Derrida, Institutions and the Unforgivable

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’’[1].  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’[2].  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’[3]; an aporia [4].  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.”’[4]

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’[5], 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’.”[6]

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

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, 8 Feb 2006].


  1. Awesome. I am not too familiar with Derrida, but I very much appreciate the application of philosophy to religious contemplation. Thanks.

  2. Outstanding, Aaron. If we deserved forgiveness, then it would be a matter of simple justice, necessity, entitlement. There can exist no mercy in the transactional, zero-sum economy of conditional forgiveness. Mercy and the power of Christ can, by definition, only be rendered to the un-deserving. In my experience, apologies for the gravest infractions, for the most profound kinds of pain we can cause others, are sapped of their legibility or intelligibility precisely because they imply a kind of everyday, common forgivability and even an implicit expectation of forgiveness which contravenes the nature of the sin in question. How can one apologize for causing grave harm without in some sense trivializing it thereby?

    Yet our cost-counting framings of contrition/forgiveness exchanges, with repentance rendered in the grammar of rationally self-interested economic transactions, entail another kind of intelligibility. We simply cannot make sense of the fact that, for example, in Mark’s gospel Jesus does not condition His forgiveness or His healing power or His fellowship on the repentance of the sinners with whom He spends His time and on whose behalf He ministers.

    Sometimes the timeliest message is also the most timeless one.

  3. Neal Kramer says:

    Let me add briefly to what Brad said.

    The most horrifying experience of mortality is having committed a sin for which there is no restitution. I personally believe there are many such sins. I can beg forgiveness all I like, but I cannot fix the damage.

    Atonement means mediation and reconciliation. But that cannot come without healing. We need the mediator to heal us so that forgiving the unforgivable becomes a possibility.

    Hence Brad’s comment that this cannot be a foolish zero-sum game. Having committed such sins places you beyond remunerative possibilities.

    Such atonement can only be infinite in scope and possibility and enacted by a being who who can provide infinite healing for the sinner and the one(s) sinned against.

    True repentance is characterized by agony of soul, not by rational transactions or in terms of dishonest self-interest. Superfluous contrition or forgiveness is an insult to God.

  4. So if we accept that the aggrieved party (those negatively impacted by Prop. 8, to use your example) can only truly offer forgiveness unconditionally, it’s not clear to me why this means, as you seem to indicate, that the offender should not adopt an apologetic attitude. When I do something that offends my wife, I apologize. Whether or not she forgives me is, perhaps, irrational and not dependent on my apology, but I find it good for my own soul to offer the apology nonetheless.

  5. An apology or Christ-like actions?

    I believe that the actions really are the key to true repentance – while the apology is important to humanity, both in repentance and forgiveness. That’s the point where theory conflicts with reality, imo.

    Great post, Aaron.

  6. Iow, aplogy without changed action is dead, being alone – but apology is important as part of being alive.

  7. Dave, as you suggest, I too wonder if apologies ought to be offered simply because the offender’s soul requires it. This approach is perhaps most frequently associated with prayer: although God already knows what you may ask of him, we are commanded to pray because the very act itself, if honestly and penitently engaged in, changes us. Similarly, I had a stake president who claimed that God doesn’t need our tithing, “He knows where the money is. If he wanted it, he would take it, but you need to pay your tithing.”

    Although I think the above comparisons are relevant for the spiritual well-being of the individual, I wonder if the lesson becomes moot when applied to groups of people, or, in this particular case, a very very large organization. Can the apology of an organization somehow affect the spiritual course of its constituent individuals (or many leaders) in a similar fashion as it might affect the single soul?

  8. Great post. Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness is a great text of Derrida on this topic. And I think your more pragmatic conclusions are quite correct as well. One should note that much of Derrida’s comments are more about forgiveness and hospitality in political terms. i.e. the relation between one and the state. Of course far from arguing this makes Derrida less relevant to this discussion I think it makes him more relevant since the ultimate issue is a political and less a religious one.

    All that said perhaps we should also consider Derrida on reconciliation. Ultimately Derrida’s point is that reconciliation and forgiveness are different but quite often conflated. You did a great job bringing this out.

  9. To add, sometimes asking forgiveness or offering apologies can have a utility within a particular political economy. However true reconciliation has to be something else. When we take up our responsibility towards others though we may find that offering apologies or the like can be a first step from within our responsibility.

  10. Thanks for this my man. Its a great topic(s). Particularly the idea of the impossible. As Christians / Mormons we can see how our various institutions are deeply concerned with the possible at the expense of the impossible. Yet our religious heritage, and our scriptures keep bringing us back to the impossible. (of course I am NOT talking about miracles, or divine acts here.) This is one reason why Derrida is so useful, and such a powerful interpreter of the Christian tradition, he keeps us focused on the impossible.

    “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.”

    Is it taken as a given that we can treat forgiveness and apologies / expressions of regret in this way? Do we see them as two sides of the same coin or completely different? I lean towards the idea that they are completely different. But the rub is that in this context any apology or expression of forgiveness is by definition already participating in an economy. There would be no way for it to not be.

