In this Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 photograph, Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and his wife Lulli, talk with reporters while attending the Governor’s Ham Breakfast at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, Mo.
Rep. Todd Akin, running as the GOP candidate for Senate in Missouri, has now confessed on Mike Huckabee’s radio show that he is sorry, so very sorry for his remarks in an interview that aired Sunday where he said “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy.
What exactly did Akin confess to doing wrong? Well, for one thing, he said he was sorry for using “the wrong word.” He should have said “forcible rape,” not “legitimate rape.” And yes, he acknowledged on the radio show, women do get pregnant from “forcible rape,” though he never explained the reason for his earlier remarks.
Sorry doesn’t get it done when what you really mean is ‘please make this controversy go away.’
I teach a class on forgiveness at Chicago Theological Seminary, and Akin’s statements illustrate one of the biggest misunderstandings about forgiveness. Just saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the profound moral transaction we call forgiveness.
Akin, in seeking forgiveness, needs to confess exactly what he did wrong, and let those whom he has offended (in this case, rape victims everywhere) know that he seeks their forgiveness. That is not the end of it. Akin then needs to make concrete amends, and then not do it again.
The vague ‘sorry’ Akin put out there on the Huckabee radio show doesn’t come anywhere near the dynamic of repentance and forgiveness. In fact, what he did was pretty much what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called engaging in “cheap grace.” This is the idea that saying you’re sorry and asking for forgiveness is a spiritual (and political!) “get out of jail free” card.
In 1937, Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was ultimately hanged by the Nazis for resisting Hitler, published a book called “The Cost of Discipleship.” Bonhoeffer wrote that we need to follow the teachings of Jesus in this world, but this is a costly decision. You can’t just talk the talk of grace, or claim Christ has “paid the price” for our sins, and then go along your merry way, continuing to perpetrate injustices. That’s “cheap grace.” You have to change the way you act as well as the way you speak.
Todd Akin should know this, in fact, because he attended seminary and has a masters of divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary , the flagship seminary of the theologically very conservative Presbyterian Church in America, founded in 1973. But as Sarah Posner o points out, Akin’s statement on “legitimate rape” has “theological roots” in the beliefs of his denomination. Thus, his statement about “legitimate rape” is part of his theological conviction regarding abortion, not a “mistake.” The attacks on a woman’s right to choose, as Posner points out, have long included the lie that women cannot get pregnant from rape.
In fact, last year Akin co-sponsored a bill, along with much of the House GOP, that would have redefined rape as “forcible rape,” i.e. “[r]ape is only really rape if it involves force.”
The language of “forcible rape” is what Akin substituted when he said “sorry” on the Huckabee radio program for his “legitimate rape” comments that raised such a firestorm of protest. It is clear from the context of the GOP’s plan, which was fortunately revised, that they are synonyms.
Theologically and politically, saying “I’m sorry” has become a form of “cheap grace” in our American public life. And in the case of Akin, it seems very cheap indeed.