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Forgiving the Unforgivable? An Ethico-political Approach to Political Violence and Forgiveness
Unformatted Document Text:  The precursor to “On Forgiveness,” published in 2001, was the keynote speech delivered by Derrida, followed by a roundtable discussion, at the “Religion and Postmodernism 2: Questioning God” conference held in Villanova University in October 1999. One question from the audience prompted Derrida to comment on the Christian heritage’s contribution to the “unforgivable”; his answer, however, took an unprompted turn when he suggested that the statement “Christianity has taught us the unforgivable rather than forgiving” (the interlocutor’s claim) should be connected to “what is happening today, crimes against humanity.” In the following he offers a brief genealogy of crimes against humanity as a heritage concept: What is unforgivable today before the law, in France and elsewhere, is a crime against humanity, that is what is inexpiable and unforgivable. That means that what becomes unforgivable is a crime directed against what is most sacred in humanity, in the humanness of the human, the most sacred. The concept of a crime against humanity implies something sacred. It is an absolute principle; no one would oppose that. Today the cornerstone of international law is the sacred, what is sacred in humanity. … In that sense, the concept of crimes against humanity is a Christian concept and I think there would be no such thing in the law today without the Christian heritage, the Abrahamic heritage, the biblical heritage. That is why I do not think there is anything secular in international law today. The idea of crime against humanity is a religious law. I am in favor of that [i.e. the progress of international law]. I think it is a radical mutation, a progress, but this does not prevent me from thinking that it has some religious origin. (Caputo, Dooley & Scanlon 2001: 70) Derrida not only makes the somewhat obvious point that the “sacred” lies at the historic origin of human rights, but that there isn’t “anything secular” in international law today, that the sacred is foundational (“cornerstone”) to it, and that the affirmation of

Authors: Bakiner, Onur.
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The precursor to “On Forgiveness,” published in 2001, was the keynote speech
delivered by Derrida, followed by a roundtable discussion, at the “Religion and
Postmodernism 2: Questioning God” conference held in Villanova University in October
1999. One question from the audience prompted Derrida to comment on the Christian
heritage’s contribution to the “unforgivable”; his answer, however, took an unprompted
turn when he suggested that the statement “Christianity has taught us the unforgivable
rather than forgiving” (the interlocutor’s claim) should be connected to “what is
happening today, crimes against humanity.” In the following he offers a brief genealogy
of crimes against humanity as a heritage concept:
What is unforgivable today before the law, in France and elsewhere, is a crime against humanity,
that is what is inexpiable and unforgivable. That means that what becomes unforgivable is a
crime directed against what is most sacred in humanity, in the humanness of the human, the most
sacred. The concept of a crime against humanity implies something sacred. It is an absolute
principle; no one would oppose that. Today the cornerstone of international law is the sacred,
what is sacred in humanity. … In that sense, the concept of crimes against humanity is a Christian
concept and I think there would be no such thing in the law today without the Christian heritage,
the Abrahamic heritage, the biblical heritage. That is why I do not think there is anything secular
in international law today. The idea of crime against humanity is a religious law. I am in favor of
that [i.e. the progress of international law]. I think it is a radical mutation, a progress, but this
does not prevent me from thinking that it has some religious origin. (Caputo, Dooley & Scanlon
2001: 70)
Derrida not only makes the somewhat obvious point that the “sacred” lies at the
historic origin of human rights, but that there isn’t “anything secular” in international law
today, that the sacred is foundational (“cornerstone”) to it, and that the affirmation of


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