A new word—one which is rare in political circles— entered the Australian political debate with the release in 1997 of the “Bringing Them Home” report. The study of the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families by state and federal agencies over about a century brought “sorry” onto the national stage.
On May 26, 1998, the first “National Sorry Day was observed. A “Sorry Book” attracted the signatures of thousands of Australians, while the website “Apology Australia” has nearly 25,000 recorded apologies. On May 28, 2000, a quarter of a million people joined the Corroboree 2000 Bridge Walk, organised by the Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation, to show their support for Indigenous Australians. In 2005, the National Sorry Day Committee renamed the event the National Day of Healing for All Australians. Between 1997 and 2001, all of Australia's states and territories passed motions of apology for the way in which their governments treated Aborigines.
However, what kept the issue alive in the national arena was the debate at the federal level. Former prime minister John Howard refused to offer a formal apology, arguing that true sympathy would take the form of practical help, not rhetoric.
And there are indeed practical issues to address. The 2005 Australian Bureau of Statistics report shows Aborigines suffer high rates of unemployment, imprisonment, disease and premature death. Despite decades of policies under different governments, these statistics show a stubborn refusal to improve significantly.
The much-publicised apology offered by new Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd in February, and passed without dissent by the Parliament, did not end the debate. Several Opposition members absented themselves from the chamber and some spoke publicly of their opposition. Opposition leader Brendan Nelson's apology speech also fuelled the debate, as did the Prime Minister's.
Those opposed to an apology forwarded various arguments, including that the intervention was well intentioned, provided better circumstances and opportunities for Indigenous children, and that today's Australians carry no moral responsibility for actions of previous generations. There were also fears that an apology would fuel compensation claims.
And of course, every side in the argument was able to trot out case studies— real lives—that supported their point of view. Evidence was produced of some Aboriginal parents voluntarily surrendering children, and others having their children brutally and forcibly removed.
Some victims spoke with affection of their treatment in welfare or foster homes; others of clinical, harsh institutions and confusion over their loss of identity. Many testimonies told of simultaneously positive and negative experiences: of feeling fortunate to have received a good education in materially comfortable circumstances, while at the same time suffering considerable emotional trauma through enforced isolation from their heritage.
The range of experiences of the socalled stolen generations and the range of attitudes toward them raises questions about saying sorry. What exactly are we saying sorry for? Who is sorry?
Are we responsible for the actions of past generations? Does being sorry involve more than just the words?
Christianity has much to say on the topic. In old-fashioned Christian language, sorry is often referred to as “confession,”
and is central to the basic concepts of forgiveness and restoration, around which Christian faith is built.
The word sorry encapsulates several ideas, which are relevant to the national discussion about the apology to Australia's Indigenous people.
First of all, sorry recognises that wrong has been done. At this stage, it does not involve allocating blame. I can genuinely be sorry for something that has happened to someone, for which I am not responsible. This kind of sorrow can even lead to my intervention on that person's behalf, costing me time, money and emotional engagement, even though the circumstances are not my fault. In the case of Indigenous Australians, surely this preliminary level of sorrow ought to be universal, given the plight the majority find themselves in.
At another level, sorry takes responsibility for the wrong. Here, I assume ownership for having done wrong, even if my motivation may have been good.
If I were to accidentally step on your toe while offering you a drink, I would certainly apologise. If I walked all over your soul while trying to alter your material life for the better, I should also apologise. Sorrow also recognises that intentions and outcomes may not be in harmony. My good intentions don't always justify my behaviour. As a Christian, I would wish to apologise for meaning well but doing harm, especially in the case of the stolen generations.
If I fail to feel any sense of guilt or responsibility, a “sorry” may still be in order. A marriage counsellor advised arguing couples that the first to apologise should be the one in the right. This leads to both sides rushing to apologise— to prove they were right! It might be an effective way to break an impasse often manufactured by the pride of refusing to admit fault.
Next, sorry forces me to face the fact that often my intentions are mixed at best, and far less noble than I would wish. Blended with the desire to rescue Indigenous children, particularly those of mixed descent, were long-standing and deeply held racist views which, if we are honest, have long formed part of the fabric of the settler culture of Australia.
Both Aboriginal and non-white immigrant groups were marginalised or excluded on the basis of preserving the purity of the white race—particularly the Anglo-Saxon race (if such exists).
This was enshrined in various pieces of discriminatory legislation, collectively known as “the White Australia policy.”
As with slavery in past generations, we are all too slowly learning the true evil of racism. While Paul, in the Bible, frequently demolishes racist ideas (see Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11-22; and Colossians 3:11), Christians have had to relearn these lessons over the past century.
We often note the power of symbols, such as the national flag and anthem, and the rituals of Anzac Day. Similarly, an apology is a powerful symbolic act to all members of the nation. A New Zealand expert, with extensive experience on reconciliation between Maori and Pakeha (white) society, has commented on how meaningful and useful an apology has been in the New Zealand context. Merely acknowledging the problem can be the first step to healing.
Finally, true sorrow leads me to acts of restoration, as far as possible to undo the damage I have done. Here is where practical reconciliation flows from symbolic acts.
Sorry is an inherently Christian word that leads me to rethink my preconceived ideas, acknowledge ignorance and prejudice, discover humility, and reshape my actions to release grace, forgiveness and healing to all the wounded— including myself.