My past two newsletters have examined the topic of forgiveness. Two weeks ago, I wrote about forgiving friends and family who made pandemic choices different from our own. Some strong negative responses to these ideas prompted me to suggest last week that forgiveness may at times be “incomprehensible,” but that doesn’t make it impossible or unimportant. Forgiveness is challenging, and forgiveness matters personally and politically.
I thought the topic merited one more engagement, so I reached out to my friend, Tim Keller. Tim founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and is the author of a number of bestselling books. In 2020, he and I co-edited Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference.
Tim’s latest book, out just this month, is Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? It explores the power of forgiveness and how we can practice it in our lives.
Here are a few highlights from our conversation.
John Inazu: What prompted you to write this book now?
Tim Keller: Two reasons. First, as a pastor I’ve spent decades teaching and counseling about this subject. It is one of the main resources that Christianity provides. But secondly, it seems that forgiveness is “fading” in our society. Some on the Left says that forgiveness is a way for oppressors to stay in power so we shouldn’t grant it to them. Others on the Right are now complaining that we cannot go into the public square with compassion—rather, we should be tougher, less forgiving. But social relationships cannot be sustained without forgiveness. Marriages, families, friendships—they all require forgiveness in one way or another.
JI: When I shared with you my latest posts about forgiveness around the pandemic, you told me some of the responses were “worrisome.” Can you say more about what concerns you?
TK: What concerns me especially is how many professing Christians are saying we must be unforgiving to our opponents. I am not sure how they justify that in light of biblical teaching.
JI: As I’ve observed anger and frustration about forgiveness, I was reminded that Desmond Tutu once called forgiveness “the stuff of practical politics.” Do you have any thoughts about the relationship between personal and political forgiveness?
TK: Well the Bible is a book for all times and places and so, thankfully, it doesn’t lay out specifically how forgiveness will play out in public policy and politics—because there are so many varieties. We have to take responsibility for applying it in our situation and that takes wisdom. But I must say that even though I was initially skeptical of Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I now believe that, while it never did all it hoped to—or all it needed to—it was a good effort that bore fruit. Tutu applied forgiveness very directly to government. If you honestly and publicly and fully confessed what you did during apartheid, the government granted you amnesty. My first thought years ago was “that’s not justice.” But I think time has proven Tutu right. It avoided endless cycles of retaliation, and, ironically, those who confessed experienced many natural consequences for their sin. I mention these in the book.
JI: Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation because reconciliation requires repentance. What might repentance look like in our country today?
TK: If you look at Luke 3, repentance always must show its fruit. In other words, repentance must not merely verbally admit to something, but it must produce genuine change. In fact, the Bible tells me that if I say I repent but I don’t radically change my behavior, then the repentance was not from the heart. It does mean, I think, some kinds of restorative behavior on the part of dominant racial groups toward oppressed racial groups.
JI: You refer in your book to “the counterfeits” of repentance, which include blame shifting, self-pity, and self-flagellation. On a very practical level, it seems like these counterfeits by an offender can make forgiveness by a victim even more difficult emotionally and interpersonally. But a victim who points out these counterfeits can easily be characterized as bitter or vindictive. How should we address counterfeit repentance when we see it?
TK: If you forgive internally, fully, not basing it on the wrongdoer’s behavior (as Jesus calls for in Mark 11:25, cf. Romans 12:15) then when you meet the wrongdoer and call him to account, your emotional well-being will not be too beholden to and captive to his response. And if you are not actually bitter and vindictive—then when you speak you will not come across as bitter and vindictive.
JI: You write that even though the theological and cultural resources for forgiveness are diminishing in society, it “will not disappear” because “there remains a powerful human intuition about its importance and power even in a secular culture that eliminates the vertical relationship with God.” Can you say more about this?
TK: The early church offered a forgiving counter-culture in the midst of a shame and honor-vengeance culture. The monks who were the early Christian missionaries demonstrated this counter-culture to the pagan shame and honor cultures of Northern Europe. In both cases, elites thought forgiveness and love could not be the basis for a coherent society. They were sure that it required fear and respect to hold things together. But even in Rome, that brutal culture, the Christian practice of forgiveness was very moving to so many. What worries me is, unlike the early Christians, we believers in the U.S. don’t have that reputation at all.
