The crux of [Derrida's] argument is that forgiveness only makes sense if it is forgiveness of the unforgivable. ‘If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, what the church calls venial sin, then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear.’ Further, if forgiveness is conditional upon a consciousness of guilt, a repentance, and a transformation of the guilty into something else, into one who is no-longer-guilty ‘through and through,’ the idea collapses here as well. It becomes an economic transaction. Forgiveness is what it is, says Derrida, insofar as it is ‘unconditional, gracious, infinite, noneconomic forgiveness granted to the guilty as guilty.’ It is distinct from amnesty, reparation, legal acquittal, or indeed from any sort of legal judgment. It cannot be finalized, as one can finalize a legal matter. Derrida in fact characterizes it as a kind of madness: ‘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.
Reading this book has felt as if I were a visitor at a table where Pete Blum talks with his conversation partners: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, and John Howard Yoder, among others. I do not have enough of a background in contemporary philosophy to follow the conversation well, but there are a few words and phrases bubbling up that made me think: particularity, suspicion, otherness, difference, everything is dangerous, violence, totality.
The book made me think about how easily speaking to someone can become coercive, merely an attempt to enfold them into my world and way of thinking. Perhaps ‘silence is golden’ because it has the least potential for doing violence to others. Except when silence consents to the violence others do. There is always another side to things, as this book repeatedly emphasizes. This also reminded me of Dallas Willard’s comment that the best form of speaking is a question. A question implies vulnerability, at least one asked in a humble spirit.
This book made me think about communities and their claim to totality. Everything is dangerous, even good things like community. It is like when national church bodies vote on volatile issues, and when the winning side wins they attribute their win to a movement of the Holy Spirit, and in the process of saying this they annihilate the losing side (which apparently didn’t get the memo from the Spirit). There are dangers in assuming totality, in failing to recognize the Other.
Which brings me to the Other. This book talks a lot about the Other, the Other who comes to me in the form of a face, or in the form of a trace. The Other knocks me off center, tells me I am not the All. It reminded me of the teachings of Diogenes Allen, whom I did my DMin thesis on, when he defined love as a recognition of Otherness, a gratitude for the Other’s existence.
The book’s frequent mentioning of John Howard Yoder and Constantinianism made me remember Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine. Also, the appendix of this book introduced me to a side of Yoder that I did not know about before, a side that makes me reluctant even to read Yoder now (unless we can forgive the unforgivable).
What does A Church to Come look like? It is difficult to say, and the book leaves to you come up with your own conclusions. Perhaps it will be a church that speaks less, assumes less, listens more, loves more, and forgives the unforgivable.