The Global Theater of Forgiveness


Toward the end of his career, the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida became increasingly focused on the problem of religion—not merely as a cultural phenomenon, but as a unique structuring of language and ideas. In this essay, Derrida examines the trend of religious tropes expanding to a global scale as nations beg forgiveness for war crimes. If all of humanity seeks forgiveness for “crimes against humanity,” he asks, is it not rendering “itself as the other”—repenting as the oppressor to remind the world that it is also the victim? Remaining, as always, grounded in precise language, Derrida animates the tautologies and contradictions that underpin much of the contemporary political discourse. Theo Schell-Lambert

The scene of repentance and forgiveness-seeking is today becoming globalized, presented on a worldwide stage. Enigmatic though the concept of forgiveness, in the strict sense, remains, the scene, the form, and the language that people attempt to adjust to it belong within a religious heritage (which we may call Abrahamic in order to group together Judaism and the various forms of Christianity and Islam).

In all the scenes of repentance, confession, pardon or apologies, of which there have been more and more on the geopolitical stage since the last war and which have been enacted more and more often these last few years, we have witnessed not only individuals but entire communities, professional bodies, representatives of ecclesiastical hierarchies, sovereigns and heads of state asking for “forgiveness.” In so doing they employ an Abrahamic language that is not (in the case of Japan or Korea, for instance) that of their society’s dominant religion but which has already become, by that very fact, the common language of law, politics, economics or diplomacy: at once the agent and the symptom of that internationalization.

The proliferation of these scenes of repentance and of “forgiveness” sought no doubt signifies, among other things, a universal urgency of memory: there must be a turning back toward the past; and this act of memory, of self-indictment, of “repentance” and of being brought to justice must be carried beyond both the level of the courts and that of the nation-state. The question thus arises as to what happens on this level. There are many trails that might be followed. One of these regularly leads back to a series of extraordinary events which, before and during the Second World War, made possible or at least “authorized,” with the Nuremberg Tribunal, the international establishment of a legal concept such as that of “crime against humanity.”

That event was itself produced and authorized by an international community at a particular moment in its history and in a particular historically determined form, intermingled with but not merging with the history of a reaffirmation of human rights and of a new Declaration of Human Rights.

This sort of profound change has structured the theater in which, sincerely or otherwise, the great forgiveness, the great scene of repentance with which we are concerned, is played out. It often takes on the characteristics, by virtue of its theatrical nature itself, of a great convulsion. Dare one say that this convulsion also sometimes resembles a frantic compulsion? Here we have the whole of humanity stirred by a purportedly unanimous impulse, a human race setting out all of a sudden to charge itself, in public and in spectacular fashion, with all the crimes it has indeed committed against itself, “against humanity.” Indeed, if we start charging ourselves, while seeking forgiveness for them, with all of the past crimes against humanity, not a single innocent person would be left on earth, and hence there would be no one left to sit in judgment or to arbitrate. We are all heirs, at least, of persons or events tainted by crimes against humanity. These events, these cruel, organized mass murders, which may have been revolutions, great canonical and supposedly “legitimate” Revolutions, were sometimes those very same events that enabled concepts such as those of human rights or crime against humanity to emerge and make headway.

Such a convulsion would today, however, take the form or shape of a conversion, a de facto conversion tending toward the universal, on the way to becoming globalized. If, as I believe, the concept of crime against humanity is the count to be answered in this self-indictment, this repentance, and this forgiveness-seeking; if, ultimately, the only justification for this concept lies in the sacral nature of the human (from this point of view, there is nothing worse than a crime against the humanity of the human being and against his or her rights); if the principal—if not indeed the only—resource of the meaning of that sacral nature is to be found in the Abrahamic memories of the faiths of the book and in a Jewish, but above all Christian, interpretation of the terms “neighbor” and “fellow man”; and if, accordingly, a crime against humanity is a crime against that which is most sacred in the living world and hence against the divine in humankind, in God-made-man or man-made-God-by-God (the death of man and the death of God would in that case result from the same crime), then the “globalization” of forgiveness resembles an immense scene of ongoing confession, and hence of a virtually Christian convulsion-conversion-confession, a process of Christianization that no longer has need of the Christian church. It may sometimes also (not that it makes any difference) take on the appearance of atheism, humanism, or triumphant secularization: The whole of humanity would be prepared to charge itself with crime against humanity, to indict itself, to testify against itself, in other words to indict itself as if it were another: itself as the other.

Whether one regards this as a huge step forward, a historic change, and/or a concept still unclear in its limits and unsure in its foundations (one can take both positions at the same time, as I am inclined to do myself), the undeniable fact is that the concept of “crime against humanity” remains on the horizon of any geopolitics of forgiveness, providing it with its discourse and its legitimation. To take the striking case of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which remains unique in spite of the analogies—analogies only—with certain South American precedents, in Chile in particular: What gave the commission its ultimate justification, its declared legitimacy, is the definition, by the international community as represented by the United Nations, of apartheid as a “crime against humanity.” We could take a hundred other examples; there are very many of them and they are all similarly underwritten.

This piece is excerpted from The Future of Values (Berghahn Books/UNESCO Publishing), the second 21st Century Talks anthology, edited by Jérôme Bindé and published last fall.