February/March 2016 - Vol. 84

Judas returns 30 pieces of
                  silver, by Rembrandt
Judas returning the 30 pieces of silver, painting by Rembrandt, 1629
 On Giving – and Forgiving
by Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz

[Note: This article is excerpted from a longer essay, Forgiving the Unforgiveable? On Guilt and Pardon, published in (c) Plough Quarterly Winter 2016 and translated from German by Peter Mommsen. See full essay online at Plough.]

Pure Gift: A Prelude to Pure Forgiveness

In order to understand forgiving, not least in its biblical depth of meaning, we must first reflect on giving. The basis of any economy is exchange – a fair balance of giving and receiving. Exchange represents a pragmatic justice that evens things out. In its drastic form, the concept of exchange is linked to the rule of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

detail or
                                Rembrandt painting of 30 silver pieces
detail of Rembrandt painting above

Yet where human beings are balanced against things, where value is balanced against price, and where life itself is balanced against money and commodities, the blurry and debasing nature of exchange shows up clearly. To take a well-known example: “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price...” (Matt. 27:9). Thirty coins are the “balance” that is exchanged for the Son of Man; when these coins are thrown back into the temple, they can just as easily be used to buy a potter’s field. Exchange breaks down when things that are unlike are treated as if they were alike. As this relates to our topic here: can murder ever be “balanced out,” or atoned for, or forgiven – even in exchange for remorse?

The opposite of exchange is the “pure gift.” Such a gift is supererogatory: it is above and beyond any price, any equivalent value, or any debt owed. Such a gift is gratuitousness itself, it is pure grace. “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matt. 5:40–41). A pure gift is not given according to the logic of the Roman motto do ut des – “I give that you might give to me” – but rather in another sense: “I give because I have received.” Exact repayment is transformed into an attitude of free and unselfish giving-on to others.

The clearest example of this is love. Love cannot be balanced out through justice; love exists only when it is not owed, when it is freely offered. This pure gift is the heart of creation, and for Christians, it’s more: it is the heart of the still greater redemption to come. 

Pure Forgiveness: A Bridge to the Divine
Taking stock of the horrors of the twentieth century, Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) proposed a heightened form of “pure giving”: he called it “pure forgiving.” (Derrida plays on the French terms don pur, “pure gift,” and pardon pur, “pure forgiveness.”) He did this expressly to oppose Jankélévitch’s bitter essay “Should We Pardon Them?,” arguing against putting conditions on forgiveness and thus turning it into a commodity to be exchanged.

Derrida speaks instead of the necessity for “pure absolution” from guilt: absolution as unconditional forgiveness, offered without receiving anything in exchange.For-giving doesn’t depend on balancing guilt with expiation. That’s why forgiveness cannot be a provision in criminal law: it must remain outside of any balancing of legal rights. After all, to pardon a criminal means setting aside the law, and can only ever be done as an exception; but the act of pardoning arises from the transcendent “mystical foundation” of a justice that legal justice cannot catch up with.1

Derrida takes aim at Jankélévitch’s first thesis – that forgiveness may only be granted (if at all) in a one-on-one encounter of perpetrator and victim. If the possibility of forgiveness really ended with the death of the victim, then the perpetrator’s remorse would come too late; the perpetrator would no longer have an active role in the drama. Remorse and forgiveness would then be logically separated: forgiving would no longer have a giver, indeed forgiveness itself would become mortal. Derrida asks: can forgiveness really be so time-bound, so finite? And even more seriously: is forgiveness then actually something that is “exchanged” for remorse?

Derrida also detects in Jankélévitch’s second thesis a concealed logic of exchange, here in negative form: for certain crimes such as crimes against humanity, no adequate compensation could ever be offered. What sort of remorse could ever free a concentration camp commander from his guilt?

