Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On The Unforgivable: Grace & Impossibility in Jesus & Derrida

"Do you think there is such a thing as an unforgivable sin?"

My friends know I love spiritual, biblical, and theological conversations. Sometimes they even appreciate my opinions. A few evenings ago, one of my friends asked me the above question. My answer surprised me a little.

I first admitted my ignorance of Matthew 12:31-32. The Jesus of Matthew's Gospel says "blasphemy against the holy spirit will not be forgiven." I know the passage, but I have never done serious study into what the verse means. I haven't even spent significant time trying to understand the passage without outside study. I've heard other people talk about what the passage means, but I'm too skeptical to take their words for it.

Not surprisingly, I thought of Derrida's nearly incomprehensible words after I thought of Jesus'. In 1997, Derrida wrote On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, an intriguing combination of topics. And perhaps Derrida's thoughts aren't completely applicable. After all, my friend wondered not whether humans cannot forgive a certain sin, but rather if God could or would not forgive a certain sin or sins. Maybe Derrida's thoughts say more about God than I initially realized.

Derrida says, "We are all heir, at least, to persons or events marked, in an essential, interior, ineffaceable fashion, by crimes against humanity." A crime against humanity is "a crime against what is most sacred in the living, and thus already against the divine in man," and perhaps, in a sense, the blasphemy about which Matthew's Jesus speaks.

Derrida believes forgiveness should be "anecomonic," one should not forgive a sin because one wants to be forgiven. No one should give forgiveness in payment for a forgiveness or in expectation of a later forgiveness (cf. Matt. 18:21-35). In fact, for Derrida, anything that can be forgiven is not something needing forgiveness.
"If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, what the church calls 'venial sin', then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear. If there is something to forgive, it would be what in religious language is called mortal sin, the worst, the unforgivable crime or harm. From which comes the aporia, which can be described in its dry and implacable formality, without mercy: forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable. One cannot, or should not, forgive; there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself. It can only be possible in doing the impossible."
I can't imagine Jesus would disagree with Derrida. Jesus made forgiveness sound sensational. A man in a parable does not forgive a debt and reaps condemnation. Peter asks how many times he should forgive his brother, who apparently commits a great amount of wrongs. Seven times? How about seventy times seven.

Jesus promotes the social justice of the Torah and Tanak, not the dueteronomic retributive justice upon which too many Christians focus. Retributive justice seems to have a place in society. The ancient Hebrew Torah set up retributive justice for their society to work. Today we continue it at the societal level with institutes for correction, however corrupt and non-corrective they are.

On the social level, Jesus and Derrida realize justice in a different sense, where we are all debtors like the man in Jesus' parable, all heirs to the most heinous of sins, all guilty. If we are all guilty, then forgiveness becomes impossible and necessary. But all of our sins are against ourselves and each other. "Forgiveness is ... mad. It must plunge, but lucidly, into the night of the unintelligible." It must happen in order to enter into relationship with others, with ourselves, and with God--the God in us and the God with us.

So we come again to Peter's famous question about how many times to forgive his brother. Jesus' answer is a ridiculous number intended for exaggeration, a hyperbole. Jesus' answer changes the concept of forgiveness completely. Jesus is not concerned with forgiving sins. "What would be a forgiveness that forgave only the forgivable?" Rather, Jesus is concerned with forgiving people.

Forgiving the forgivable forgives the past, which is doable, although sometimes hard. Forgiving a person means you forgive their future, too. Rationally, you cannot forgive something that hasn't happened. The unforgivable sin is the one that has not happened, but it is "the only thing to forgive[.] The only thing that calls for forgiveness." This is the only forgiveness that can be unconditional, the only forgiveness that is actually forgiveness.

"In principle, there is no limit to forgiveness, no measure, no moderation, no 'to what point?'"

And so it is with God, I believe. I still do not understand the whole bit about blasphemy against the spirit. But I imagine God forgives people, not sins. God is concerned with sins and wrongdoings, but God does not forgive those things. Things don't need forgiving, people do.


Derrida, Jacques. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. Trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes. Thinking in Action. New York: Routledge, 2001. Originally published in 1997, in French.

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