Discussion abounds of late on Institutional apologies. Using Derrida’s work on forgiveness I think it is possible to argue that the Church should not ask for forgiveness. Most often such calls are contextualised around the Priesthood ban or Homosexuality. From the outset I want to be clear that I am not taking any position regarding the inspiration of the ban or Prop 8 nor that the discourse to support these positions is correct. In fact I am assuming the opposite simply because most ‘calls for an apology’ come from people who accept that these actions/decisions were mis-guided.
The questions Derrida raises about forgiveness are tied to the proliferating scenes of repentance (since WWII) where ‘communities, professional corporations [&] the representatives of ecclesiastical hierarchies… ask for ‘forgiveness’’. Derrida is sceptical of such discursive strategies and I hope to trace his argument here to elaborate why. First, Derrida argues that though apologies are one route that organisations and people can take, they are particularly hollow when they are on behalf of people who are now dead. Moreover, when the language of forgiveness is used in ‘the service of finalities’ it is ‘anything but pure and disinterested’. When forgiveness begins to serve ends it becomes political, and is connected with exchange and compromise which should never be the purpose of forgiveness. Its very nature requires it to be the opposite of political. The reason being, as Derrida sees it, that ‘forgiveness forgives only the unforgiveable’.
The unforgivable stands apart from forgiveness but they are inseparable because ‘if one is only prepared to forgive the forgivable… then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear’. In other words, according to Robert Rowland Smith, ‘for us to forgive somebody it must be possible for us to forgive them, but if it is so possible for them to be forgiven why would we need to forgive them in the first place… There is no real value that attaches to the forgiveness that I might grant’. Derrida sets up this paradox in order to show that forgiving the unforgivable is the only thing that is worth forgiving, but that is impossible. If we can forgive X then an apology does not facilitate that forgiveness.
On this point Derrida is explicit; for if ‘forgiveness can only be considered on the condition that it be asked’ it has been mis-understood. Narratives of both conditional and unconditional forgiveness are upheld in the Abrahamic tradition. These narratives are simultaneously ‘absolutely heterogenous’ and ‘indissociable’; an aporia . Derrida goes so far as to contend that true forgiveness ‘should be devoid of any attempt to heal or reconcile, or even to save or redeem’ it should be unintelligible. Yet, it is this absolute unintelligibility which stands opposed to the intelligibility of conditional forgiveness that provides the aporia which Derrida is trying to navigate. These indissociable poles create the necessity of an individual assuming the ‘difficult responsibility, to negotiate the best response in an impossible situation’. In trying to explicate what this means Bernstein has written:
‘The unstable “space” of forgiveness is the irreducible, heterogeneous tension in-between these two poles. Decision and responsibility take place in this tensed in-between. And there is (necessarily) always risk and uncertainty in the experience of passing through this “space.”’
Individuals are given the responsibility to transcend or exist within the tension of this opposition. Derrida does not provide a solution to this problem, he himself remains ‘torn’; but what he calls for is an appreciation of the struggle to negotiate this aporia. Derrida wants us to recognise the significance of our decision to forgive, and this is his most important contention.
Bernstein criticises Derrida for reducing all acts of forgiveness into the ‘economy of conditional forgiveness’ even though there may be legitimate reasons for forgiveness. However, Derrida labels the forgivable in this way to exaggerate his position in the hope of highlighting the facile and hollow discourse that has accompanied much of the apology rhetoric of recent years. Moreover, this categorisation serves to elucidate the other issue of a pre-emptive forgiveness. Forgiveness should be offered gratis. Labelling forgiveness as an economy directs the readers attention to this notion of an exchange (my good will for your tears) which is deplorably empty.
There is one final reason, perhaps the most important, why conditional forgiveness never leads to true reconciliation. Each time conditional forgiveness is offered ‘it seems to suppose some sovereign power’; a sovereign power exercised over another person. Derrida hopes for ‘a forgiveness without power: unconditional but without sovereignty’. God’s power flows unto him without compulsory means and works on the basis of patience, long-suffering, persuasion, gentleness and love (see D&C 121: 41-2, 46). Thus God’s power is in the willing follower who accepts God’s pre-emptive love and forgiveness (see 1 Jn 4:10-11). Holding that power over another is the type of antagonism that breeds evil and restricts life and expansion. ‘Evil lies in the opposition among and between people, in the will to power “over,” not power on “behalf of” another’, and therefore this type of conditional forgiveness is a myth that restricts love and limits the healing that Christ demonstrates.
In this context, therefore, I have been moved by specific and spontaneous expressions of regret, however I do not believe that such should stand nor be used in an economy of forgiveness. Do I think institutions should repent? Certainly, especially those that claim to be Christ-centered. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has noted ‘The Body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time; it exists across history and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the Body of Christ, is prayerful acknowledgement of the failure that is part of us not just of some distant ‘them’.”
However I do not believe that calling for an apology will help heal the people affected by these events nor do I believe that giving that ‘official’ apology will help to heal those wounds either. Instead I feel that we (our general leaders and local members) must demonstrate and give expression to a form of unconditional forgiveness that is worthy of the ‘Body of Christ’. Moreover I feel that we (both general leaders and local members) must be willing to engage in that Christ-like work of mourning with those that mourn as we strive to repent for the pain that we cause in the lives of others.
1. Jacques Derrida, On Cosmoploitanism and Forgiveness [ London: Routledge, 2001].
2. Robert Rowland Smith, Derrida on Forgiveness in Philosophy Bites, ed. Edmunds D. & Warburton N., [online] accessed at http://philosophybites.com/past_programmes.html
3. Jacques Derrida et al., Forgiveness: A Roundtable Discussion with Jacques Derrida in Questioning God, ed. Caputo, Dooley & Scanlon [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001] p. 45.
4. Richard J. Bernstein, The Aporia of Forgiveness in Constellations, vol. 13, no. 3, [London: Blackwell, 2006] p. 394-406.
5. Kathleen Flake, Evil’s Origin and Evil’s End in Joseph Smith’s Translation of Genesis in Sunstone [online].
6. Rowan Williams, Bicentenary of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade – Speech to General Synod [online http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/315, 8 Feb 2006].