The Madness of Mercy: Jacques Derrida on Forgiveness
In this brief meditation (and, quite frankly, rather “thick” in the best sense of the term) we will focus on one key idea by one writer-philosopher – Jacques Derrida. For those unfamiliar with Derrida (1930-2004), he was an Algerian-French philosopher (perhaps a too restrictive description given the breadth of his ideas and writings). He authored a brief but profound essay – “On Forgiveness” – which was published in English in 2001. Though here we focus primarily on Derrida, his thoughts regarding forgiveness have influenced a number of Christian philosophers and theologians such as John D. Caputo (What Would Jesus Deconstruct? 2007) and Richard Holloway (On Forgiveness: How Can We Forgive the Unforgiveable?, 2002). The theme of forgiveness, especially in the political sphere, pestered his thinker and in the later decades of his life, Derrida devoted a number of lectures and writings to this crucial topic. In this essay he is concerned with geopolitical forgiveness (especially with relevance to Algeria and France as well as more broadly), but we will mine his thought for interpersonal connections as well. (Please note that the meditation will be brief and the direct quotes deserve ample time for further and deeper meditation. One might also want to read the essay in its entirety.)
Derrida emphasizes the “gift” dimension of forgiveness. (Here return to a thought in an earlier meditation, namely, that gift by its very nature as “sheer gift” cannot be qualified by an ulterior motive; to do so is to place gift at risk of morphing into something else such as a “deal” or an “exchange.”) For Derrida, forgiveness as gift cannot be limited. In the very opening line of his essay “On Forgiveness” he states unequivocally: “In principle, there can be no limit to forgiveness, no measure, no moderation, no ‘to what point?’
More provocatively, he states:
I shall risk this proposition: each time forgiveness is at the service of a finality, be it noble and spiritual (atonement or redemption, reconciliation, salvation), each that that it aims to re-establish a normality (social, national, political, psychological) by a work of mourning, by some therapy or ecology of memory, then the ‘forgiveness’ is not pure, nor is its concept. Forgiveness is not, it should not be (emphasis his), normal, normative, normalizing. It should remain exceptional and extraordinary in the face of the impossible: as if it interrupted the ordinary course of temporality.
In highlighting what he means here, Derrida states that forgiveness forgives the unforgivable, the impossible strictly speaking. It knows no limit, nor does it seek some end other than itself (not even the psychotherapeutic easing of the soul/psyche of the one who offers it). Derrida states rather forwardly: “…there is only forgiveness if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility.”
Derrida takes issue with what he calls “the conditional logic of the exchange.” Here he means a forgiveness (or actually pseudo-forgiveness) that rests on some other end whether that is repentance, restoration, restitution, or whatever. For Derrida this extravagant and naked forgiveness traffics in a zone of madness.
To put the matter rather bluntly, this stands as a challenge to traditional ideas regarding forgiveness especially in Christian tradition and practice (and more broadly in the Abrahamic religious traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – as Derrida calls them; though paradoxically he seems to suggest that the Abrahamic tradition is the well-spring of his understanding of forgiveness as unconditional).
There is much for Christians, and more particularly for Catholics, to reflect on here. The difficulty lies in the observation that often, rather than an act of sheer grace, the offer of forgiveness appears to be conditions. Its logic seems predicated on the economy of exchange rather than gift/grace and, as such, forgiveness (if that is what it is) actually is simply an exchange, a deal, an agreement: I/WE will offer forgiveness if YOU respond appropriately to the following conditions. Generally these conditions are several:
- I/WE will forgive if YOU express sorrow or contrition.
- I/WE will forgive if YOU make restitution or amends.
- I/WE will forgive if YOU promise to the best of your ability not to re-offend.
- I/WE will forgive if YOU do penance (of some sort or another either in addition to restitution or in substitution for it when it is impossible strictly speaking.
By way of an aside, this may apply to self-forgiveness as well.
Frankly Derrida calls these conditions into question as themselves contrary to the nature of forgiveness as sheer gift/grace. Authentic forgiveness is offered even when these conditions are not met and/or are actually refused.
For Christians, Jesus’ behavior functions as a model. It seems to be the case that Jesus maintained companionship with sinners and this companionship was not necessarily conditioned. To employ Derrida’s language regarding forgiveness, something mad, something impossible marks Jesus’ behavior. If unconditional forgiveness marked in the in-breaking of the Reign of God, then Jesus’ behavior might well have been perceived as scandalous and thus the advent of the cross becomes quite understandable on multiple levels for Jesus’ behavior is a threat to social order – political, economic, and religious if one allows for such distinctions. To borrow a word from Derrida which is common in postmodern discourse, such behavior announces an aporia. Again to quote Derrida:
Yet despite all the confusions which reduce forgiveness to amnesty or to amnesia, to acquittal or prescription, to the work of mourning or to some political therapy of reconciliation, in short to some historical ecology, it must never be forgotten, nevertheless, that all that refers to a certain idea of pure and conditional forgiveness, without which this discourse would not have the least meaning. What complicates the question of ‘meaning’ is again what I suggested a moment ago: pure and unconditional forgiveness, in order to have its own meaning, must have no ‘meaning,’ no finality, even no intelligibility. It is a madness of the impossible. It would be necessary to follow, without letting up, the consequences of this paradox, or this aporia.
Three final thoughts regarding Derrida’s insights might be useful here lest we fall into the trap of thinking him rather naïve on the matter. First, when thinking about the “unforgivable,” Derrida references rather radical manifestation of cruelty and violence which, as he notes, “plunge us, but lucidly, into the night of the unintelligible.” As one point in the essay he uses the traditional Catholic distinctions between venial and mortal sin; to employ those categories, he is clearly referring to mortal sin. Second, regarding the offer or the refusal of forgiveness in such matters, Derrida refrains from any judgments especially regard those who may not forgive. Here he notes: “This zone of forgiveness remains inaccessible, and I must respect its secret.” Finally, he notes that he dreams of the forgiveness:
What I dream of, what I try to think of as the ‘purity’ of a forgiveness worthy of its name, would be a forgiveness without power: unconditional but without sovereignty (emphasis his). The most difficult task, at once necessary and apparently impossible, would be to disassociate unconditionality and sovereignty (emphasis his). Will that be done one day? It is not around the corner, as is said. But since the hypothesis of this unpresentable task announces itself, be it as a dream for thought, this madness is perhaps not so mad…
On a more personal note, this may come as close to Jesus and his spacious reign of God with a mad mercy and forgiveness, as one gets.