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U.S. must own up to misdeeds, says Grawemeyer religion winner

Dec 05, 2008

By Toya Richards Hill

The author of a book that calls for the acknowledgement and repentance of the morally negative events of America’s past is the winner of the 2009 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion.

The Rev. Dr. Donald W. Shriver Jr. has been selected for the coveted prize, which honors creative ideas illuminating the relationship between human beings and the divine, and how that relationship might empower people and communities.

The award, named for H. Charles Grawemeyer, comes with a $200,000 prize and is given jointly by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville. Other Grawemeyer awards recognize excellence in music composition, education, ideas improving world order, and psychology.

Shriver, President Emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, was chosen for his book, Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds, published in 2005 by Oxford University Press.

“My astonishment was exceeded only by my gratitude,” Shriver said shortly after learning of his selection. “It is an honor to be in the company of such distinguished past recipients,” he said.

The Religion award was first presented in 1990, and the most recent winners include Dr. Margaret Farley (2008), Dr. Timothy Tyson (2007), Dr. Marilynne Robinson (2006), and Dr. George M. Marsden (2005).

Shriver, who was nominated by his editor at Oxford University Press, was chosen after an extensive selection process that lasted about 10 months.

“We look for works that are creative, and that treat important topics with clarity and power,” said Dr. Susan R. Garrett, Professor of New Testament at Louisville Seminary and Coordinator of the Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion. This year’s winner is a “great example” of such a work.

In Garrett’s recommendation of Shriver, she said, “The premise of Donald W. Shriver’s book is that both gratitude and contrition are necessary for honest patriotism.”

“Uncritical love of country – love that refuses to see and publicly acknowledge past errors – is destructive to the social fabric and permits continuing misdeeds,” she said. “By contrast, Shriver shows that public recognition and collective repentance for wrongs done promote mending of that fabric and open the way to a better future for all.”

Shriver contends that the United States particularly needs to acknowledge and repent of its historical treatment of African- and Native-Americans, and then try to repair and repay the debt for those past wrongs in public ways. He spotlights the pioneering efforts of Germany and South Africa to foster and express collective repentance.

“We like to acknowledge our virtues from the past; we do not like to acknowledge our vices,” he said. America believes any flaws it has are in the process of being improved, but a flaw cannot be improved “until you rightly remember it.”

An honest confession is good for the soul, “and I believe that includes the soul of the nation,” Shriver said.

He concludes his book with a chapter titled, "Being Human While Being American: Agenda for the American Future."

“Shriver suggests what repentance and reparation might look like on a wider scale in America, and provides much food for thought regarding present American crimes for which we will likely feel a need to repent at some point in the future,” Garrett observed.

Shriver noted that Honest Patriots is a sequel to his earlier book, An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics, published by Oxford University Press in 1995.

Shriver will accept his award and speak on the award winning publication on March 4, 2009, at Louisville Seminary, at 7:00 p.m. The event is open to the public free of charge.

Biographical Information

Donald W. Shriver Jr. is Emeritus President of the Faculty and William E. Dodge Professor of Applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He served as president in the years 1975-91 and as fulltime teacher of ethics there until 1996. While at Union, he also taught or co-taught graduate courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary and four Columbia University schools—business, law, international affairs, and journalism. His first teaching position was as Professor of Ethics and Society at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, 1972-75.

Born in Norfolk, Va., Shriver is a graduate of Davidson College, Union Theological Seminary (now Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education) in Virginia, Yale University Divinity School, and Harvard University. He holds a Ph.D. in the field of Religion and Society from Harvard. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister, and prior to his teaching career he served as pastor of a congregation in North Carolina and as Presbyterian University Minister at North Carolina State University.

Shriver has been president of the Society of Christian Ethics (1980), a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin (1999), and Visiting Senior Scholar of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, South Africa (2002). He has lectured in England, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, South Africa, India, China, Taiwan, and South Korea. He holds six honorary doctoral degrees. He has traveled in fifty-five countries, with longest residences in India, Germany, South Korea, and South Africa. He is a member of the American Theological Society and has participated extensively in ecumenical affairs among Christian churches worldwide and in Jewish-Christian dialogue in UK, Romania, the former USSR, South Africa, and the USA. He has been a member of the Council on Foreign Relations since 1988.

Shriver’s thirteen books have treated Christian ethics as related to race relations, youth culture, economics, medicine, urban affairs, business management, and political conflict. Before his Grawemeyer-winning work Honest Patriots, which was translated into German in 2007, other titles included The Unsilent South: Prophetic Preaching in Racial Crisis (1965); The Lord’s Prayer: A Way of Life (1983); and An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics (1995). A forthcoming book will introduce students in colleges and seminaries to the lifework of H. Richard Niebuhr, Shriver’s teacher in ethics at Yale.

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