Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds

Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds

Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds

Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds


In Honest Patriots, renowned public theologian and ethicist Donald W. Shriver, Jr. argues that we must acknowledge and repent of the morally negative events in our nation's past. The failure to do so skews the relations of many Americans to one another, breeds ongoing hostility, and damages the health of our society. Yet our civic identity today largely rests on denials, forgetfulness, and inattention to the memories of neighbors whose ancestors suffered great injustices at the hands of some dominant majority. Shriver contends that repentance for these injustices must find a place in our political culture. Such repentance must be carefully and deliberately cultivated through the accurate teaching of history, by means of public symbols that embody both positive and negative memory, and through public leadership to this end. Religious people and religious organizations have an important role to play in this process. Historically, the Christian tradition has concentrated on the personal dimensions of forgiveness and repentance to the near-total neglect of their collective aspects. Recently, however, the idea of collective moral responsibility has gained new and public visibility. Official apologies for past collective injustice have multiplied, along with calls for reparations. Shriver looks in detail at the examples of Germany and South Africa, and their pioneering efforts to foster and express collective repentance. He then turns to the historic wrongs perpetrated against African Americans and Native Americans and to recent efforts by American citizens and governmental bodies to seek public justice by remembering public injustice. The call for collective repentance presents many challenges: What can it mean to morally master a past whose victims are dead and whose sufferings cannot be alleviated? What are the measures that lend substance to language and action expressing repentance? What symbolic and tangible acts produce credible turns away from past wrongs? What are the dynamics-psychological, social, and political-whereby we can safely consign an evil to the past? How can public life witness to corporate crimes of the past in such a way that descendents of victims can be confident that they will never be repeated? In his provocative answers to these questions Shriver creates a compelling new vision of the collective repentance and apology that must precede real progress in relations between the races in this country.


There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. the bad are
the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a
lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quar
rel with all the world.

—William Sloane Coffin

At 10:00 A.M. on September 11, 2001, this author had just written the twenty-fifth manuscript page of this book. At that moment, millions of American lives were interrupted by an awful event that focused our collective minds on a new fact, which Samantha Power put in context when she wrote: “To earn a death sentence, it was enough in the twentieth century to be an Armenian, a Jew, or a Tutsi. On September 11, it was enough to be an American.” On that day, our fingers left the keyboards, the telephones, the other tools of our trades while our eyes stared at the televised image of two large New York buildings crumbling into rubble along with the bodies of almost three thousand of our fellow human beings.

From that moment until the last day of 2001, writing the twentysixth page of a book concerned with moral assessments of the German, South African, and American past seemed almost impossible. On that day, December 31, 9/11 111, my fingers returned to the keyboard with a new understanding of how difficult this book is to write.

In the wake of September 11, 2001, a great flood of agreement seemed to sweep across the United States under the summation “everything has changed.” in that exaggeration hid a grain of truth:

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