Inaugural Maloney Lecturer Searches For Hope Beyond Human Capacity For Violence
February 28, 2001
Contact: Bill Giduz 704/894-2244 or firstname.lastname@example.org
February 28, 2001
Gazing at the world from 50 years beyond his graduation, Rev. Donald Shriver '51 presented somber hopes at his alma mater recently that this year's graduates will exercise enough wisdom to avoid human destruction and enjoy their own golden years.
Shriver, former president of Union Theological Seminary in New York who has focused his work on the field of Christian ethics, appeared as the inaugural Samuel D. Maloney Lecturer in Religion. The creation of the endowment was celebrated at a dinner on Sunday evening, February 25, that preceded Shriver's speech entitled "A Past Worth Celebrating." He spoke again the following evening about "A Future Worth Hoping For."
The Maloney Endowment for the Study of Religion and Society was made possible by a gift from the family of Thomas Jefferson III '59 of Richmond, Va. It honors James Sprunt Professor Emeritus of Religion Samuel D. Maloney '48, who exhibited extraordinary concern for the social, cultural, and ethical dimensions of religious life during a teaching career at Davidson that stretched from 1954 until 1994.
Jefferson and Maloney, supported by friends, classmates, and well-wishers, were present at the dinner and spoke briefly about their appreciation for the new program.
Shriver began his Sunday evening lecture with homage to education, and said a teacher should be more interested in encouraging and celebrating the success of students than in passing on knowledge. He said the greatest gift he took away from his professors at Davidson was a conscience of human history. That conscience, though, has prompted in him worries about human actions in the past century and concerns for its future.
He lamented the fact that the age of instantaneousness, fueled by the Internet, seems to be eroding our perspective on the past even moreso than did television. "Our young people are conditioned to motion without memory," he said. Then he quoted James Billington, librarian of Congress, who stated, "Never trust anyone with a computer who does not read books or listen to stories!"
Shriver said history is important not just as an intellectual exercise, but because it continues to live in the present through the people who experienced it and the conditions it created. He pointed out that a great many people in the audience, who were his contemporaries at Davidson, experienced the most momentous event of the 20th century‹World War II‹first hand. "To forget that war would be to forget a crisis that could come upon the world again," he said.
Moving on to the central focus of his concern, Shriver said the crisis of the 20th century was the realization of the human capacity for violence. He said he has spent a great deal of his 73 years in trying to help recover the connection between memory and hope, recalling the violence of the past to bolster hopes that it not be repeated in the future.
He said we must in the 21st century avoid the mass violence of the previous century, which saw 150 million people die in "organized violence." "The massiveness of evil transcends our understanding," he said. "How can we stop doing it?"
He acknowledged the paradox that war's horror also creates an intense emotion and love between those who experience it together. "If we could understand war's love as well as its hate we'd be closer to understanding the mystery of human life," he said.
He said it's too late to try to suppress the technology of evil, so that we must strive to solve violence with a psychological approach.
The challenges we face are many. Shriver noted that humans seem capable of living in two arenas at once. Many of the German executioners at death camps were loving, normal family men in their homes at the end of the work day, he pointed out.
People yield to violent behavior through a process of "psychic numbing," when they are persuaded by leaders that the violent job must be done, and when subjected to peer pressure. Shriver noted we are all "numbed" to some degree, whether it be ignoring the fact that women and children are dying in Iraq from our containment of Saddam Hussein, or our implicit support of nuclear weapons with our tax payments.
He warned that the most destructive of all military evils, nuclear devices, are still among us in great numbers, and cannot be ignored. The power of these weapons insures that there is no longer a strict division between global issues and personal issues, because an outbreak of violence anywhere on the globe could lead to the destruction of civilians thousands of miles away.
His own chilling lesson came during the 1962 Cuban Missle Crisis. He and his family were visiting relatives in Norfolk, Va., at the height of the crisis. Had Kruschev and Kennedy not exercised wisdom and restraint, Shriver noted that the huge naval base in that city would certainly have been targeted for destruction by the Russians, obliterating himself and his family along with countless others. He urged his listeners to view the recent film, "13 Days," as a valuable history lesson. He also noted that war was avoided not through a show of force, but because the two leaders were willing to "pull back from strength."
Shriver said our task must be concern for the needs of people all over the world. And he said we must resist oppressive evil, even if resistance puts our own lives in peril. We must strive to eliminate the entire spectrum of destructive behaviors, from high profile mass murder to simple apathy that tolerates injustice. "How can the devil of human evil be exorcised in the majority will allow the minority to act? It's a hard one to discuss," he concluded.
In addressing "A Future Worth Hoping For" on Monday evening, Shriver referred to a future based on ethics and fact. The facts of history, even with their record of bloodshed and evil, are the "silent keys" to the future, he said.
He cited examples of individuals and organizations that give him hope for a new world-wide acceptance of shared respect and empathy. Among the hopeful signs are the developing worldwide human rights movement, new constitutions that uphold standards of international law, the emergence of an international court, and the development of a new world-wide system of communications.
"We don't know everything today, but instant communications does make it possible to truly love one's neighbor as one's self," he said. Atrocities by armies can no longer be hidden, and the effects of earthquakes and natural disasters can be met with immediate relief. People also travel more, bringing back personal knowledge of other cultures so that governments can no longer effectively paint a one-sided picture of an adversary. "Increased communications gives us a clearer picture of justice and injustice," he said.
The development of "devices for communication with a painful past while survivors of that past are still alive," such as South African truth commissions, is also a positive step, because evil-doers are not allowed to bury their deeds.
A similar example is the investigations in this country of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and subsequent reparations to the internees. We are still coming to terms with the slavery of African-Americans, and the genocide of Native Americans, he noted.
Shriver said the existence of the species ultimately depends on God's presence. He noted that all religions contend that human beings are capable of inspiring respect, and that we are good and worth preserving.
Because humans were made in God's image, those who harm others are attacking God. He said there is a divine spirit working to restore and renew the divine within humans, but violence continues to stall that process.
The era of the "holy war" is past, Shriver concluded. Religion now cannot possibly relate violence to holiness, and murder can never be an act of piety. "Whatever else we can say to justify war, we can no longer call it a crusade," he said. "There is no more 'onward Christian soldiers'."
He called on religious people to admit that the spirit of God is a faithfulness of life against death, and to take the lessons of the past into a new era of humanity. He cited extraordinary examples of victims who have emulated Jesus' call on the Lord to "forgive them, for they know not what they do." He said, "The best thing about evil is never to do it. The second best thing is to repent, and the third is to forgive it."
We live in the middle ground of history between the spirit of evil and the Holy Spirit, Shriver concluded, and the power to tilt the balance rests in our trust in God.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson recently launched "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.