Grawemeyer winner praises plans for Confederate memorial
America must tell good and bad past

By Peter Smith • psmith@courier-journal.com • December 5, 2008

Donald W. Shriver was encouraged by recent news of Louisville’s plan to surround its controversial Confederate monument with exhibits honoring the civil-rights movement.

"That’s a great illustration of the kind of story I try to tell," said Shriver, who has been awarded the 2009 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion.

Shriver’s book, "Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds," gives numerous examples of Americans seeking to tell the whole truth of their history — good, bad and ugly.

In it, he calls not for tearing down old monuments that honor part of the nation’s past, but rather finding ways tell the rest of the story — particularly of the cataclysmic sufferings of African Americans and American Indians.

He cites efforts to promote national reconciliation through better history books, monuments, investigations and anniversary observances.

"Gratitude and contrition are necessary for honest patriotism," said Susan Garrett, director of the award and a professor at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, which grants the award along with the University of Louisville.

"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, public recognition and collective repentance for wrongs done promotes mending of that fabric and opens the way to a better future for all."

Shriver — a professor emeritus of applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in New York — said his book calls on the United States to acknowledge "our two original sins — slavery and what we did to native Americans."

"Most public memories of the national past specialize in celebration of virtues and victories and other things you can be proud of," he said. "Both in our written histories and in our public ceremonies, we tend to skip lightly over those bad things in the past."

Looking for examples, Shriver explores ways that Germany has erected memorials to acknowledge the genocide of Jews in the Holocaust. And he cites South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for unearthing the brutal history of apartheid.

For those who say it’s best to forget the past and "move on," Shriver cites the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: "to forget something you really have to remember it first."

But his book is far from a condemnation of national amnesia. Rather, he seeks to "celebrate things that have been done."

They include research that has unearthed long-suppressed atrocities on American soil, such as the 1921 mob attacks in Tulsa, Okla., that destroyed a thriving black community and left dozens, or even hundreds, dead.

The atrocity is now so widely acknowledged that "Tulsa is not likely to forget that now," he said.

Shriver said the city of Richmond in his home state of Virginia has set a good example.

Richmond’s Monument Avenue has long had towering memorials to Confederate heroes such as Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.

But it recently installed a statue to native Arthur Ashe on the avenue, paying tribute to the black tennis player’s humanitarian work.

Shriver also said American school textbooks have improved greatly in recent years their honest depiction of the horrors of slavery and the periods of racial discrimination that followed its abolition.

"By contrast, I think we’re still pretty far behind when it comes to native Americans," he said. "It came very close to genocide. A lot of Indians I know don’t hesitate to use that word."

But even with much work to be done, such as the reassessment of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, once heroically depicted but later criticized for his attacks on Indians — to the point that his name was removed from what is now called Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

"The naming of things can be an important advance in public education," Shriver said.

Garrett said that while Shriver’s book is not predominately religious, it draws in Christian themes of repentance and reconciliation.

"It is informed by theology but is really appropriate for public discourse and ethical conversation in the public realm where you’re dealing with people who aren’t necessarily sharing the Christian framework," she said.

She said he offers a template for other American reconciliation projects, such as "sins against the environment" and the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.

"There’s plenty of places for reflection," she said.

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