A recent terrific podcast from Planet Money explored "the mind of a financial criminal." Sam Antar was part of the Antar family that ran the crooked electronics business, Crazy Eddie, and the podcast interviews him on how they did it, and how he feels about it today.
It's a very interesting story and interview, especially as he comments on how white collar crime is so disastrous to so many people, yet we all find it so interesting (How did they do it?) and tend to be more forgiving towards it than hardened thuggery. He says, "White collar crime is a brutal crime … more brutal than violent crime.… People tend to give us a pass."
But it gets even more interesting in the last five minutes, when Sam reflects on how he currently feels about his involvement with Crazy Eddie, and whether words and apologies matter. He comments, "Judge me by my actions, not by my words.… I don't want to play a violin of redemption. It doesn't do anything. Apologies are meaningless." He points out how Bernie Madoff apologized, but it fails to help any victim.
I disagree with Sam, but appreciate what he is saying. Perhaps in today's age of public scandals, celebrity apologies, and the PR approach of scandal-disappear from the limelight-return some years later and hope the world's forgotten it, Sam is right. He doesn't want to be another Madoff who gives an inauthentic apology with no reparation. He says, know me by my fruit, see what I have done, and judge me there. Don't judge me by the words that fooled so many for so long.
I still think the best path is a genuine apology along with outward signs of repentance, such as reparation and service. Dear old Zacchaeus announced his new way of life and vowed to pay back what he had stolen, and this was seen as salvation. Jesus is someone whose message and actions were commensurate, who showed signs of the kingdom even as he preached to thousands. This is true integrity.
But, at the end of the day, if I had to choose between words and actions, I'd choose actions. I'd rather see contrition than hear about it, especially as words can deceive even the deceiver. Some people believe their own lies, and want you to do the same. Better to see actions than words. Actions can also deceive, granted, but there is a higher cost to actions than words, and thus a higher credibility to them. You will know them by their fruit.