Confession versus Blame-shifting


We have watched some giants trip and fall of late, in both sports and politics.  It has been full of contrasts. The cricket heroes were caught red-handed and promptly admitted that they had been tampering with the ball, to accentuate its reverse spin.  One of those caught has courted controversy before, so it seems that they thought they would just get their wrists slapped.  But they miscalculated. 

Athletes tend to be young, but that does not diminish their real popularity and influence. These were among the best, in a gentleman’s sport. I have it on good authority that one of them has been compared to the Master – Don Bradman.  But there is absolutely no room for cheaters, and cricket fans took a very dim view of this. It was not like a fight breaking out in ice-hockey, which embarrasses some and bores others (while amusing a few); you expect a little roughing in ice-hockey. But cricket is a no-contact sport where everyone recognizes that rules exist for fair play. Though they will be missed, it was a case of #HeroesMustFall.

So at first the athletes fell silent, then as they arrived home in Australia, there were tears of contrition.  It looked quite genuine. The whole country was down on them, even the Prime Minister weighed in. They apologized profusely. They have been banned for a year, and also fined.

The very same week-end, a politician who recently resigned from high office spoke to a church gathering and pleaded that he is presently doing no one any harm, but he is still being pursued. This is the opposite of contrition, it is blame-shifting.

True enough, he has only received a Summons to appear in court later this coming week, where and when he may be formally charged? But what a contrast!  Could it be that those who know that they have no future adopt this approach, whereas those who want to return after the one-year ban realize that they need to confess and apologize?

Surely this is not a cultural phenomenon, because black people go to church and confess their sins, just as some white people adopt denialism as their strategy of choice. Humility begets confession.Triumphalism begets blame-shifting. 

The Watergate scandal dragged on for two years. There were loyalists who even went to jail to cover the tracks of their commander-in-chief. He denied and denied and denied some more.  But the investigative journalists and the opposition party finally cornered him. He was facing impeachment. We watched a very similar scenario unfold in South Africa recently. It was déjà vu all over again.

Nixon did not resign and depart in humiliation out of contrition. He was still defiant and rationalized what he had done as being what any State President has to do because of who he is. He pulled rank. He left mad. But he preferred resignation to the prospect of jail.

He went into deep isolation, alienated from even his own party. Until a popular talk show host called David Frost approached him about doing a series of television interviews.  Nixon saw this as an opportunity to clear his name, or at least to do some damage-control.  But Frost took him on with a different ambition – to try to elicit a confession from him, an apology.  In this, Frost was not a priest, for the setting was totally public. Frost proved to be the most formidable opponent that Nixon had ever experienced.  They had contractually agreed to cover Watergate only in the final interview – most of the series did give Nixon an opportunity to blow his horn.  And in fact, Nixon’s presidency did accomplish some amazing things.  He also blundered is some ways. But Watergate was his nemesis.

In the last interview, Frost came armed with some research that his team had dug up, which exposed Nixon’s denialism for what it was – a cover-up. Frost was tough but polite.  Nixon somewhat reluctantly admitted that he had made some mistakes, broken some laws and let down his country.  It was stunning.  But it also created the conditions for his country to forgive.  They would never forget, but to some extent he was then able to give speeches, offer political advice to his own party, etc.

One Old Testament prophet says: “Thus saith the high and holy One, who inhabits eternity…  I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a humble and contrite spirit”.

One verse in the New Testament says: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The fifth century B.C is called the Axial Age because of the “axial” similarities that emerged along the corridor from Greece (Socrates) to the Middle East (Isaiah) to India (Siddhārtha Gautama a k a the Buddha) to China (Confucius).  These were more or less concurrent and their spiritualities are distinct but in some ways the same.  For one thing, they would all agree that humility is more sustainable than denialism.

Southern Africa is not on this axis.  And deeply embedded in its many cultures are values and beliefs that are traditional, not “axial”. But South Africa, at least, has embraced Christianity as its major religion.  Among both blacks and whites this faith has a huge following.  There are also adherents to Buddhism and to Islam, a relatively younger world religion which also teaches that submission to God is a virtue.

In recent centuries, some new secular religions have emerged like Humanism and Marxism.  Although Humanism is distinct from Christianity, its roots are deep in Judeo-Christian values.  The historian Yuval Noah Harari writes: “Like liberal humanism, socialist humanism is built on monotheistic foundations.  The idea that all humans are created equal is a revamped version of the monotheist conviction that all souls are equal before God.”

Is Triumphalism some kind of new secular value-system?  Or is it behavior that reflects a resentment that the “axial” system of values has come to dominate in southern Africa?  Do we hear a rejection of apologies and a new trending?  Is blame-shifting overtaking us?  Anyone who watches the soapies night after night can tell you that these are not in sync with what we learned in Sunday school!  When people take in a steady diet of every imaginable vice and folly on programmes with sizzling titles like Scandal! and Muvhango (tshiVenda for Disagreements), should we be surprised that values are evolving? By my observations, South Africans spend far more time watching these “soapies” than they spend at church.

When the stalwarts call citizens back to the values of John Dube, Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo, they are not talking about these new-fangled values. Those who are convicted of corruption and patronage by the justice system should be confronted to repent and apologize. Not to duck and dive with impunity.

Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his own capacity