Reading Derrida / Thinking Paul: On Justice

Reading Derrida / Thinking Paul: On Justice

by Theodore W. Jennings


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This book explores the interweaving of several of Derrida’s characteristic concerns with themes that Paul explores in Romans. It argues that the central concern of Romans is with the question of justice, a justice that must be thought outside of law on the basis of grace or gift. The many perplexities that arise from thus trying to think justice outside of law are clarified by reading Derrida on such themes as justice and law, gift and exchange, duty and debt, hospitality, cosmopolitanism, and pardon.
This interweaving of Paul and Derrida shows that Paul may be read as a thinker who wrestles with real problems that are of concern to anyone who thinks. It also shows that Derrida, far from being the enemy of theological reflection, is himself a necessary companion to the thinking of the biblical theologian. Against the grain of what passes for common wisdom this book argues that both Derrida and Paul are indispensable guides to a new way of thinking about justice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804752671
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 11/07/2005
Series: Cultural Memory in the Present
Edition description: 1
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., is Professor of Biblical and Constructive Theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary. He is the author, most recently, of The Insurrection of the Crucified (2003) and The Man Jesus Loved (2003).

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On Justice

By Theodore W. Jennings, Jr.
Copyright © 2006

Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-5268-8

Chapter One Introduction

The reading of Paul's letter to the Romans has largely been restricted to a confessional/ecclesiastical ghetto of doctrinal interest. As a consequence, Paul's concern for the question of justice has been transformed into a question of interior or private righteousness. This has been accompanied, especially in the Protestant era of exegesis, by a "forensic" view of justification that has severed justification from justice and turned "salvation" into a private affair between the believer and God. As a result, Levinas can suppose that the complex of doctrines thus derived make explicable the history of Christian/western atrocity, including the Holocaust. The God of this reading cares for belief instead of justice, and remedy for crime is found not in restitution and transformation on the plane of the ethical or political, but in the virtuality of an imagined relation to an indulgent divine.

Until recently the thought of Derrida has been associated in the minds of its critics with a nihilistic evisceration of ethical and sociopolitical "norms" that make it also irrelevant for issues of ethics and justice. More recently, it has become less easy to ignore the ethical and political significance of deconstruction. In a sense, Derrida has been more fortunate than Paul in that he has been able to fight back against his interpreters.

In this chapter, I wish to demonstrate several ways that a reading of Derrida may help to rethink some of the issues with which Paul was concerned, especially in his letter to those who were then living in the capital of the empire, Rome. The task, then, of this essay, or thought experiment, is to determine how some of the issues with which Paul is wrestling in Romans are illuminated by a reading of Derrida. I will maintain that Derrida's reflections on justice, law, gift, duty, debt, welcome, and cosmopolitanism, among others, provide clarification of key issues in Paul's letter to the Romans and, moreover, help to make intelligible some of the tensions, ambiguities, or ambivalences in Paul's thought that have often puzzled interpreters of Romans.

I will begin with indicating some of the ways in which Paul may be rescued from the dogmatic confinement in which his theological "friends" have imprisoned him. This prepares the way for opening this text through an engagement with the thought of a contemporary philosopher whose concerns, I will argue, often intersect those of Paul. In order to set the stage for this reflection, it will be necessary to show that both Paul and Derrida are concerned with the question of justice. Because each has been interpreted in ways that either deny or conceal this concern, it will be important to suggest at least the initial plausibility of focusing on this theme in their respective work. In addition, I will also point to some of the ways in which Derrida's writings do at least occasionally make explicit reference to Paul, even though these references do not generally touch on the themes of most importance for this essay.

Having thus prepared the ground for a substantive discussion, I will turn to what seems to me to be the crux of the issue to which both Paul and Derrida respond: the relation and tension between the claim of justice and the demands of the law. I will show that some of the distinctions and reflections introduced by Derrida help to clarify the problem with which Paul is wrestling, namely the possibility and necessity of justice "outside the law."

But on what basis is a distinction possible between justice and law? In particular, what is it about law, law as such or in general, positive law or moral law, that makes it both necessary to justice and yet fundamentally at odds with the claim for justice? For Paul, this issue seems to come to a head with the condemnation and execution of God's messiah, that is, with the one who is the bearer of the divine justice. For Derrida, following Benjamin, the interior deconstruction of law relative to justice comes to a head in that which exposes the violence inherent in the foundation and perpetuation of law. This enables us to think the cross in relation to the problematic of justice and law.

But if law does not itself serve as the basis of justice, how then does justice come to be in some sense thinkable? For Paul, the contrary of law (but not of justice), I will argue, is grace. In the contemporary world no one has done as much to clarify the meaning of grace/gift as Derrida. Accordingly, I will suggest that the impossible possibility of grace/gift as this has been reflected on by Derrida helps again to think what it is that Paul is struggling to say.

