The independent news organization of Duke University

The forgotten virtue

at the water's edge

When asked two summers ago if he had ever prayed to God for forgiveness, Donald Trump replied, “I am not sure I have.” Trump explained, “I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

For readers unfamiliar with Christianity, know that remorsefulness is a cornerstone of what it means to be a Christian. When we think we've done something wrong, God is very much in the picture. As C. S. Lewis writes, "Christianity tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness. It therefore has nothing (as far as I know) to say to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness." 

Before you can repent and ask for forgiveness, however, you have to feel remorse—the tug of conscience telling you, "You've done wrong." When Trump says he has never asked God for forgiveness, it speaks to a misunderstanding of Christianity. It hints at a spiritual stuntedness that should worry any member of the faith.

The goal here is not to bash Trump; I have already done my fair share of that in these pages. We all have our moral shortcomings and I’ll be the first to admit that asking for forgiveness isn’t something that comes easily to me either. Rather, the point is to understand Trump as a symbol of something greater—our remorseless age. Today, more than ever, apologizing seems to be considered a sign of weakness. But it wasn't always this way.

In “Richard II,” William Shakespeare introduces a character whose virtue stems from his remorse. Henry Bolingbroke, for all his faults—including seizing the crown illegally and suggesting, offhandedly, that his life would be easier if someone could just do away with the imprisoned king he had just deposed—demonstrates remorse as a redeeming quality. Upon hearing that one of his subordinates murdered the old king in Henry's name, the new king is wracked with guilt. Remorseful, Henry vows: "I'll make a voyage to the Holy Land, / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand." Civil strife keeps Henry from embarking on his pilgrimage, and with his guilt unresolved, remorsefulness continues to define Henry's character in the next two plays of Shakespeare’s “Henriad.”

Remorse is not just a matter of easing a guilty conscience. It also is a profound expression of values and priorities.

In signing the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, President Reagan expressed the remorsefulness of an entire nation for a shameful moment in its history: Japanese American internment. Reagan said, "The legislation that I am about to sign provides for a restitution payment to each of the 60,000 surviving Japanese-Americans of the 120,000 who were relocated or detained. Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law." 

Today, at the Japanese Internment Memorial in Washington, D.C., visitors can read five of Reagan's words etched in granite: “HERE WE ADMIT A WRONG”. It is a powerful statement of remorse from a country mature enough to come to terms with its past.

Remorse doesn't just foster reconciliation among individuals and within nations—it also points the way to forgiveness and growth between countries with historically antagonistic relationships.

A group of researchers writing in the journal Science has found that remorse may hold the key to resolving one of the world’s longstanding conflicts. They have challenged the conventional wisdom that material concessions, like land swaps and reparations, are central to achieving peace between Israel and Palestine. Instead, the researchers found that “[s]ymbolic concessions of no apparent material benefit may be key in helping to solve seemingly intractable conflicts.” In the survey, Palestinians rejected side payments, considering it insulting to be paid off for matters of sacred value. They remained, however, open to a symbolic concession from the Israeli side, such as an apology for the 1948 Nakba that drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. Pride and unpleasant memories may drive emotional distance between the two sides, but only remorse promises to bridge the divide.

Now, more than ever, we need to embrace a virtue on the verge of being forgotten. Remorse does not come easily. Many of us have unpleasant childhood memories of being forced, through clenched teeth, to say sorry. (I know I didn’t always mean it.) But growing more familiar with remorse is part of growing up, for remorse alone provides the key to healthy relationships with those we love.

Remorse is not a status quo emotion. It is transformative. Remorse drives healing in relationships and reconciliation among countries. It speaks to our capacity for introspection and growth. A life without remorse represents a missed opportunity. An age without remorse is a tragedy.

Matthew T. King is a Trinity junior. His column, “at the water's edge,” runs on alternate Mondays.

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