Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Senator Byrd and the Ku Klux Klan

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."
Luke 15:4-7

When Christians have questions and debates about what they believe, it is usually about doctrine, or about biblical literalism. Do you believe in the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the second coming? Do you believe that God created the world in seven days? Do you believe that Jonah lived for three days in the belly of a fish? Do you believe that Jesus walked on water?

But there are other questions of belief which are in many ways much more important. One of those questions is highlighted as we contemplate the recent death of Senator Robert Byrd.

Do you believe that people can change? And when they change, do you believe that there is “joy in heaven,” and that life is made new?

Robert C. Byrd, like his adoptive father, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Not only was he a member; he organized a chapter. In later years, he often tried to minimize his involvement, saying that he left the Klan after a brief involvement in the early 1940’s. But his racism carried beyond those years. In a letter written in 1945, Byrd said that he would never fight in the armed forces "with a Negro by my side." He emphasized his opposition by writing, "Rather I should die a thousand times, and see old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels." Nearly two decades later, in 1964, he filibustered the Civil Rights Act and eventually voted against it. In 1967 he voted against the nomination of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court.

There is no excuse for racism. The fact that it was widespread does not change the fact that it was (and is) wrong.

In his later years, Byrd did not expect to be forgiven for his earlier racism. The forgiveness he wanted, and believed he had received, was from God rather than from his fellow citizens. But joining the Klan, he said, was the worst decision of his life. And his racist past provided a cautionary tale about how poor judgments and decisions can haunt you forever.

History must judge him by his whole life. The good he did later does not eliminate the evil he perpetrated. He promoted hatred and that cannot be overlooked. But for some people, the Klansman is the only "real" Robert Byrd. They see his evolution as more about convenience than conviction.

Maybe. We cannot know what is in another person's heart. But Jesus believed that people can change. And Christians are called to that same hope. For others and for ourselves.

In his letter to the Romans Paul writes, “Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” If we only love the good and do not hate the evil, we become sentimental. But as William Sloan Coffin has said, if we do not love the good more than we hate the evil, we just become “good haters.” At the end of Chapter 12 Paul writes, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Jesus believed that people could change. And that the change could be real. His critics wondered why he spent so much time among people with so little sense of righteousness, and his answer was that these were the very people who needed him to help them change. He was (and is) the shepherd looking for lost sheep. And leading them home. And rejoicing at new life.

Do we believe that people can change?

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