    The other issue regarding the context you describe is that its not a context of the impossible. Everything to do with something like prop 8, all the actions on both sides are quite forgivable.

    “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. ”

    Spiritually I understand where you are coming from, but pragmatically in the social / political realm such apologies can help. There are a lot of former Mormons out there who would be deeply moved by a sign that the institution understands some of its own failings, understood the suffering it causes. Rather than ignoring criticisms etc in order to serve the political end of projecting a certain public image of itself.

    “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.”

    This is the most important aspect, it taps into that energy of the impossible (without being impossible of course) and I would add that there is a necessity to live this out in real time. For me this was an exciting part of being a visible public figure speaking out against prop. 8. In that, at the same time I was also a member of a very conservative group that did not understand my point of view or actions yet, on an admittedly small scale, we still claimed one another, still had to welcome one another despite daily efforts from both sides to get us to divide. If this had not been going on, if we had divided and then offered forgiveness after it was all over, it would have been a parody of Christianity.

  11. I also don’t think that institutions should apologize and beg forgiveness. An individual may apologize for his or her mis-actions or mis-statements, to be sure, but really only for his or hers, not another’s. The President of the Church need not apologize for prior presidents. An apostle need not apologize for prior apostles. And so forth all the way to the bottom. The prior incumbents were released from their callings, either by the Lord throug death or by proper priesthood authority, and another person is now magnifying the office, perhaps differently than others did before. He or she need only apologize for his or hew own misdeeds.

  12. Didn’t President Hinckley apologize for Mountain Meadows? Reagan apologize for the Japanese internment, but that came along with along with a cash payment. So maybe it is more about justice.

  13. I was going to say exactly what Brad said, in exactly the same way, using the exact same words.

    Brilliant post Aaron.

  14. ji, I think the stakes change when an institution claims to be the heir or successor. You’re right that Pres. Monson isn’t Brigham Young, and can’t apologize on Brigham’s behalf. However, he is the head of an organization that claims to have continuity with the same organization that Brigham headed. Through that continuity, we receive blessings — the rights to priesthood authority, doctrines, traditions, and cultural heritage. However, I don’t believe that we can easily assume to inherit the blessings of an organization without also inheriting its baggage. While apologizing might be impossible, repudiation is not.

  15. To clarify my last sentence, we may not be able to apologize for our forbears grievous actions, but we can make it clear that we repudiate those actions in our own lives and that they will not continue through us.

  16. Dave et al., I think I may have been mis-understood because I want to separate out the idea of an apology (which is potentially linked with forgiveness) from repentance. Institutions and persons should repent for themselves you are right, which is exactly the point I brief make at the end of the OP in reference to Rowan Williams. Moreover think that such repentance would (and particularly as institutions) involve confession.

    Clark, my reading is based on that text and your added thoughts and clarifications are appreciated. Thinking about these issues outside of an exchange, i.e. focused upon the responsibility of the individual/state/institution, is one of the important moves that Derrida makes here, IMO.

    Douglas, its great to see you here again. As always you push my thinking in new directions. Thank you.

    The unforgivable is a difficult concept in Derrida. At times my reading suggests that the ‘unforgivable’ is (as embodied in a Mormon context) the Sons of Perdition and at others I want to locate it on a personal level. The implication of the first position is that the sins on both sides are forgivable, as you suggest, and yet the second position raises increased complexity regarding whether for a specific individual it is forgivable.

    Moreover, I suspect that this type of unconditional forgiveness does not consist of vapid or trite words proclamations. This is serious work, as I believe Derrida wants us to see. Like Brad noted earlier, Christ has exemplified the pain that such an act requires, and I suspect that the process of suffering-with in order to offer that forgiveness is a creative endeavour that Christ calls us to engage.

    JI, you may have mis-understood my comments. I think Institutions should repent and should, like the Archbishop of Canterbury indicates, repent for the wrongs of former saints. Therefore I agree with Dane’s comment.

    As an amateur in these areas I appreciate all of your kind comments.

  17. I was more just throwing a shout out for the text for those who didn’t see it in your footnote.

    Derrida’s use of “unforgiveable” is interesting since it is obviously different from the Mormon use of the term. I tend to read him more as getting after “pure” concepts or universals even though in reality we never encounter the pure uncontaminated. I see Derrida in some ways as contrasting pure concepts with intrinsically contaminated concepts. (Such as Law and Justice in “Force of Law”) That is concepts open to deconstruction and those not.

    For others it’s helpful that Derrida is always most concerned with what “escapes” any systemizing. Thus he sees repentence in its formal sense as part of a system. That’s what he means by economy. To give an example we had an employee who embezzled recently a lot of money. He wanted to come in and apologize. But it was quickly obvious that this wasn’t what I’d call sincere but was merely something he felt like he was supposed to do. It was purely economical. What Derrida is getting at is that ethics and responsibility are lost when we’re merely doing things because it is part of the system. It is inauthentic in a very core way. That relationship between the self and the other is overlooked in preference for rules, exchanges and the like. So Derrida wants us to look beyond the exchange or system into a kind of new encounter. What is always in excess of the system.