Derrida concludes that it must bepossible – perhaps it is even necessary? – to break this cycle of guilt and expiation. To that end, he turns to the biblical story of the original sin: the Bible speaks of the great sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3), but it speaks too of Yahweh’s a priori forgiveness, granted already before the first sin was committed (see Exod. 6–10). Grace is more than a concept, a speculation, or a wish – grace “already is.”2

Forgiveness then, according to Derrida, must extend to forgiving the unforgivable:

It is necessary, it seems to me, to begin from the fact that, yes, there is the unforgivable. Is this not, in truth, the only thing to forgive? The only thing that calls for forgiveness? If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, what the church calls “venial sin,” then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear. If there is something to forgive, it would be what in religious language is called “mortal sin,” the worst, the unforgivable crime or harm. ... There is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself. It can only be possible in doing the impossible. ... What would be a forgiveness that forgave only the forgivable?3

In other words: absolution is only possible in the sphere of the absolute, not in the relative sphere of human score-settling. What lies concealed behind this “absolute”?

Derrida’s argument accords with the biblical way of thinking: the Abrahamic faiths all recognize the possibility of an unimaginable forgiveness. Indeed, Derrida mentions the Catholic church, which actually offers such forgiveness. (Although Derrida, as a Jew, does not belong to the church, he is likely thinking of the Catholic practice of confession.) Pure forgiveness, in his view, can only come into being when the confrontation between two people (even if both are dead) is resolved through the presence of Another: a Giver of forgiveness who is not bound by time. The dimension of this Other transcends the realm of human possibilities while drawing them toward the horizon of what is impossible, yet nevertheless imaginable:

Is forgiveness a matter for human beings, something belonging to humankind and within the scope of human capability – or is it reserved to God? ... Is it divine/otherworldly or this-worldly, consecrated/holy or not? All debates about forgiveness have to do with this boundary and with trespasses of this boundary.4

In contrast to rituals of political renewal, then, forgiveness involves something more. 

Sending Guilt Back into Nothingness
Can what has been done be undone through forgiveness? Certainly, the mystery of evil cannot be solved by erasing history (2 Thess. 2:7). Augustine’s insight is relevant here: according to him, sin serves to build up a false reality (he calls it the “privation of good”). Fundamentally, evil can exercise its power only by using a stolen mask – it works only under the false pretense of being good. The lie consists of inflating evil, as if it were something good.

In no way does this deny or diminish the horrible reality of guilt or the irretrievable absence of the victims. Forgiveness means neither undoing the crime nor belittling its horror. Face-to-face with the absolute, something else happens instead: evil is exposed as futile, void, nonsensical, even miserable – and it is then sent back (remissio) into the nothingness out of which it emerged. Evil disappears in the nothingness of its usurped power, extinguished in its claim to be “something.” What does this mean?

Indulgentiam, absolutionem et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum – so runs the prayer for forgiveness in the Roman Mass, which literally asks for “clemency for, freeing from, and sending back of our sins.” Remissio refers to an objective process: sending evil back into its nullity, returning the lie back into its non-being. Forgiveness directs our gaze toward the past, but only in order to allow the past to vanish by itself into its own nothingness.

Forgiveness takes away from the past its power to remain present – to remain in the appalling “eternal now” of which Jankélévitch speaks.5

Forgiveness frees the present and the future from the corpse of what has been.

Forgiveness, then, doesn’t remember the past in order to keep it eternally present. Rather, the past is sent back and vanishes, and forgiveness forgets it. This is the sense in which God will, in the words of Psalm 103, “cast our sins behind us” – “as far as the morning is from the evening,” to translate Jerome’s rendering literally. As the Psalmist declares:

Bless the Lord ... who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. ... He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.

Augustine remarks: “To the rejected he has promised glory.”6

Echoing this, the sinner can only say with Kierkegaard: “That you have forgotten and forgiven, I will always keep in remembrance.”7

Forgiving thus becomes a gift in an augmented sense: it means giving back (remissio) what is death-bringing into its own death. 

Happy Guilt?
According to Augustine, the most elementary meaning of life is summed up in the phrase videntem videre – to see the One who has always seen me. Or in Nicholas of Cusa’s words: “Your seeing is your enlivening. ... Your seeing is your working.”8

God’s gaze and our insatiable looking back to him are something far different than our relationship to anonymous abstractions such as justice or forgiveness. To see, to let ourselves be seen, brings a greater joy than dissolving into a Universal Everything or Universal Nothing. To forgive, then, does not mean sinking back into detachment, but rather it means entering into a new, exhilarating relationship: to another human being, but even more deeply, to the source of life, to God.

