Book Review: Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds
By Donald W. Schriver . Oxford New York, Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780195151534
Donald Shriver is a highly respected public theologian in America. Some ten years ago he published an important book on the neglected place of forgiveness in the panoply of political virtues. There he argued that forgiveness at a collective or political level requires a combination of four things – a morally-attuned remembering of past wrongs, a refusal of revenge, an empathy for the opponent’s humanity, and an active commitment to repair fractured relationships and build community. He furnished three case studies for exploring the political face of forgiveness: America’s relationship with Germany and Japan following the wars between them, and the struggles of the black community in America for equal citizenship.
Honest Patriots forms a sequel to that book on forgiveness. It offers an even deeper analysis of the crucial role of moral memory in a healthy society and affirms the collective responsibility of all citizens to recover the wrongdoings of their nation’s past and address the negative consequences that flow into the present. This is the essence of true patriotism, Scriver urges, a love of country so strong that it is prepared to honestly face its past crimes in the interest of preventing their repetition in the future.
Once again Schriver offers three detailed case studies of how “honest patriotism” works in practice. In each he blends historical reportage, autobiographical reflections and theoretical analysis of the key principles at work.
The first case study is an account of the extraordinary efforts modern Germany has made to uncover in depth and detail the horrors of Die Nazizeit and to honour its victims. No country has done more to own its evil deeds and to guard against their recurrence than Germany. It has done so in several ways: by instituting anniversaries of past atrocities, by creating thousands of visual memorials across the country where citizens can recall and mourn the victims of Nazi brutality, by including in the school history curriculum a detailed study of the Nazi period and the failure of ordinary citizens to resist it, by instructing military personnel in their duty to disobey unjust orders, by the payment of reparations to victims and to Israel, and by stunning symbolic gestures by German political leaders to acknowledge and repent of the nation’s previous transgressions. As the temporal gap between the present and the Nazi past increases, the determination of younger Germans that such a thing will never happen again seems to grow ever stronger
The second case study is of South Africa’s recent, and largely non-violent, transition from the totalitarian abuses of the apartheid era to the constitutional democracy of today. Shriver again notes the importance of anniversaries, museums, memorials and history text books for exposing and empathising with the sufferings of the past. Added to this is South Africa’s new Constitution and Bill of Rights which itself memorialises the past, not least by spelling out in great detail the legal rights of those who are arrested, detained or accused of crimes.
Schriver gives most attention however to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which has attracted both international acclaim and a good deal of domestic disdain. In a highly perceptive analysis, Schriver draws out seven lessons from the TRC about how societies can deal with their negative pasts in constructive ways. He is not blind to the weaknesses of the TRC, but finds especially in its approach to truth-telling instructive insights into how traumatised communities can embark on the long and hard road to reconciliation.
His third case study looks at his own country in two lengthy chapters. One chapter deals with America’s involvement in the unique evil of slavery. From the history of abolitionism, segregationism and the civil rights movement Schriver draws lessons about the preconditions that are necessary for a society to reckon with its wrongful past.
He then presents a persuasive moral case for the payment of reparations to the descendants of former slaves. There are some parallels here with the arguments that swirl around treaty settlements in New Zealand, both in terms of the inescapable responsibility governments have to remedy the damage done by past administrations, with which they stand in unbroken continuity, and in terms of the parallel duty all citizens have to address the baleful legacy of these wrongs. To those immigrant groups (in both countries) who insist that their ancestors weren’t even in the country when the wrongs were done and so they have no responsibility for righting them, Schriver responds that it is impossible to become a citizen of any country without inheriting the burdens as well as the benefits of its past.
Schriver’s next chapter looks at the much less well-rehearsed story of the dispossession and devastation of the Indian nations that inhabited North America when European settlement began. Again sensitive to parallels with the New Zealand situation, I was struck by the repeated failure of English colonists to honour the hundreds of treaties they made with Native Americans. The English thought themselves superior to the Indians, whom they considered barely human. As the superior party they felt free to break any agreement with them at their convenience. As one Sioux elder said in 1891: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land, and they took it” (217).
In the closing chapter of the book, Schriver spells out what honest patriotism might mean for America at the dawn of a new century. In a word, it means power-with-humility. “Supercertainty of its own virtue”, Schriver observes, “ill becomes a superpower” (281). If current indications are anything to go by, it may be some time before we see such humility emanating from the top echelons of the American political establishment. But as long as there are such sensitive and profoundly truthful commentators as Donald Schriver around speaking to American power, there is always hope.