Just apologise, for chrissake

All of us – even failed bankers – can learn something from the remorse of the apostle Peter

One of the Easter stories which sticks most in my mind is the one about the apostle Peter denying Christ three times. For those who haven't read it (or had it read to them), the episode occurs at a rather sticky point in the action. Judas has just done his betraying and Peter, in a random attempt to hinder the resulting arrest, has lopped off the ear of one of the Roman soldiers. It was an odd gesture, and the man's embarrassment must have been furthered by the fact that his master chose to use his much-trumpeted special powers to stick the thing back on again.

Following Jesus and his captors at some distance, Peter finds himself among a group of strangers who recognise from his Northern accent that he is one of the Galilaeans accompanying Jesus. Peter denies all knowledge of Jesus, whom he has followed selflessly for three years.

"Man, I know not what thou sayest."

"And immediately, while he yet spake, the cock crew. And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And Peter went out, and wept bitterly."

The story has always haunted me, being one of a number in the Bible which reliably causes me to visualise the scene, and always to feel it from Peter's point of view. Christ's staunchest defender, his "rock", crumbles under pressure. And then, his guilt transparent suddenly both to him and to the man he loves. I always think of Peter, in fact, when someone says "weep bitterly".

People don't often use the phrase however, perhaps precisely because biblical turns of phrase are not at their most fashionable right now.

Nonetheless, it seems to capture perfectly the sense of spiritual abasement and subsequent release that anyone might feel on betraying himself to such an extent. To weep bitterly is to be carried away with remorse. The emotion is extreme, as a new order sweeps away the trappings of a consciousness suddenly recognised as false and rotten.

It is a kind of baptism – indeed it is not surprising that the main mechanism through which the more evangelical versions of Christianity convert "sinners" is by breaking them down and forcing a confession which, in the immense psychological force it generates, is mistaken for revelation. But as apologies go – and it seems fairly clear in Peter's case that one was made and accepted – weeping bitterly is where it's at.

Apologies are not much in fashion these days. For all that we hang on to the trappings of politeness in a "no, you first" kind of manner, contemporary morality has descended more or less to the level prescribed in car insurance contracts: above all, never apologise.

Admission of guilt is admission of liability. Politics, business, diplomacy – even arts criticism for goodness sake – all appear now to be built on the principle that no one is ever wrong. In place of error, we have "difference" and "subjective opinion". In place of disputing positions on the basis of their merits, we have negotiation of positions on the basis of the power and credibility of those that hold them. And just as credit becomes scarce during a market downturn, so too is credibility withdrawn from those who in changing their minds show weakness. For weakness is always assumed to be a lack of strength.

In the abstract, there ought to be no better quality in a politician or leader than that of being able to revise judgement in response to new evidence. Many are at fault for the current financial mess this country, among others, has recently found itself in. Yet how can we expect those in power to apologise, as they surely should, when we continue to hound them for U-turns and lapses of form? Can we really expect an expression of remorse from Sir Fred, when any word from him would inevitably be interpreted as an admission of legal and financial responsibility? The cry for change has now grown louder than ever, but for anything to change, fault must first be acknowledged and, crucially, regretted. With our car-insurance psychology, however, such change is impossible. Indeed, the very purpose of insurance is precisely to protect us against change.

Those of us whose cultures are rooted in Christian belief ought to have one unique advantage in the fact that the object of worship is himself someone capable of losing it and begging for forgiveness. Our culture is centred around an image of excellence, in other words, itself capable of falling to its knees and begging forgiveness, or crying out in agonies of doubt.

In the grand scheme of things of course, it is not so much God who has forsaken us, but we who have forsaken him, her, or it. The Sky Pixie, as one Cif commenter put it to me, no longer seems to be of so much use as formerly. But the value of the New Testament as a set of stories about a genuinely beautiful man, even if most of them are mostly fictional, is enhanced by its being held in common by so many. So we should remember Peter at some point this weekend, as we curse at the chocolate and emulsion paint we have dribbled down our shirts, and admit that most of us, at some point, got it very wrong.

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