Jaques Derrida was a French-Jewish philosopher who was a proponent of something called deconstructionism. It seems to mean that you follow a process whereby you take a ‘text’, which means everything in human experience since we experience the world through a verbal grid, and take it apart to reveal its hidden pieces and inconsistencies. The meaning of the text can be revealed through finding its inner tensions and problems. I’m certain I am oversimplifying deconstructionism, but if you wrote 1000 pages about it you would still be oversimplifying it, so we’re going to have to fly with this.
I was set to thinking about this after listening to an interview where Derrida expert Robert Rowland Smith was questioned concerning Derrida’s book on cosmopolitanism and forgiveness. You can also listen to it here:
In deconstructionist fashion, Derrida takes the idea of transgression and splits it into two kinds: the forgivable and the unforgivable. Then he shows that forgiving the forgivable isn’t really forgiveness, because upon reflection, you find it wasn’t a real transgression at all. The unforgivable is, after all, unforgivable. Pressing Derrida’s own point perhaps further than he would like, once you deconstruct it, there really is no such thing as forgiveness at all. Isn’t that lovely!
On reflection, I believe that unless you believe in radical Pauline full-blown scandalous grace, he is right – there is no possibility of forgiveness. Let’s ‘deconstruct’ this from the perspective of Christian belief.
The first problem is, he sets up a false dichotomy. There is no such thing as a forgivable sin. If I stole a dollar, I demonstrated a willingness to fish around in someone else’s stuff, and my greed and covetousness and lack of patience all came together to dictate my behavior. Further, likely I lied about it when asked until confronted with the evidence such as, “where did you get that candy bar?” “Why am I missing a dollar?” So we can add lying to the mix. Also, confession under such circumstances is only forced, so we have a false remorse. These are all really bad sins, just terrible sins. The stealing of the dollar is the small tip of a pretty big iceberg. It is very difficult to isolate a particular sin and say that one is forgivable and the other one is not.
The point is, all sins are unforgivable. The question is not the degree of evil that was done, but the substance of forgiveness and the nature and authority of justice. Deeds of questionable virtue spring from an entire web of other questionable traits of character and questionable values and questionable patterns of thought and behavior, which manifest in deeds of sin. It is virtually impossible to say whether any particular sin is forgivable or unforgivable, it is an impossible line to draw. I’m not saying that stealing a dollar is the same as genocide, I’m saying that forgiveness works on an individual basis and it is either all or nothing. It is likely that a whole string of ‘forgivable’ sins, such as self-preservation, flattery, understandable economic desperation, etc. led to the intolerable moral disaster of the Nazis. You can’t pick and choose what to forgive. If you’re going to forgive, you forgive individuals, there is no possibility of cosmopolitan forgiveness, and it is either all or nothing. Forgiveness is God stuff, and according to Jesus, forgiveness is more of a miracle than the healing of a paraplegic:
“And seeing their faith, He said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” But Jesus, aware of their reasonings, answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? “Which is easier, to say, “Your sins have been forgiven you,’ or to say, “Rise and walk’? “But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” –He said to the paralytic–“I say to you, rise, and take up your stretcher and go home.” And at once he rose up before them, and took up what he had been lying on, and went home, glorifying God. And they were all seized with astonishment and began glorifying God; and they were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen remarkable things today.”” Luke 5:20-26, NASB.
Looking at Jesus’ statement, we can see that at the root of the possibility of forgiveness is the idea of authority. One must have authority to forgive. When He declares forgiveness for this man, the onlookers are scandalized because they don’t think He has the right to declare forgiveness. This isn’t hard to understand – if a man is robbed, a person who is uninvolved can’t come in and declare that the robber is forgiven! This is why they are outraged in the story.
What confers upon someone the ability to forgive? We assume that the ultimate right to forgive belongs to the person who was wronged. If the person who was harmed decides to cease from seeking retribution, and indeed seeks the health and blessing of the perpetrator of the harm, then forgiveness is achieved. We see our own system acknowledge this when someone who is a victim refuses to press charges; in many cases the state drops their pursuit; if the state deems there are others harmed or who may be harmed, then the victim does not have sole authority, and they assume the authority on behalf of others.
By the way, I think it is difficult to make the case that a single person can stand representing a large group of people and ask forgiveness. The president cannot stand 100 years later and ask forgiveness for atrocities done against the American Indians. No particular representative of the American Indians could stand and accept that forgiveness. Neither one of them is the direct perpetrator or the direct victim, so they don’t really have the authority to account for the magnitude of victimization that occurred.