The problem with gift, however, as Derrida has shown, is that it falls inexorably back into a logic of exchange that abolishes or threatens to abolish its character as gift. Ineluctably, our thinking of gift returns us to the sphere of debt in which no gift is possible. This insight helps at least to make clear certain tensions in Paul's thought as he struggles to go beyond debt and work and exchange in a thinking of the gift and of a response adequate or appropriate to the gift (beyond what he calls "works"). It is precisely in this context that Derrida has dealt often with the question of a duty beyond debt, a theme that Paul also engages in his reference to a love of the neighbor that "owes no one anything" and which "fulfils the law."

It is within this same context of explicating the significance of gift for justice that Paul is also drawn to the theme of a welcoming of the other, a theme much more exhaustively explored by Derrida in his many reflections on hospitality. In this connection, the more recent work of Derrida has focused on the question of a certain cosmopolitanism that he identifies as basic to the question of international politics today and that he also finds to be rooted in the reflections of a certain Paul, the Paul of Ephesians. We will see to what extent this theme itself is also based in some of Paul's reflections in Romans.

Toward the end of these reflections, we will turn to a theme that has increasingly occupied the attention of Derrida, that of forgiveness. This will enable us once again to address the problem that justification in Paul has often been understood as merely forgiveness and so has been severed from the question of justice. Derrida's reflections on forgiveness may help us get a fix on the limits of this notion in Paul and on its subordination to, or facilitation of, the question of justice.

Throughout his reflections on these matters, Derrida has insisted on the importance of a certain eschatological reserve relative to justice, the gift, and so on. Throughout these reflections, I will be wondering whether the thought of Paul may be deficiently eschatological owing to the presupposition that the messiah has already come or whether, even here, Paul has been significantly misinterpreted by his ecclesiastical friends who seek to defuse the eschatological situation in favor of an institutional or doctrinal foundation. However, to a significant degree, the present study will only prepare the ground for a more sustained treatment of this question.

In thus trying to think Paul in relation to a reading of Derrida, it is not the case that I will seek to show all in Paul, or even in Romans, that can be illuminated by a reading of Derrida. Rather, my focus is on the question of justice and how precisely this question as it is addressed by Derrida helps to illumine that in Paul which also may be concerned with this question. Many issues that may also be clarified in Paul's argument through a reading of Derrida will be barely touched on here. Moreover, I do not suppose that Derrida is the only philosopher who may be of assistance in rethinking Paul today. Indeed, I hope that the rereading I propose will encourage others to undertake readings of Paul in relation to other forms of contemporary philosophy. Precisely by extricating Paul from the clutches of his ecclesiastical defenders and expropriators as well as the stifling embrace of his theological friends, it may be possible to engage in multiple "philosophical readings" of Paul. But for that to be possible, it may be helpful to suggest how Paul may be understood by reading one especially important "example" of philosophical discourse today. I leave aside for now the question of whether deconstruction is simply one example among other philosophical discourses that may illumine what Paul is up to or, on the contrary, is exemplary-that is, more than an example, but somehow resonant with Paul in ways that, for example, liberal or conservative political philosophy are not.

Paul in Public

In order to approach the question of a reading together of Derrida and Paul, it will be necessary to take out a certain line of credit in the form of a set of hypotheses that cannot be verified in the space that is available for this task. The collateral for this line of credit is simply the work I have attempted to do over the last several years in my seminars on Romans, where I have sought to develop a theopolitical reading of that document. I will therefore simply identify certain theses or hypotheses in order to facilitate the more limited treatment of certain Pauline themes in this essay.

Paul is all too often approached by the interpreter as if he were the private possession of Christendom, as if his concerns and interests were reducible to the dogmatic interests and concerns of an institutionally segregated mentality. On the contrary, I believe that Paul may be read as an intellectual who is struggling with issues that may be of concern to anyone who thinks seriously and deeply about the human situation. In supposing this, I align myself with the project of Hendrik Boers announced in Theology out of the Ghetto. What this basically supposes is that Paul may be read also as a "philosopher" who is concerned with issues that may reasonably be thought to concern philosophy, then and now. Moreover, this means that the cogency of his treatment of these themes must be assessed in the same way that the cogency of other philosophical contributions are to be assessed; that is, without appeal to his presumed authority either as a vehicle of revelation or as a founder of an institution.

Justice (Not Righteousness)

But with what questions or issues of this type is Paul concerned? With respect to a reading of Romans, it has regularly been supposed that Paul is concerned with issues of grace and law insofar as these bear on the question of the justice of God and the act of justifying human beings. This set of issues, which has an undoubted significance in this text (as well as Galatians), have, however, been sealed off from critical appreciation by the tactic of supposing them to deal with something that in English has been called "righteousness," a term that has been given a restricted religious meaning-a meaning, moreover, reduced to the interiority of the individual. The thesis I propose is that the common distinction between, and differential deployment of, the terms righteousness and justice have served to obscure Paul's meaning and the significance of what he is up to. Although there have been occasional protests against this semantic and theological (and ideological) distinction and hierarchialization, the first to make clear the falsity and ideological functioning of this operation was José Porfirio Miranda, a Mexican biblicist and leftist intellectual and activist (and student of Levinas). The first upshot of this proposal is that Paul's use of the terms based on the root dik- should always be translated as justice and never as righteousness in order to make clear, in a preliminary way, the problematic with which we are to deal here. The second is that this entails that Paul is to be understood as seeking to make a contribution to the question of justice, a question that is of undoubted philosophical concern and lineage.

Sociopolitical Rather than Interior/Individual

A further hypothesis that will be developed in this discussion is that Paul's concern for justice is a concern for what might be termed the social or political question of justice. In philosophical terms, it seems clear that the question of justice has often been taken to have at least two sides: that of the just society, and that of the just person. The interplay between these questions is found in Plato and Aristotle, although there is a tendency in the period more contemporary to Paul to reduce the social to the individual dimension, as the question of a just constitution appropriate to the context of the city-state receded under the press of empire to be replaced with a concentration on the justice of the individual (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and so on). In contrast to this reduction, I suppose that Paul may be read as seeking to reinstate the question of justice at the level of something like civilization (or the empire) as a whole.

In order to make this clear, it may be helpful to return to some of the theses of José Porfirio Miranda who, like Derrida, was an assiduous reader of Levinas. Porfirio Miranda maintains that "Paul's gospel has nothing to do with the interpretation, which for centuries has been given to it in terms of individual salvation. It deals with the justice which the world and peoples and society, implicitly but anxiously, have been awaiting" (179). But if this is true, then this throws into question the way in which Paul has generally been interpreted: "If the problem with which Paul is dealing is that of human civilization and not that of individuals as such, if what distresses Paul has dimensions much broader than those of the anthropological human subject, then the word 'justice' has acquired a meaning completely different from the one that customarily has been supposed" (176).

It is precisely in this way that Miranda already anticipates the form of the question of the relation of law and justice to which we will be directing our attention in the following chapters: "Paul's revolutionary and absolutely central message, that justice has been achieved without the law, would lack all force if this were not precisely the same justice that the law hoped to realize; this is the revolutionary and unprecedented core of his message" (152). Latin American liberation theology is not alone in attending to the political character of Paul's various concerns. North American and (some) European scholarship has begun to emphasize the political and imperial context of Paul's concerns. Dieter Georgi had already signaled the fruitfulness of such an approach as early as 1987. Two important collections of essays edited by Richard Horsley have subsequently emphasized the importance of this approach. However, unlike the Latin American contributions to which I have referred, these essays do not take up the question of the political or social meaning of Paul's concerns in Romans with justice and law, with grace and works.

Jew and Gentile

Although it is often the case that Paul's reflections on the law are restricted in application to something like Jewish law or the law of Moses, I take it as axiomatic that Paul is concerned with law as such, with justice as such, with gift or grace as such. The Christian exegetical tradition that restricts the significance of what Paul says about the law to the law of Moses is complicit in a long history of Christian anti-Judaism and is unfounded in the texts of Paul. In this connection also Miranda has anticipated the direction of our argument. Thus he refers to Otto Michel's comment on Romans 7:1: "Paul is referring not only to the knowledge of the Mosaic law but also to the juridical thinking of antiquity" (183). In one of his relatively rare discussions of the Paul of Romans, Derrida too insists that the question here is not simply that of a particular kind of law but perhaps, of law as such.

In general, then, the background to the readings I will propose of Paul in relation to Derrida is the supposition that Paul may be read outside the confessional ghetto to which he has been confined by his theological "friends" and that if this is done in relation to Romans, it will entail coming to terms with the theme of justice, not as confined to the private sphere and virtual realm of a pretended relation to the divine, but as opening to the philosophical and political sphere that both in antiquity and today concerns itself with the hope for a justice that goes beyond whatever has been codified by law as the instantiation of justice.

In general, then, the background to the reading together of Paul and Derrida that I embark upon is this: that in Romans (as well as Galatians) Paul is concerned to develop the thesis that justice is not and cannot be established through the law, but rather is in some way the consequence of grace or gift. The latter does not abolish the necessity of justice but on the contrary somehow is the inception of the very same justice that has also been the subject, aim, or legitimation of the law.


Excerpted from READING DERRIDA / THINKING PAUL by Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Contents Preface....................xi
1 Introduction....................1
2 Justice Beyond the Law....................19
3 Force, Violence, and the Cross....................54
4 Justice as Gift....................78
5 Duty Beyond Debt and/or the Obedience of Faith....................96
6 Hospitality, Ethics, and Politics....................109
7 Pardon....................128
8 Conclusion....................157

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