JI: We know that forgiveness does not always require a Christian or even a theological framework. For example, Nelson Mandela did not base his forgiveness on religious commitments. But your new book argues that the Bible teaches “human forgiveness must be based on an experience of divine forgiveness” and “we must consciously base our forgiveness of others on God’s forgiveness of us.” How do you account for the Mandelas of the world?
TK: The Christian resource is powerful—it shows you that you are a sinner saved by sheer grace and living only by forgiveness from God. That both strengthens you and humbles you so you more easily forgive those who sin against you. But even without an overt belief in God, if you think of yourself as someone who—in general—needs forgiveness too, then you can still forgive others. Many of the Greek philosophers despised forgiveness because, since they thought of themselves as virtuous persons, they had no need for forgiveness. My guess is that Mandela had a different view—he probably had some sense that he needed forgiveness, too, and that freed him to extend it.
JI: As I’ve observed anger and frustration with large-scale issues like mass incarceration and the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve wondered whether some of the resulting personal and political discontent is that people aren’t quite sure who to blame. You write that “forgiveness requires identifying with the wrongdoer.” What does that mean when we don’t know who the wrongdoer is? What does forgiveness look like when the issues that have harmed us are so large and multifaceted that it’s hard to pin them on anyone in particular?
TK: Good question. Many of the things you describe are likely “systemic.” Sociologists describe unjust structures even when no individual actors within the structure are deliberately and consciously doing injustice. It’s hard to forgive people who perpetuate those structures without acknowledging that we all participate in and to some degree support those kinds of structures, too. In other words, we are back to the question of whether you see yourself as someone who needs forgiveness. If so, it’s easier to forgive others.
JI: What would you say to someone who says “I can never forgive”?
TK: I couldn’t begin to answer that until I heard what specifically the person was talking about. I think we should always, in the end, forgive—but I would be very, very, very slow to tell some people who have experienced horrendous wrongs “you have to forgive.”
From the publisher: “Pastor and New York Times bestselling author Timothy Keller outlines the reasons why forgiveness has to be a central part of everyone’s lives. Forgiving anyone in a meaningful way is one of the hardest things a person has to do. If you do not, resentment and vengeance begin to consume you. It is nearly impossible to move past transgression without forgiveness, but few people have the resources and the tools to forgive others fully and move on with their lives. Forgiveness is an essential skill, a moral imperative, and a religious belief that cuts right to the core of what it means to be human. In Forgive, Timothy Keller shows readers why it is so important and how to do it, explaining in detail the steps you need to take in order to move on without sacrificing justice or your humanity.”
One more thing
Yesterday, Mike Gerson died of cancer. Mike’s writing influenced millions of Americans, and he effortlessly linked his faith to the personal and political challenges he confronted. We shared meals together at various conferences around the country, and he would occasionally reach out to discuss constitutional questions.
Mike was an exceptionally clear writer. And as his Washington Post colleague, Karen Tumulty, wrote yesterday, his words were “singularly seasoned and notably full of grace.” The title of Tumulty’s tribute captures well what many of us are feeling today: “Michael Gerson followed his faith—and America was better for it.”
Great interview, great questions. Playing catch-up today on the responses you received to Part 1 of your treatise on pandemic forgiveness. OUCH. Forgiveness is a perennially provocative subject, but I’m struck by the way these kinds of conversations unfold online apart from relationship and life context--as if they’re just untethered ideas in cyberspace. For example, you recently wrote about your own family’s internment during WW II. Despite that grave injustice, you’re able to write about personal and political forgiveness. There’s real weight behind your words on this. Yet all those hostile responses you got take none of that important background into consideration. Their reference point is self. It shows how much pain people are still in. Rage is much more accessible than the grief or pain that animates it. Also, when people are unable to face/talk about the harm or suffering inflicted by those closest to them (family, friends) because it’s so deep, they deflect by taking aim instead at policy makers, thought leaders, and those outside their immediate sphere. That’s not something logic can address. You wouldn’t think gospel-believing Christians would be so divided on the subject of forgiveness, but man, we are. Years ago, I wrote an article that touched on forgiveness (for publication in a Christian magazine). In an attempt to illustrate the true power of Christian forgiveness in the face of even the most unrepentant evil, I included the following quote by Corrie Ten Boom: “Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.” The editor removed it.