Forgiveness does not lie with the one who has the power to punish, because simple suspension of punishment may well transgress the demands of justice. When a despot does what he wants and gets away with it, he goes unpunished and justice suffers. This is obviously not forgiveness. Transgression begs justice, and justice begs punishment for a wrong done. The power, the authority to forgive rests on the victim; justice is not served until the victim is satisfied. How is it then that Jesus has the power to forgive?
I think the answer lies with Psalm 51. David had slept with the wife of Uriah, and when she got pregnant, had arranged to have him killed. If anyone had been wronged, it was Uriah, or perhaps Bathsheba his wife. When he was called out, he ended up writing Psalm 51, a psalm of repentance:
“Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight–That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge.” Psalms 51:4, NKJV.
As the Creator, God is ultimately the One who is truly sinned against. Notice that Jesus did not dispute their claim that only God could forgive sins. In declaring forgiveness, He is making a none-too-subtle claim to deity. God is the One who was really sinned against, and therefore God is the One who has the authority to forgive. All transgressions do not really transgress a written law, but the secret witness of the conscience, where God speaks:
“for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.” Romans 2:14-16, NKJV.
Thus all transgression is ultimately against God through the witness of the conscience, and therefore all authority to forgive ultimately lies with God. If we forgive, we only come into alignment with the justice and mercy of God’s authority over a person. When we withhold forgiveness, we make ourselves God and usurp His authority over a person:
“Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?” James 4:11, 12, NKJV.
Opponents of free grace fall distinctly into Derrida’s trap. If forgiveness is contingent on me showing true fruits of repentance, if it is real lasting moral change that assures forgiveness for me, then at what point do you declare I have done enough and at what point do you declare that I have not? In other words, at which point in life might my sins pass from being forgivable to being unforgivable? By my actions, do I have the power to declare forgiveness for my own sins? Of course not! Can a criminal declare his own clemency, and determine his own ability to reform? Never would anyone think so! Justification which mixes deeds with grace has at its root the false notion that the perpetrator of evil has the power to command forgiveness simply by promising to no longer offend. This is a false idea altogether, even if the perpetrator actually fulfills the promise and truly repents. Isn’t forgiveness all or nothing? Is the blood of Jesus enough to secure our forgiveness or isn’t it? Lordship salvation advocates say it is not; therefore, they fall straight into Derrida’s conundrum – there is no such thing as forgiveness at all, and grace is no longer grace.
“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” Romans 11:6, NASB.
It is maddening and surreal to hear opponents of free grace talk about grace. They do not want to appear to be contradicting scripture, (they might lose their salvation, or it might turn out they never had it, or whatever), while on the other hand they stuff these passages, large passages, huge threads that run throughout scripture, uneasily into a theological framework where they just don’t fit in. The thing at stake is, is there any possibility of forgiveness at all? If there is, then all must be forgiven. Either everything is forgiven or nothing is forgiven. Christ’s blood must be sufficient or it is not sufficient. It is extremely simple childlike logic.
Rowland points out that it is extremely common in traditional non-radical-grace Christian environments that forgiveness must be preceded by some sort of promise of reform or change. This means that it isn’t forgiveness at all. It is satisfaction that it won’t happen again, which is very very different than forgiveness, and leaves the question of true forgiveness very much on the table. As we have seen with the example of the murderer who promises to never murder again, this is an absolute insult. There is no repentance which is good enough to make up for our sin. Forgiveness is different than a promise to change. Forgiveness is always a very very big deal, a great scandal. God, in grace, is interested in both forgiveness and sustainable change.
In fact, the only answer to all of this, the only refutation of Derrida’s rather bleak views on forgiveness, is radical scandalous grace. Either all is forgiven or nothing is forgiven. What a wonder to think that all is forgiven, to possess the message which when spoken, when assented to in the simplest way, opens the door to eternal life and joy! What a wonder to enter the universe where you are allowed to try and fail, and to try again, to have the freedom to stumble towards a living joyous holiness that touches one’s true desire! How wonderful to live in a world where you can be honest with God about who you are and what you do and what you desire, and know that you are always beloved, always able to press back into a more desirable path.
As a believer, you have the one thing in the world that can overcome Derrida’s implication that there is no such thing as forgiveness. In grace, I believe that we have come to the undeconstructable root of life. There is such a thing as forgiveness, the love of Christ has satisfied the good demands of justice and has secured our redemption, and now the matter is settled for all time, for those who believe. We are loved forever, in a way that cannot be ended. The Creator of the universe has declared our ultimate and unconditional forgiveness in Christ, it is an uncrackable nut, a beautiful mystery which cannot be traced out, a text which cannot be deconstructed.