    In LDS terms this is very much akin to the spirit of the law vs. the body of the law. (To adopt Paul)

  18. Meanwhile, back in the real world… I would be interested to hear a version of this analysis re: the Catholic child abuse debacle/tragedy, which elevates consideration of institutional apology to different levels altogether. To even suggest that a surviving and viable institution (as opposed to one that no longer exists except, perhaps, as part of a larger entity like Nazi/Germany) need not make a genuine effort in this direction is rather fantastic, finer pts. of social philosophy notwithstanding.

  19. The law (reinforced by recent Supreme Court ruling) rather broadly gives companies the rights and obligations of a person. If a corporation has the First Amendment rights of a person, does it not have an obligation to offer the same apologies as a person?

  20. pdmallamo, I think you need to reread the post. You clearly didn’t get the idea of what was going on.

    Dan, the point is that an obligation is something other than affecting true reconciliation or taking up ones true responsibility to others. Certainly we can have demanded obligations of all sorts – things like paying taxes, fines and the like. However we’ll never fulfill our ethical responsibility if we merely engage in the economy of obligations.

  21. Aaron:

    Perhaps I was confused by your use of the term “apology,” and the distinction between that and a repentant “confession.” At risk of distorting your (or Derrida’s) argument with a shorthand: “forgive me” would be the problematic form of an apology while “i’m sorry” can, when offered sincerely, be a useful thing for those offering it.

    I still don’t think this gets us off the hook.

  22. “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.”

    Clark, with this (author’s sentence) we’ve left theory, as it were. This is what I am addressing.

  23. Right, but his point is that neither the apology nor the call for the apology are sufficient for the healing. Something else must be done. Note he explicitly said in the comments,

    I think I may have been mis-understood because I want to separate out the idea of an apology (which is potentially linked with forgiveness) from repentance. Institutions and persons should repent for themselves you are right, which is exactly the point I brief make at the end of the OP in reference to Rowan Williams. Moreover think that such repentance would (and particularly as institutions) involve confession.

    Aaron, at least as I read him, isn’t saying confession isn’t appropriate in some cases. Rather he’s saying repentance is something different.

  24. Just to make an analogy to a popular account of repentance. Say you break someone’s window. It’s appropriate to repay them or fix the window as well as to say sorry. While those are appropriate they are really caught up in an economic model due to the rules of our society. It’s something you are supposed to do and everything you are supposed to do is delineated.

    However merely paying someone for their window is not the same as being reconciled to them. It’s merely an economic rule. But the true ethical response is to want to help the other person, to be reconciled to them. To respond to them as a person and not just a series of obligations. Thus something more is demanded.

  25. For those still confused, if #24 didn’t help, this wonderful Church production “Who Broke My Window” should clear things up.

  26. ps- tell me Mr. Robinson doesn’t remind you of Michael Ballam in a certain role.

  27. pps, part two of that commercial depicted the young man’s court proceedings and subsequent visit to Juvenile Detention as the result of his rampant vandalism; the “justice” aspect coverage.

  28. Chris H (no. 12): I’m not so sure President Hinckley apologized for MMM — he expressed his sorrow, and Pres. Eyring expressed regret, but I’m not sure at all that “the Church” apologized.

    dan weston (no. 19): The Church is not a corporation — an organization, yes, but not a corporation.

    Cannot a Church member rejoice in the lifting of the priesthood ban without “repudiating” those under whose tenures it existed? Do not we “repent” of racism by leaving it behind us and changing our behavior? I still think a person can only really apologize for his or her own words or deeds. In a Church setting, the release of the old person and the sustaining of a new person gives the new person an opportunity to magnify the calling. If the new person makes an error, he or she can apologize for it upon realizing the error — but if death comes before that realization, there can be no apology.

    I know I’m looking at this question of Church apology from a different perspective than the original posting — Derrida is over my head. But I do not believe the new occupant of a Church office inherits any culpability for the errors of the prior incumbents. A mess, maybe, which the new occupant might choose to clean up, but not culpability. No culpability, no apology, in my mind. But one can have genuine sorrow or regret without culpability and without the duty of apology.

  29. ji, I think that Daymon Smith’s Correlation series at BCC earlier in the year demonstrates fairly convincingly that the Church is, in some form, a corporation.

    Clark, thank you for a clear articulation of Derrida’s ideas.

    pdmallamo, you might enjoy reading the text. It is very short and is actually based upon both the Holocaust and Reconciliation trials in S. Africa. These are the very specific narratives that Derrida is engaging and so he would therefore think that his comments are exactly relevant to the concerns you raise.

    Dave, as noted above, I agree that people should say sorry and mean it. That act, however, I believe does not bring healing in the person who has been offended but it can help heal the offender. Again it is for this reason that repentance and forgiveness are ‘indissociable’ and ‘absolutely heterogenous’. Reconciliation must be sort individually and, almost, spontaneously. Reconciliation cannot happen with repentance and forgiveness but it can never be achieved in they are exchanged.