Seen this way, forgiveness is grasped not as the neutral cancelation of guilt, but in terms of a Person who is the source of forgiveness. One pebble does not forgive another pebble, nor does the second pebble experience remorse. To repent and to forgive are not mechanical processes. They are acts carried out by persons.

Each year on the night before Easter, the Exsultet hymn is sung in churches around the world. This joyous hymn includes the words of Augustine:

This is the night that with a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin. This is the night that, even now throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin ... when Christ broke the prison bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld. Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed. ... O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the death of Christ! O happy fault (felix culpa) that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer! ... The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners.9

C. S. Lewis once remarked that the apostle Peter, in his later life, would likely have told everyone the story of how he betrayed the Lord – and done so with a radiant face, since on that night he had been drawn into an unimaginable depth of love through a single glance: “The Lord turned and looked at Peter. ... And he went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61–62). Only in this light can we grasp the decisive statement: Guilt is only felt where there is forgiveness.

Normally we think that guilt comes first, then remorse, then forgiveness. This reflects ordinary human experience. But it is not true of God: it is Jesus’ glance of forgiveness that prompts the pain of remorse, which in turn brings about an awareness of guilt.

In God’s way of redemption, remorse is not made a condition for “pure forgiveness.” The “happy fault” not only dissolves this chain of connection, but it also puts the remorseful person’s insight into his guilt onto a different basis. The divine goodness that eternally sees every moment in time has already – long before there was any guilt – opened up a place where guilt is permitted to speak itself out and be confessed. Confession is already the first fruit of forgiveness. The glance of love is itself the basis on which evil is repented of. In other words, guilt can only truly be confessed when it comes face-to-face with forgiveness.

What is more, when guilt is confessed, it has already begun to disappear. One might say that guilt only becomes evident when it comes within reach of divine forgiveness. Only as our burden is being lifted do we feel its weight.

Divine forgiveness is an unconditional gift that “overtakes” remorse. Remorse isn’t what brings on forgiveness, but the opposite: forgiveness draws out remorse – not as a condition for finding freedom, but as a result of an overwhelming experience. It is in this moment that guilt becomes happy, for it has found its liberator: “Wave upon wave gushes out of you inexhaustible, ever-flowing, billows of water and blood ... rushing over the deserts of guilt, enriching overabundantly, overflowing every heart that receives it, far surpassing every desire.”10


  1. Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority,” in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, ed. Drucilla Cornell et al. (Routledge, 1992), 3–66.
  2. Jacques Derrida, Pardonner: L’impardonnable et l’impréscriptible (Galilée, 2005), 70.
  3. Jacques Derrida, “On Forgiveness,” trans. Michael Hughes, in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (London & New York: Routledge, 2001), 32–36. See also Derrida, “Das Jahrhundert der Vergebung: Verzeihen ohne Macht – unbedingt und jenseits der Souveränität,” interview by Michel Wieviorka, in Lettre international 48 (Spring, 2000): 10–18.
  4. Derrida, Pardonner, 74–75.
  5. Vladimir Jankélévitch, “Schuld und Vergebung,” in Sinn und Form: Beiträge zur Literatur 50, no. 3 (1998): 378.
  6. Aurelius Augustinus, Enarratio in Psalmos, 110 (109), 1.
  7. Søren Kierkegaard, “Love Hides the Multiplicity of Sins,” in Taten der Liebe (1847), GW 19 (1966), 309ff.
  8. Nicholas of Cusa, De visione Dei 4,13, 5,18, in Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Nicholas of Cusa, trans. Jasper Hopkins (Arthur J. Banning, 2001), 685–687.
  9. The Roman Missal, Third Edition (ICEL, 2010).
  10. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Heart of the World, trans. Erasmo S. Leiva (Ignatius Press, 1979), 153.

Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz
Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz
is professor emeritus of philosophy at Dresden University and head of EUPHR (European Institute for Philosophy and Religion) at Hochschule Heiligenkreuz. Her book on forgiveness is titled Verzeihung des Unverzeihlichen? Ausflüge in Landschaften der Schuld und der Vergebung (2013)

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