefathers have bequeathed them a heavy legacy, and all of us, whether guilty or not, whether old or young, must accept the past. We must accept it by remembering it and never forgetting it…
“let us , on the present 8th of may, look the truth in the eye as well as we are able.”
In his book, An Ethic for Enemies, Forgiveness in Politics, the writer Donald Shriver Jr. says of the German President’s speech: “Few utterances of national leaders in the 20th century have undertaken, with equal, stunning courage , to put together in one body of public words confession of their nation’s sins; painfully accurate identification of the same, wide-spreading empathy for the victims of those sins.”
On February 19, 1976, during the American bicentennial year, President Gerald Ford issued an official apology of the US government for the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during the second world war.
He said: “in this bicenteninial year, we are commemorating the anniversary of many of the great events in American history. An honest reckoning, however, must include a recognition of our national mistakes as well as our national achievements. February 19th is the anniversary of a sad day in American history…. We now know what we should have known then – not only was that evacuation wrong, but Japanese-Americans were and are loyal Americans.”
Apology, forgiveness and transcendence
In an essay for Time, written soon after Pope John Paul’s Day of Pardon Mass, Lance Morrow asked and answered an important question:
“What was the point of the pope’s apology?
“It was to set in motion the dynamics of apology and forgiveness and transcendence, a powerful and liberating force…Only apology and forgiveness – acts of moral clarification and, incidentally, of leadership—can lift the weight of the past.”
Bishop Desmond Tutu sounds much the same note in his efforts to mediate the Tutsi-Hutu strife in Rwanda, where at least half a million people were massacred.
He recalled: “I told them (Tutsi and Hutu) that the cycle of reprisal and counter-reprisal that had characterize their national history had to be broken and that the only way to do this was to go beyond retributive justice to restorative justice, to move on to forgiveness, because without it there was no future.”
The hostage-taking tragedy that precipitated our acrimonious relations with Hong Kong is in no way comparable with the extreme examples I have cited to illustrate the theme of apology and forgiveness in relations between nations. Our country is not in conflict with this administrative region of China.
But because of official bungling during the incident, and refusal to deal forthrightly and justly with the demands of the victims and their families, and obstinate refusal to offer an official apology, the misunderstanding has morphed into a full-blown crisis for our country and our bilateral relationship.
It has been made more thorny by President Aquino’s cavalier treatment of the issue – from Day one to this day nearly four years later.
In point of fact, President Aquino issued a verbal apology on August 25, 2010 — but it was only an apology for his smile.
At a press conference in Malacañang, Aquino said: “My smile might have been misunderstood. I have several expressions. I smile when I’m happy, I smile when I’m faced with a very absurd situation…and if I offended certain people, I apologize to them.”
He continued: “It’s more of an expression, maybe of exasperation rather than anything and again, I apologize if I offended certain people, who misunderstood (my) facial expression,” he added.
I suspect that this apology for his smile made Hong Kong harden in its demand for an official apology from Aquino. Any attempt to substitute Vice President Binay and Mayor Joseph Estrada for our one and only president will not suffice.
In personal relations, as we know, nothing works worse than self-righteousness. it works no better in international relations. What works much better is self-criticism and self-reform.
My point in going through the history of forgiveness in politics is simply to show how quickly relations with Hong Kong can be repaired if our president only has the good sense to do the right thing – to acknowledge our government’s responsibility for the deaths of Hong Kong nationals and our readiness to do right by them and their families, and our recognition afresh of the importance we attach to our relationship.
In leadership studies, Warren Bennis penned the classic dictum: “A good manager does things right. A leader does the right thing.”
President Aquino, as our leader, as our head of state, should do the right thing now with respect to the 2010 hostage-taking tragedy—by offering the official apology of our government.
When he does, a great weight will be lifted from our shoulders. And then will begin the dynamics of transcendence that should improve our relations, and perhaps even appreciably enhance our ties with the Chinese mainland.