James Cameron, Hero

I’m fascinated by stories of forgiveness, and I just discovered another one that needs to be told: the biography of James Cameron.

When he was 16, he and a couple slightly older friends decided one night to pull a carjacking. His buddies gave him a gun. But when he approached the young unsuspecting couple sitting in a parked car on the side of the road, he recognized the young man, panicked, and started running; he didn’t stop until he got home, but, not long after he fled the site, he heard gunshots. His buddies had shot the young man, and he died. Cameron and his buddies were arrested later that night and thrown into jail. The next night, a crowd of angry citizens surrounded the jail, broke in, and dragged out Cameron and his buddies. His buddies were both lynched. The mob leaders, many affiliated with the local KKK, had the rope around Cameron’s neck too, ready to hoist him from a tree branch in the town square, but miraculously they changed their minds and let him return to the jail.

By now you’ve figured out that Cameron and his buddies were African-American. But would you have guessed that this happened in Marion, Indiana? It sounds like another story from the deep South, but it occurred in the Midwest heartland, in 1930.

Based on a coerced confession, James Cameron was convicted by an all-white jury of accessory to murder and sentenced to prison. He was 16, and he served nearly five years, witnessing more abuse and violence while in prison. He could have emerged an angry, hardened man, but he didn’t. While in prison, he went through phases where he felt hatred towards all white people, where he vowed to seek revenge as soon as he was released, where he planned to devote his life to crime. But he was also starting to see God, in the beauty of creation, in his mother’s love, in the kindness of a sheriff who went out of his way to befriend him. As he says, “I was beginning to heal.” He came to a point where he realized that not all white people were bad, but he felt like he couldn’t acknowledge that to anyone but his mother, because it would look like betrayal.

After serving his two-year minimum, and despite being a model prisoner, he kept being denied parole. (He later learned that one member of the parole board was a KKK leader.) At first, he was bitter, but he began reading his Bible, finding comfort in the Psalms. He finally promised God that, once released, he would put aside all thoughts of committing crimes: “I would be the kind of person God wanted me to be.”

Cameron kept that vow. He devoted the rest of his life to racial justice, serving for years as a leader in the NAACP, and establishing what he called America’s Black Holocaust Museum. He was a model husband, father and citizen. Decades after his conviction, he petitioned the Indiana governor and was granted a pardon. And the brother of the gunshot victim was able to forgive Cameron.

Cameron tells his story in his autobiography, A Time of Terror. It’s not preachy, or evangelistic. It’s not even that religious; it’s a matter-of-fact account of an amazing story. Cameron doesn’t portray himself as either a hero or a pitiful victim, but in my view, his ability to forgive is heroic. He modeled Jesus’ command in the Lord’s Prayer, “… we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The New ICC

The Institute for Christian Conciliation (ICC) was formed nearly three decades ago, as the division within Peacemaker Ministries dedicated to managing cases and training “conciliators” to intervene in other people’s conflicts. In 2016, Peacemaker Ministries, in order to streamline its focus, transferred the ICC to a new entity called “ICC Peace.” ICC Peace was organized as a business dedicated to providing Christian ADR, both through case management and training, ably led by Matt Argue and Judy Steidl. This year, ICC Peace re-organized itself as a non-profit organization, and I am delighted to report that I have been invited to serve on its board of directors. I gladly accepted! While I support all aspects of biblical peacemaking, I’m especially interested in seeing the church provide a place where Christians can resolve disputes that might otherwise go to court, in response to I Corinthians 6:1-7. Providing high-quality Christian ADR is the essence of the ICC.  I look forward to seeing how God works through this new — yet decades-old —  ministry to bring about the “peace on earth” that we long to see.

Bishop’s Apology Doesn’t Meet Basic Conditions

The former bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston West Virginia Diocese issued an apology last month for misconduct that occurred while he was bishop. After Pope Francis accepted Bishop Michael J. Bransfield’s resignation in 2018, the Vatican investigated allegations that he had spent millions on personal extravagances and gifts to fellow clerics, and that he harassed seminarians and young priests who worked for him. Investigators established that he had engaged in a pattern of sexual malfeasance and serious financial misconduct.

The plan: Bransfield stepped down in September 2018, and his successor, Bishop Mark Brennan, drew up a “restitution plan” that was approved by the Vatican. It included a requirement that Bransfield make a public apology to the people of his former diocese “for the scandal he created,” and that he apologize privately to individuals he abused or harassed.

The apology: Bransfield’s letter, issued August 15, 2020, says he is “writing to apologize for any scandal or wonderment caused by words or actions attributed to me during my tenure as Bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese.” He acknowledged that, during his tenure, “I was reimbursed for certain expenditures that have been called into question as excessive,” but insisted that he “believed that such reimbursements to me were proper.” Regarding the “allegations that by certain words and actions I have caused certain priests and seminarians to feel sexually harassed, that was never my intent.” He added, “if anything I said or did caused others to feel that way, then I am profoundly sorry.”

Analysis of the apology: This is not an apology. It’s not even an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. It’s really just an acknowledgment of the allegations against him. It indicates that Bransfield still hasn’t taken responsibility for his actions, and it’s puzzling why the Vatican and the new bishop accepted this statement as if it fulfilled the requirement that he apologize.

