The will to turn the other cheek

The will to turn the other cheek The memorial service for Timothy Keller in St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I?, by Timothy Keller (Hodder & Stoughton, £10.00/€12.99)

On May 19 this year, Pastor Timothy Keller died at his Manhattan home of pancreatic cancer. He was the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and a widely read best-selling Christian writer. He did not care to be labelled as an ‘evangelical’, thinking that that title had been given a political emphasis he did not care for and could not reconcile with his understanding of Christianity.

In August a service of remembrance for him was held in St Patrick’s Cathedral, that Catholic bastion in a city increasingly disengaged from any kind of faith. The venue was offered to Keller’s family by his friend Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The cathedral was packed with his admirers from many traditions. Many more watched the service, which Keller himself had composed ante-mortem, online.

This then is his last book, and it comes to his readers at a time of retribution and vengeance when thoughts of forgiveness could not be more needed. He remains through its pages the influential figure that he was in life.

This is recognised by his publishers who say for it is “not only important on a religious level, the matter of forgiveness has a huge impact on social and cultural levels.”

Five days before the formal publication of this last testament of the author, Hamas mounted its attack on Israel, opening a new war which has rapidly divided, indeed fractured opinion one might say. The ideas in this book go very much to the heart of the moral problems entailed in this developing conflict.

Timothy Keller reached out to the young of New York.

In writing the book last year Keller may well have had in mind the question of forgiveness on an interpersonal level. But all relationships are ultimately interpersonal. So what has Keller to say that may aid us all in seeking a way forward in peace?

The book opens with the passage in Matthew 18:21-25, the parable of the unforgiving servant. He moves on to discuss Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Commission of Truth and Justice in South Africa. Suggesting that “today many are finding the concept of forgiveness increasingly problematic”.

Keller frames his exploration of the theme in three parts. The first part is losing and finding forgiveness. The second part is a discussion of the very nature of forgiveness and what it entails. The third part consists of the last four chapters discussing the difficulties of practising forgiveness.

We seem in ourselves to be able to arrive at a moral horizon that is in keeping with Christian tradition, indeed all traditions deriving from the Old Testament, that is to say Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But though these seem to work in a ‘private capacity’ they seem to have little effect on the wider public sphere.


In this book Keller lays heavy emphasis on the reasoning of Archbishop Tutu, that the historic quarrels of South Africa were solved by the Commission for Truth and Justice. Neither Archbishop Tutu or Timothy Keller felt that the International Criminal Court provided a way forward, and that seems to be so given the rejection of its mandate in so many quarters. Reading Keller’s last pages will make many appreciate the difficulties of reconciliation.

So in the end, it seems that forgiveness arises from a deep moral need. It requires for all parties to change and accept the others. But given the fallen world in which we live, it would need the goodwill and charity of a St Francis of Assisi to achieve this task. Peace is something all of us can hope for, and those in our community who still pray, to pray for.

Above all we should remember that in the Beatitudes we are told: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” But peace-making is not the urgent desire of all, we all desire to be justified as well, we need to be the ones in the right, and someone else wrong.

So many have found in the past the role of peace-maker is not always appreciated. But it is a clear direction. “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” But to forgive is not perhaps to forget; it is to place painful memories in context. A hard task perhaps; but then little in life is really easy.