by Donald W. Shriver Jr. (New York, Oxford University Press, 2005, 285 pages)
A dishonest patriot believes that his or her country can do no wrong and calls anyone who disagrees a traitor.
A dishonest patriot benefits from prejudicial laws and advocates special interests above public interest.
An honest patriot is acutely aware of both the strengths and weakness of his or her country. He or she works hard to celebrate the good while correcting the bad so that a spirit of humility and gratitude will bless the future.
This book, by the well-respected ethicist, Donald W. Shriver Jr., is a sustained effort to develop in responsible detail a portrait of an honest patriot. It is a sequel to Shriver’s 1995 work, An Ethic for Enemies-Forgiveness in Politics. The author is president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
Readers will find it more a “how to” book than an “ought to” book. The basic challenge is to convince ourselves of the reality of corporate responsibility, then act wisely and well.
The chapters contain well-chosen case studies of three countries: Germany, South Africa and the United States. The thorough research and documented details provide an interesting and reliable context and guide for understanding, for discovery, for confession, and for forgiveness of institutionalized injustice and official prejudice.
Individual Americans do fairly well in understanding repentance, confession of sin and the honest need for forgiveness. In the context of worship, we are invited to acknowledge our sins before Almighty God and to claim the promise of forgiveness through the grace of Jesus Christ. Shriver, however, makes the case that it is quite difficult to appreciate the necessity of corporate confession of injustice and legalized prejudice. His thesis is painful for the proud: actions of political entities require repentance and genuine desire for forgiveness as much as do individuals.
The chapter “South Africa: in the Wake of Remembered Evil” displays the pain of compromise between the interests of apartheid victims, who wanted punishment for their oppressors, and the interest of perpetrators, who wanted impunity for their violence. The place of “truth,” “justice,” and “reconciliation” in human politics is inherently uncertain, unfinished and forever subject to dispute (p.105). The miracle of the new South Africa under Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu surely deserves our best attention, and also our gratitude goes to Shriver for his accurate and thoughtful account.
The chapter “Germany Remembers” explores the cynical hypocrisy of the Nazi “final solution” in the work/death camps; at Auschwitz, doomed Jews, homosexuals, handicapped persons and religious minorities marched in under the sign over the front gate: Arbeit Macht Frei, (work brings freedom). The “Holocaust” is a familiar word to most of us. By his vivid descriptions, Shriver gives the term “Holocaust” new meaning for all humanity.
After 60 years, the evidence is mounting that Germany really does remember and is on the way to sincere repentance and genuine forgiveness. It is clear in Honest Patriots that the process continues.
Reading about American slavery and abuse of Native Americans is both disturbing and encouraging. It is disturbing to realize again how truly evil parts of our past history really were. It is encouraging to become more acutely aware that political forgiveness is possible and necessary. Radical prejudice, however, is still abroad in our land. It is humbling to realize that slavery officially ended in 1865 and that Jim Crow laws officially ended around 1965 yet prejudice remains.
“Reinhold Niebuhr once cautioned fellow Christians, ‘We may find it possible to carry a gun in war, but we must carry it with a heavy heart. To all the evils of war, let no side add the evil of self-righteousness'” (p.266). Shriver carries Niebuhr’s words into the present, warning: “The world jury may still be out on the question of our war in Iraq, but super certainty of its virtue ill becomes a superpower.” (p.281). The responsibility of power and the temptations to over-reach the limits leading to hubris are particularly clear to Shriver who has been influenced by Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (1952).
“Repentance and forgiveness are optimistic among the virtues, for they oppose tragedy with hope for healing,” Shriver notes on p.284. To become more honest about self, nation and world is to more fully appreciate the power of truth, reconciliation and forgiveness. Don Shriver encourages us in the words of William Sloan Coffin, to continue our lover’s quarrel with America and to remember “the past is not dead. In fact it’s not even past.”
RALPH D. BUCY, is a retired Presbyterian minister living at Massanetta Springs, Va., and has been a friend of Donald Shriver for more than 50 years.