Elements of this non-apology include:

  • “any” – Any time an apology uses the word “any,” a yellow flag goes up. “for any scandal” includes the possibility that there was no scandal, or just something minor. Apologizing for “anything I did that caused others to feel harassed” is tantamount to saying, “I have no idea what I did and I really don’t think I did anything wrong.” Use of any form of “any” weakens the apology. To test it out, substitute the word “the” for “any” – or remove “any” altogether and see how it sounds. There may be appropriate uses of “any” in an apology (“if I have omitted anyone”) but, as a rule, if the speaker cannot apologize without using “any,” the speaker hasn’t apologized.
  • “wonderment” — He apologizes for “any wonderment” he caused. This is the strangest word I’ve ever seen in an apology. What’s wrong with causing wonderment? Is it something to apologize for? Does he mean “doubts,” like people “wondered” whether he’d done something wrong? The dictionary definition of “wonderment” is “a state of awed admiration.” This is clearly not the right word here. It should’ve been corrected by an editor, and he had several.
  • “attributed to me” – He can’t even admit that the words/actions were his; he acknowledges only that they were attributed to him. Taking responsibility for one’s words and actions is at the heart of an effective apology.
  • “if anything I said or did caused others to feel [bad], I’m sorry” – This is a form of “blame the victim.” The speaker doesn’t think he’s done anything that would hurt another, so it must be their fault that they feel badly—in this case, that they felt harassed.

As one of his accusers noted, the apology “does not meet the basic conditions of Catholic contrition, or apology.” This former seminarian, who was sexually abused by Bransfield, noted, “In the Catholic tradition, we do not apologize for actions ‘attributed to’ us or for hypothetical ‘ifs’.”

The danger of permitting a statement like this to pass as an apology is that, far from bringing healing, it causes more pain. Instead of demonstrating the repentance essential to a Christian apology, it further mires the speaker in denial, and further diminishes hope in the victims. It illustrates the risk of “ordering” or “requiring” that someone apologize. Apologies should be voluntary.

We hope and pray that the Holy Spirit, working directly or through one of his servants, will bring Bishop Bransfield to the repentance that would yield to a true public apology.

Risks of Mediator Proposals

As a facilitative mediator, I’ve never been a fan of mediator proposals. This article by a judge-turned-mediator, The Danger of Mediator Proposals, does a great job explaining why. In addition, I would note that, while mediator proposals can help parties settle on a dollar figure, parties who focus on money alone will miss the non-monetary components that could contribute to a better resolution. Indeed, if parties look to underlying needs and interests, they may not need to resort to the tactic of a mediator proposal.

“Begin Mediation With an Apology”

“Begin mediation with an apology.” This is common advice in Christian mediation, but it’s surprising to hear it from a lawyer who does employment and commercial mediation. Eric Meyer is both a mediator and an advocate in mediations, and he wrote an article on eleven practical tips, especially for attorneys who represent parties in mediation, to help make remote mediations successful. In fact, many of his tips apply to both in-person as well as on-line mediations, such as thinking strategically about the timing of the mediation in the life of the case, and determining whether the case needs a facilitative or an evaluative mediator.

I especially appreciate his terse advice regarding written mediation summaries prepared by each advocate ahead of the mediation: “ad hominem attacks, legalese and passive voice” do not add value.

But I’m most intrigued by his advice to begin the mediation with an apology. He seems to think this is especially helpful in online mediation, because “there is always a place for compassion at remote mediation.” Mediators have complained about the difficulty of expressing and interpreting compassion in online mediations, and this is one way to address it directly. But it’s worth considering in all mediations.

He recommends that both plaintiff and defendant begin with an apology. This is right out of the Christian mediation playbook. Indeed, the preparation for Christian mediation (often referred to as “conflict coaching”) includes encouraging each party to examine their own contribution to the conflict, in accordance with Jesus’ teaching to “get the log out of your own eye” first, before going after the “speck” in your neighbor’s eye (Matthew 7:5). When each side is willing to acknowledge, confess or apologize to the other, Christian mediators know the parties are ready to meet face-to-face.

Mr. Meyer’s recommendation isn’t based on obedience to biblical commands, but rather on strategy. As he notes, the other side will be caught off guard – “but in a good way.” In our mediation trainings, we demonstrate mediation of a wrongful death case where the defendant’s opening includes an “I’m sorry” to the plaintiff widow; the audience is stunned. Most admit they’ve never seen that happen in actual cases, while acknowledging how powerful it is. Opening with an apology can go a long way towards negotiating a good resolution.

But it’s also risky. I recall a mediation where the defendant apologized in his opening; it backfired. Not only did it not display the “compassion” that Mr. Meyer seeks, it hardened the plaintiff, who perceived it as insincere and self-serving. Had the defendant alerted me before the joint session, I may have been able to help him prepare a more effective apology (because this was not a Christian mediation, we had not discussed it). But maybe not.

Mr. Meyer urges, “Say ‘I’m sorry’ for something – literally anything!” I applaud his recognition of the power of apology, and of the value in talking about non-monetary options, but I wouldn’t advise treating the apology so glibly. He also suggests “saving face” by having the mediator deliver the apology. Again, this should be considered thoughtfully, as it too is risky (“She didn’t have the guts to tell me herself?”).

Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to see a litigator appreciate the value of apology, and his advice could get some parties in the right mindset. Even considering apologizing forces a party to get a bit humble, and to look at the other guy as something less than pure evil—and that mindset in itself can promote a mediated resolution.


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