Sen. Robert Byrd And Renouncing Racism

(Adapted from my post originally on Moscow’s Vision 2020 discussion forum)

The New York Times reports that West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd died early this morning at 92.

Certainly West Virginia has benefited from the Senator’s decades in Congress, but to me the most important consideration in any evaluation of his legacy is his despicable early involvement in the Ku Klux Klan.

There are no circumstances under which any support whatsoever of the Klan and other racist organizations can be excused or “understood” — I don’t buy into the “product of his culture” or “different times, different views” thing that people employ to rationalize disgusting, hateful attitudes, actions, and alliances. I reject that when applied to Byrd, my grandmother, and generations of Southerners like them who embraced Christianity while at the same time holding on to subtle and not-so-subtle racist views that devastated both the objects of that racism and the Gospel that was used to justify what can never be justified, not then and not now. They might have had to work harder to see the wrong, but the sinfulness of racism is clear, the empowering grace of God undeterred when truly sought.

I understand, however, that Byrd decades ago renounced his racist past — his views and his involvement in organizations like the Klan that spread them. That, I think, was the only right thing to do. People change, God be thanked, and good works in the present can ease the ugly effects of sinful ones willfully committed in the past, as well as demonstrate a real commitment to the One who is both Truth and Love and in whom there is no bigotry, no hate, no racism.

Only God knows if Byrd was sincere in his repentance, and perhaps it was only an example of political expedience. But if he was, he showed character and courage that I hope those of us in Moscow will see from men here who curry favor and align themselves with organizations and movements that espouse a form of bigotry sanitized by “religion.” It takes a firmness of conviction to renounce publicly one’s sinful public actions and attitudes. It also, I suppose, requires a firm conviction to hold onto and promulgate them in the first place.

So what’s the difference?

For Christians like myself, like Byrd, and like those here who proclaim Christ as Lord, it’s a change wrought by grace and confirmed by repentance. Byrd appears to have lived the final decades of his life in a state of wisdom and character that I pray will be emulated and echoed by the paleo- and neo-Confederates here — men who espouse Christian theology while defending a despicable past and working for an equally despicable “Anglo-Celt,” “Sothren” future. I just pray that these men fall to their knees in sorrow before they hit their 90s, because there’s an awful lot of damage left for them to do if they don’t.

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