On my 22nd birthday, I was in a car accident. I was driving on an unfamiliar road, and I did not notice the stop sign until too late. Swerving to avoid running into the side of a van, I was unable to turn back into my lane in time to avoid oncoming traffic. The total force of the front-impact collision was in the ball park of 60mph. My car was totaled, the other young woman’s car was totaled, and traffic was backed up in both directions for a very long time. Thankfully, no one was injured.
When the police officer arrived and began taking statements, I started by saying, “It’s my fault. I ran the stop sign…”
He was flabbergasted. “You’ve just made my job so much easier,” he said.
“Well,” I replied, “there’s no denying it. It would be obvious to anyone that I’m to blame – there’s my car on the wrong side of the road.”
“Still,” he said, “you didn’t have to admit it to me. I am going to be sure to mention in my report how cooperative you have been.”
Now it was my turn to be dumbstruck. I didn’t have to admit that I was to blame? Why wouldn’t I? When the officer asked me what happened, how could I possibly have told the story in a truthful way without admitting fault? I guess I could have refused to comment on the accident, but to what end?
At the time I was still in college, so my parents were paying for my insurance. When I was older, and began receiving my own insurance bills, I began receiving the semi-annual reminders to “never admit you are at fault at the scene of an accident.” The insurance companies are protecting themselves from lawsuits – they want to string along the injured parties as long as they can, refusing to pay their claims. It is harder to do that if there is a police statement saying that one or another party admitted fault at the scene. No wonder the police officer had so rarely heard someone take responsibility for their mistake at the scene of an accident – usually people are following the orders of their insurance companies – admit no fault.
This seems to be an ingrained part of our culture – in order to (possibly) avoid having to make some sort of financial or other restitution down the road, it is vital to never ever admit that you are wrong. And some people take their constitutional right not to incriminate themselves (in part meant to be a protection against being tortured or otherwise coerced into making a false confession) as a positive responsibility. Very philanthropic of them – they are doing it for the Constitution!
It is hard to raise children to take responsibility for their actions in this kind of environment. Whose orders shall we follow? Those given to us by the legal department of our car insurance agency? Taking responsibility means admitting when we are wrong, and being specific as to how and what we did wrong, to the best of our ability. Taking responsibility means being clear about the extent to which we are in fact responsible for wrongdoing we have been involved in.
I caught about 5 minutes of the Diane Rehm show this morning on NPR – it was about apologies – I am guessing in the context of the rather unsatisfying buck passing that has constituted most of the oil spill related communications from BP. (Note: they care about the little people.) Though they may also have been inspired by various spokesmen (using the gendered version of the word advisedly) for the Catholic Church, who – though they have made many gestures and statements that go in the right direction – have made too many remarks suggesting that those who are concerned about child sexual abuse by priests are over-reacting. And while Diane and her guests were talking about apologies from individuals speaking on behalf of corporate entities (governments, companies, churches, and the like), a lot of what they said was good general advice for making an apology: use strong, direct language, cite specific damages, say “I’m sorry” (without the next word being “but”), and include at least a suggestion that you intend to do better next time, and are in a position to do so.
We are given many opportunities to take responsibility for our actions. Our Jewish sisters and brothers are encouraged to make amends with those they have injured over the past year in the days leading up to Yom Kippur. Those in 12 step programs know that steps 8, 9, and 10 are all about making amends and taking responsibility. And for us Christians, there is the passing of the peace.
The passing of the peace? Really? That interruption to the service where we get into a little chat with our neighbor, and desperately descend upon newcomers? Yes, that’s the one i mean:
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there at the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” – Matthew 5:23-24 (NRSV)
The passing of the peace is meant (in part) to be a last minute opportunity before offering, before eucharist, to reconcile ourselves to anyone from whom we are estranged within the fellowship. So next time the pastor invites you to share “signs of peace and reconciliation with your neighbor…” remember Jesus’ broad interpretation of that word “neighbor” – not necessarily the person nearest us in the pew. Instead, cross the sanctuary if you have to – step out and call someone on your cell phone if you have to – reach out to one you have been reluctant to embrace, to one you have wronged in thought, word, or deed. (Admittedly, I have not been in the business of doing this myself. Perhaps we can all try something new this Sunday.)
Not sure where to start? Perhaps it is best to begin with that word that we love to say when we are announcing our accomplishments, and that we avoid whenever there is a question of who to blame for a breach – “I” – a word that begins those difficult phrases, “I am to blame…” “I am sorry…” “I was inconsiderate…” “I failed to…”
One thing that makes all of this easier is the assurance of love and forgiveness. God loves us so much that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners! We do not need to be mortified by our every mistake to the extent that we try to hide what we have done wrong. God is not an abuser, and we are not playing some twisted, life-long game of “gotcha!” We are loved intimately by a God who knows every hair on our head and every thought inside of it. Being so deeply and intimately loved is what gives us our freedom in Christ – freedom to admit our wrongdoing, and thus freedom to be reconciled to those whom we have wronged.
I wish that I could say that I have always admitted my mistakes as unselfconsciously as I did on my 22nd birthday, the day I totaled my beloved white manual transmission Mazda 626 with a moonroof. (RIP, sweet Mazda. Alas, I was her undoing!) Too often I have tried to avoid taking responsibility for myself and my actions. I’m sorry that I have tried to deflect blame, that I have fallen into the habit of first offering my excuses before even uttering the words, “I’m sorry.” I hope that, as I come to more deeply and fully embrace God’s love and forgiveness for me, I will better be able to fearlessly admit my mistakes without trying to find someone else to blame for having made my mistake possible. I want to do better – I hope I do better next time.