At The Foot of The Cross

Paul Ricoeur

Forgiveness comes to us in two ways. First of all, we are told that we ought to forgive those who show some remorse, repentance, confess and do some sort of penance.  While this flow of forgiveness is based on conditional logic, there is another way forgiveness embraces us. This form of forgiveness is a gift and is unconditional.  Derrida has argued that we have an unconditional imperative to forgive.  A forgivable trespass may call for forgetting, reconciliation and restitution. What are we to do with the absolute unforgivable? Derrida indicates that forgiving the unforgivable is true forgiveness.  If forgiveness is possible, understandable, or sensible, he insists that it is not real forgiveness.  Paul Ricoeur positions the giver of forgiveness on a higher ethical level than the receiver of forgiveness.  Derrida thinks that such sovereignty comes from the monarchic tradition that authorised the king as one who had the power to give or withhold forgiveness.  Derrida brings the ethics of forgiveness face to face with the giver and receiver on a levelled playfield.

If forgiveness is based on  perceivable and audible change in the receiver than what is left to be forgiven? If the person is already transformed than why tie him to his/her past?  If forgiveness makes the forgiver the magister over his/her enemies than is it not something that feeds into a kind of narcissism? These questions may arise in the light of Derrida’s push of conditional logic of forgiveness/ logic of the debt under erasure.  This means Derrida does not reject conditional forgiveness but thinks that it is inadequate. Maybe we can learn real forgiveness by standing at the foot of the cross of Christ. It is there we can notice the forgiving of the unforgivable in the forgiveness of Jesus  given to his killers as well as by giving of his life as an expiatory sacrifice to reconcile the entire humanity.

Hannah Arendt

It is only when forgiveness crosses the boundaries of the possible that we have real forgiveness. It is when forgiveness becomes impossible that is when forgiveness forgives the unforgivable. We need to think together the forgivable and unforgivable, the possible and impossible to come to the insight that Derrida offers us. We cannot come to it with our familiar either/ or thinking. Such thinking is limited and one forgets that there is a saint and a sinner living in each of us. We are not either saints or sinners. Just like Jesus is both human and divine, we are also living out human excellence as well depravity. Either /or logic can only be based on condition and mostly produces forgiveness by stirring up guilt that ties us to a past. Either/ or logic actually is a hiding place for us to think we are better and others are evil. By assigning the others a place of being sinners, evildoers, we construe ourselves as civilized, well-mannered and even holy. Derrida exposes the poverty of either/ or mode of thinking. This is why what is unforgivable can be forgiven.  True forgiveness stands outside the chain of exchange that we do in commerce. It does not follow an economy of debt and wait for the repentance of the receiver. It is unconditional. Jesus on the cross was prompt to forgive those who wickedly put him to death. He did not wait for their repentance.  His life as an expiatory sacrifice also did not wait for the conversion of humanity. It was given as a free gift.  Hence, we have the imperative to follow our call to forgive the unforgivable.

We follow the imperative to forgive the unforgivable by standing at the foot of the cross and joining Jesus at the cross. To do this we have to cross/nail our ego and pride. We have to forgive the unforgivable to come to the cross and join the economy of gift/grace that we see in the cross of Jesus. This is why when we have something to hold against someone, we cannot join God’s economy of the gift/ grace.

Unconditional forgiveness can only be a gift.  Hannah Arendt, in her book, human condition, locates the possibility’s own condition of possibility in forgiveness.  Forgiveness has ways of disrupting/erupting into the course of history with new possibilities that free us from the chains of violence and revenge. Forgiveness, therefore, carries a promise of a changed future. Unfortunately, we think forgiveness is based on the changed past. We need to think the past, present and future together.  Cross is the Archimedean point where past present and future collapses into moment of intensity that has possibilities of emancipation, peace and reconciliation for us all. The grace/ gift of forgiveness is at the foot of the cross.

We cannot respond to the unforgivable unforgivingly.  The imperative of forgiving the unforgivable faces us with unclaimed possibilities of its promises.  We have to enter this resourceful promissory note that builds an emancipative future for humanity by readily forgiving the unforgivable.  But here we have to take care that our forgiveness does not become strategic. If it is strategic, it approaches the future in a closed manner and does not remain open to emancipatory surprises and freedoms. Such strategic forgiveness is still forgiveness of the market. Maybe we have to read Jesus’s expulsion of the traders from the temple in new ways to free us from taints of the market-oriented understanding of forgiveness by closing/ reducing forgiveness to the calculus of the debt. This logic of the debt of an offence and sin puts forgiveness into the economy of symbolic exchange and there is nothing to choose between revenge and forgiveness. Forgiveness then becomes symbolic bloodless revenge.  This is why without binding/ chaining the offender to the past like the prodigal father in the Gospel of Luke, the gift of forgiveness has to open us to possibilities of new transformed future(s).  We have to learn at the foot of the cross that real forgiveness is a gift/ grace that does not close  at an economy of exchange but opens a future that promises peace and reconciliation. Let’s not annul nor cancel forgiveness by aligning it with the economy of exchange.


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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao