Aspiration to a Just Society

Light of truth

Emmanuel Levinas wrote: “the aspiration to a just society… is an eminently religious action.” The Old Testament clearly equates holiness with Justice. The prophetic books repeatedly speak of the divine call of Justice, because Judaism is a religion of divine call and promise. Where are you? To which Abraham, Jacob, Moses and others all respond, “Here I am.” Everyone is asked to go by a call. The ‘I’ is answerable for the ‘other,’ and so stands ready to obey the call of the latter. To be a self “is always to have one degree of responsibility more, the responsibility for the responsibility of the other.” It was always an exodus, which inevitably involves a divine promise. Derrida wrote: “Each time I open my mouth, each time I speak or write, I promise. Whether I like it or not… The performative of the promise is not one speech act among others. It is implied by any other performative and this promise heralds the uniqueness of a language to come.” Although a ‘language of promise’ has always a threatening colonial face, it can resist the attempt to exhaust the medium of language or itself at some objective meta-level by recognizing the structural undecidability and limits that being-in-translation entails. A language of promise represents a resource that political thought cannot afford to ignore.

As Derrida again notes, “Whether the promise, promises this or that, whether it be fulfilled or not, or whether it be unfulfillable, there is necessarily some promise and therefore some historicity as future-to-come. It is what we are nicknaming the messianic without messianism.” Levinas sees Judaism as involving absolute duty to God that can only be carried out through obligation to other people.The “state of mind that we normally call Jewish messianism which is redemptive intervention in history which is religious and ethical. Judaism’s infinite obligation corresponds completely with carrying out of law giving and enacting. Relationship between man and God, represents the highest human development, is subordinated to the goal of a just society.”

For Kant, the “religion of the cult alone” that teaches prayers but does not require good acts for salvation is associated with “dogmatic faith,” which collapses knowledge into revelation. Kant is crediting the Christian religion with the status of the “only truly ‘moral’ religion, the only one capable of liberating faith from dogmatism and of making it ‘reflective,’ the opposition between the sacred and the profane” and precedes “all determinate community, all positive religion.” According to Derrida, the elemental faith is “at least in its essence or calling, religious” and is “the elementary condition, the milieu of the religious, if not of religion itself.” Conceived as a response, ‘religion’ is thus connected to the elemental, promissoryfaith characterizing every linguistic act. He affirms that “religion is the response.” It is establishment of justice, just ordering of social and political life. Derrida claims to have inherited such a notion of just social order from Marx’s legacy and presents it in these terms: “What remains irreducible to any deconstruction, what remains as undeconstructible as the possibility itself of deconstruction is, perhaps, a certain experience of the emancipatory promise; it is perhaps even the formality of a structural messianism, a messianic without religion, even a messianic without messianism, an idea of justice – which we distinguish from law or right and even from human rights–and an idea of democracy – which we distinguish from its current concept and from its determined predicates today.”

But Marx’s criticism of religion put him at a distance from institutionalized religion, and marked the unique ‘good’ spirit of Marxism Derrida seeks to retain. It makes possible the rupturing of future horizons operated by the ‘messianic’ and is inseparable from the historical horizon in which the messianic promise takes place. Derrida in Spectres of Marx writes “If there is a spirit of Marxism which I will never be ready to renounce, it is not only the critical idea or the questioning stance… It is even more a certain emancipatory and messianic affirmation, a certain experience of the promise that one can try to liberate from any dogmatics and even from any metaphysico-religious determination and from messianism.” We are confronted by the overwhelming question of the name and everything done ‘in the name of’ justice and fraternity: they are names of ‘religion,’ of the names of God. What appears as secular is no more so but only a secularization of the attire. As Derrida notes, “there is no real secularization… What one lightly calls ‘secularization’ does not take place. This surface effect does not affect language itself, which remains sacred in its abyssal interior.” The secularization of language “does not exist; it is but a façon de parler, a manner of speaking.”

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