The daunting call to radical forgiveness

I struggle with forgiveness. Oh, on the whole I tend not to hold grudges, tend to move on, tend not to let the poison of anger eat away at me for long.


But I nonetheless sometimes find forgiveness a problem. I continue at times to live with a desire for retribution. This is true of my feelings for the terrorists who murdered my nephew on 9/11 and — though I am not equating the situations — for the pastor with whom my former wife had an affair and for her.


And yet I know Brian Zahnd is right in his book “UNconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness”, that “When Jesus teaches on forgiveness, he pushes us into the extreme. Jesus seems to be indicating that our practice of forgiveness should be unconditional.”


Partly because I myself need help with this area of my life, I’ve decided to do what I often do when I don’t fully understand something — I’ve decided to teach about it.


Which explains why I’ll be co-leading a July 16-22 seminar at Ghost Ranch on the questions about forgiveness. For details, see: (That site also will provide details about the July 8-15 Ghost Ranch class I’ll be co-teaching with a physician on end-of-life issues.)


The co-teacher of the forgiveness class will be Doug Hundley, an elder in my congregation who for several years has run wonderful classes he calls “The Forgiveness Café.”


He uses those gatherings to help people figure out what forgiveness really means for them and whether they’re capable not just of offering forgiveness but also whether they have the capacity to receive it — and under what circumstances.


I wish forgiveness were a much simpler concept than it turns out to be. Like people who want to interpret all the words in the Bible literally, I sometimes find myself wishing there were a simple rule about forgiveness that would take no more than 15 minutes to work through.


But, as many of us know, both the Bible and forgiveness both are much more complicated than that.


Even widely publicized cases of forgiveness aren’t as simple as they seem at first. Take, for instance, the October 2006 shooting of Amish children at the West Nickel Mines School in Pennsylvania.


Much of America was astonished and inspired by the way in which the Amish community immediately came together and offered forgiveness to the shooter.


And I mean to take nothing away from the generosity of that act to note that the Amish believe they would put their eternal destiny in jeopardy if they did not forgive. It’s one thing to forgive simply from a loving heart but another to forgive to save oneself from damnation.


And that’s another question about forgiveness: Does motive matter? If we really forgive, what difference does it make whether we do so for our own selfish purposes? Even my own understanding that failure to forgive in the end will damage me can be seen as a selfish motive.


So I’ll teach about forgiveness for a week, hoping, in the end, to learn something. Maybe you’ll come help teach me.


BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at