(RNS) — The Rev. Donald W. Shriver Jr., an acclaimed Christian ethicist and Presbyterian minister who wrote widely about the need for white Americans to face and repent of their racist past, died July 28 at 93.
Shriver served as president of Union Theological Seminary in New York from 1975 to 1991 and is credited with having hired leading Black scholars and clergy including James Forbes, James Washington and Cornel West. West once called Shriver “the most prophetic seminary president in the late 20th century.”
A son of the South, born in Norfolk, Virginia, Shriver took to heart the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and its call to white clergy. Shriver’s most celebrated book, “Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds,” published in 2005, compared the work of public repentance in Germany and in South Africa with that of the United States.
In it, he suggested those two countries could teach the U.S. how to publicly acknowledge and repent for past evils. Shriver believed repentance was the only hope for “a future less evil than our pasts.”
American culture, Shriver wrote, will never be truly reformed, “unless the past we ought to mourn is mourned, in fact, in public, and in the context of concrete gestures and measures that put the past behind us in our very act of confronting it.”
The book won the Grawemeyer Award in Religion in 2009.
“He was a profoundly Christian man,” said philosopher and social activist Cornel West. “He was someone fundamentally committed to the Christian gospel and making the connection between love, power and justice. There was nobody like him.”
Shriver hired West as a 23-year-old Princeton University graduate student before he had completed his doctorate. He also raised money for the prestigious Dietrich Bonhoeffer chair at Union that West will fill once again in the 2021-22 academic year. They remained friends till the end, West said, breaking bread once a month.
Shriver was born in 1927 to a family that supported segregation. His parents hired a Black domestic worker to care for him and a sibling, but she was never allowed to sit with the family at the dinner table. At 21, while still a student at Davidson College, he attended an ecumenical youth conference where for the first time he took Communion and sat as an equal with Black representatives to the conference who shared their terrors of living in a segregated South. It was a watershed “occasion for racial repentance,” he recalled.
Years later, in 1965, he marched in Selma, Alabama, for voting rights alongside King and others. Afterward, church elders tried to have him fired from North Carolina State University’s Presbyterian campus ministry, which he served at the time. That year he also published his first book: “The Unsilent South: Prophetic Preaching in Racial Crisis,” a collection of 19 sermons from Presbyterian pastors in the South who spoke out against white supremacy.
While Shriver served as a pastor earlier in his life — mostly in North Carolina — he spent the better part of his career in higher education. He earned a doctorate from Harvard, writing his dissertation on the theology of forgiveness, and later taught at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
But he spent most of his career at Union Theological Seminary. He is credited with pulling the seminary back from the financial brink in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In addition to hiring up-and-coming Black scholars, he also hired feminist theologians such as Beverly Wildung Harrison and Phyllis Trible — leading the institution on a justice-oriented trajectory.
Shriver and his wife, Peggy, a poet, were members of Riverside Church, the towering Baptist and Congregationalist church in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. The couple had three children. His daughter, Lionel, is a fiction writer and a journalist who lives in London.