Most of you by now have probably heard about Pat Robertson’s comments following the stroke suffered by Ariel Sharon of Israel. He suggested, in effect, that the stroke was divine punishment for Sharon’s having given up Israeli territory. My purpose here isn’t to engage in a discussion of Robertson’s theology. I have done that elsewhere when I wrote a three-part study titled, “The Church, Israel, and ‘Replacement’ Theology.” My concern here is Robertson’s “apology”.
In a letter to Sharon’s son, dated January 11, Robertson referred to his abiding love for Israel as the reason for his comments. He writes: “My zeal, my love of Israel, and my concern for the future safety of your nation led me to make remarks which I can now view in retrospect as inappropriate and insensitive in light of a national grief experienced because of your father’s illness. I ask your forgiveness and the forgiveness of the people of Israel for saying what was clearly insensitive at the time.”
O.K., you say, that sounds pretty good. So, what’s the beef? On the one hand, I applaud Robertson for having the humility to seek forgiveness for his comments. On the other hand, nowhere in this “apology” or in the letter as a whole does Robertson ever acknowledge that what he said was wrong. He merely refers to his comments as “inappropriate and insensitive in light of a national grief experienced” (emphasis mine). In other words, were it at another time and in a different context, perhaps one in which no national grief were being felt, such comments might be appropriate and not lacking in sensitivity.
Robertson’s next sentence in the letter reinforces my point. He asks forgiveness “for saying what was clearly insensitive at the time” (emphasis mine). Again, one can only assume that, had it been some other time, Robertson believes his comments would not be insensitive. I don’t know how to conclude otherwise than that Robertson stands by his beliefs concerning the cause of Sharon’s stroke but regrets saying so in such an emotionally charged moment of personal and national sadness.
Believe it or not, my intent isn’t to challenge Robertson’s theological convictions. I simply want to point out what I often see in both public and private “apologies” as well as what we would call acts of “repentance”. I must give Robertson credit for one thing. He didn’t say, “If I offended you, I am sorry.” At least Robertson is willing to acknowledge that his comments were in fact offensive and hurtful.
But again, Robertson did not say, “My comments were wrong. I don’t have grounds for suggesting that the stroke was divine judgment for dividing up the land of Israel.” I don’t want to put words in Robertson’s mouth, but my sense is that he doesn’t believe he was wrong, only that he was insensitive. It’s not that his comment was incorrect and theologically misguided, but that it was spoken at the wrong time.
Some of you may think that what Robertson said in his letter is perfectly appropriate. He shouldn’t apologize for his comments if he believes them to be true. It is enough that he owns up to being rash and impetuous in making them public while Sharon lay in a coma. So, I suppose that if you agree with Robertson’s Zionist theology you are pleased with his letter of apology and miffed that I would take issue with it. I can understand this.
I had hoped that Robertson would go beyond simply acknowledging that his “timing” was off and confess to having spoken a falsehood. But that reflects my theological perspective, although perhaps not yours. Others who read Robertson’s letter may argue that it contains indications he no longer believes the stroke was divine punishment (though he never says so explicitly). After all, he refers to his “profound sympathy and condolence over the tragic illness” of Sharon, and expresses “grief” and “sadness” over his condition.
In any case, this is an excellent lesson in the ethics of apology. If you know your words were unjustifiably offensive, you don’t say: “If I offended you, I’m sorry.” Rather, you come clean and say: “I know I offended you and I’m sorry for having done so. I was wrong to have done it. Please forgive me.” Of course, there may be occasions when offending someone is justifiable. Perhaps their behavior or beliefs are so unbiblical and dangerous that they need to be offended. Jesus undoubtedly offended the Pharisees by rebuking them for their hypocrisy. But they deserved it. They needed it. No apology required.
So here’s the question: is a person sorry and repentant for his/her words because they inflicted untimely or inconvenient pain on someone else, or also because they were false and misleading? Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think Robertson’s “apology” is due to the former, not the latter. If that is true, I suppose his letter of “apology” is adequate. For those of us who believe his comments on the cause of Sharon’s stroke were without biblical warrant, something more is called for.