Truth is a two-edged sword that cuts both ways. We may wield it against an enemy with great satisfaction. However, the truth also cuts us, and does so with a fare-thee-well. Senator Robert Byrd was a man who had the courage to face the truth about himself and about his nation. He had the grace and the humility to acknowledge his mistakes and to apologize for them. He could work with former rivals until they became friends. He had the strength to stand against the logic of war and insist upon the imperative of truth-telling. No truth, no justice, no peace.
Byrd started his life among the often forgotten, poorest of the poor in the United States. He grew up in the coal fields of West Virginia. He started attending Sunday school after a kind-hearted man gave him two pairs of socks so that he could attend church without embarrassment. Byrd was smart, hardworking and ambitious, joining the Klu Klux Klan in order to meet important people.
From the earliest days of his political career, he took criticism for this decision. He has apologized for this aspect of his past. He said: "I know now that I was wrong. Intolerance has no place in America. I apologized a thousand times ... and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened." It was a leader of the Klan who encouraged him to go into politics.
As long as he represented the parochial prejudices of the South, he stood against civil rights, famously filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, later, after he won battles for leadership in the Senate, especially the battle for Senate Democratic Whip against Senator Edward Kennedy, his views became more liberal. He thought that leadership made him responsible to a larger constituency.
He supported civil rights legislation and the Equal Rights Amendment; he voted with liberals on housing, unemployment benefits, Social Security and public works projects. Most recently, he voted for health care reform legislation and suggested that it be named for his good friend and former rival, Edward Kennedy. He brought millions of dollars in federal money to West Virginia, and the people continued to elect him.
However, as a person who writes peace theory, I especially appreciate Byrd's stance against the war in Iraq. He never wavered in his insistence that the American people know the truth about why this nation entered that war. He thought it was an overreach of presidential power and a cowardly display by the legislative branch. He thought that a glaring weakness of our government was lies. He wrote: "Lies at the top of government can have a deeply corrosive effect on the quality of our democracy for which there are no ready answers." People cannot trust government officials who lie, and thus democracy is threatened.
Peace theory holds that violent conflict happens when we act on a lie or an error in judgment based on deception. This is especially true when we fall into the easiest and most common deception of all, that the Other, the enemy Other is less than, less human than we and is worthy of segregation, discrimination, or annihilation. Senator Byrd, through the course of his long life learned this lesson and has left it as a legacy for a nation ever working toward its more perfect self. Thank you, Senator Byrd. May you rest in peace.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her PhD in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.