Friday, June 8, 2012

The Real McCoy (And the Real Hatfield!)

Last week, The History Channel aired a three-part miniseries about the legendary blood feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. More than 13 million people tuned in to watch this dramatic reenactment of a nearly 30-year war that broke out between two Appalachian families at the end of the Civil War. The show set a new record as the most-viewed telecast ever on basic cable!

Now, I've lived most of my life only a couple hours from where all the action took place, but I have to admit, I never took the time to dig in and learn what really happened until now. As it turns out, it's an interesting tale - albeit incredibly sad - with much to teach us.

Kevin Costner as Mr. Hatfield & Bill Paxton as Mr. McCoy © 2012 Thinkfactory Media
Kevin Costner as Mr. Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Mr. McCoy
Randolph "Ole Ran'l" McCoy and Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield started out as friends. They served together on the Confederate side of the Civil War, but through a series of events, that friendship became strained and eventually the bad blood between the two families got out of control. For one thing, Mr. McCoy may have felt put out when Mr. Hatfield found an excuse to abandon their Confederate band and returned home to build a profitable business while the others were out fighting. A land dispute between Mr. Hatfield and one of Mr. McCoy's relatives (and a later dispute over some hogs) did nothing to ease the tension. And things got even worse when it was suspected that one of Mr. Hatfield's relatives had shot one of Mr. McCoy's relatives after an argument. These and other conflicts would be hard for anyone to ignore, so it's no wonder the McCoys became so upset with their neighbors across the river!

We all have times when we feel someone has abandoned us, cheated us, or harmed us or our loved ones. But I wonder, how many of us have as much cause to be angry with our neighbors as the McCoys felt they had? How often do we divide ourselves and develop grudges over issues that are trivial by comparison? How often do we "go to war" with our neighbors because of misunderstandings and differences of opinion that are never dealt with properly? It's not usually one big thing that breaks up a friendship. It's usually a whole lot of little things that are allowed to pile up. Instead of confronting issues when they arise, however, we prefer to sweep them under the rug and pretend they don't matter. Problem is, they do matter, and you eventually run out of room under the rug!

The McCoys allowed their anger to boil beneath the surface like a bad stew until it eventually boiled over, and they couldn't keep the lid on it anymore, and the lid came off with deadly force! Now hopefully, for most of us, it'll never get that bad, but you do hear from time to time about someone whom nobody would have ever suspected - nicest guy in the world - until he finally has all he can take, and he just snaps! That's why it's so important to deal with things as they happen, instead of letting them build up inside us.

In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus gives us a model for confronting issues as they arise:
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." (NIV)
To their credit (according to the History program), the McCoys did try to confront the Hatfields peaceably about some of the issues early on (although not exactly in a spirit of reconciliation, and instead of taking it to the church, they took it to court), but when things didn't go their way, this only made them madder and madder. How might things have been different if the McCoys followed Jesus' advice to then "treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector"?

Some interpret Jesus' words to mean we should separate ourselves from those who refuse to reconcile with us. If the McCoys had simply refused to have anything to do with the Hatfields, perhaps there would never have been a feud, but if the History program is accurate, it appears the McCoys actually did try to avoid the Hatfields at first. We're not always able to avoid people we have problems with.

I think Jesus meant something more, though. How did Jesus treat sinners? He showed them mercy and compassion, and he taught his disciples to do likewise (see Matthew 5:38-48). What would have been different if the McCoys had learned to "turn the other cheek" instead of seeking "an eye for an eye"? And what bloodshed might have been avoided if either side had chosen to forgive instead of to fight?

Real Hatfield clan (circa 1897)
The Hatfield clan (circa 1897)
"Since you did not hate bloodshed,
bloodshed will pursue you."
- Ezekiel 35:6

The Hatfields and McCoys both learned the hard way that revenge is a vicious thing - especially when both sides refuse to let the issue go. When the McCoys felt cheated, they had to get revenge on the Hatfields. When the Hatfields were harmed, they had to retaliate. And so often when we try to "get back" against someone, while we do so in the name of justice, we find that revenge is rarely fair. We find ourselves striking each time with greater force in hopes the other side will be so hard-hit they will be unable or unwilling to continue. When neither side will back down, it's a terrible cycle.

The concept of personal justice in the Bible is different, though. While, within the legal system, there is punishment for wrongdoing, justice on the individual level is focused on things like giving a true testimony, resisting peer pressure, seeking the good of even enemies, and refusing to show favoritism (see Exodus 23:1-9). Revenge is not justice. Instead, the Scriptures teach that only God is qualified to judge and exact vengeance (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30), so Jesus instructs his followers, "Judge not, lest ye be judged" (Matthew 7:1, KJV). The better thing for us to do - though often difficult - is to leave the other person's fate in the hands of God, and instead find forgiveness, even when we are repeatedly wronged.

"Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, 
'Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother 
when he sins against me? Up to seven times?'
Jesus answered, 'I tell you, not seven times, 
but seventy-seven times.'"
- Matthew 18:21-22 (NIV) 

The McCoys could not find it in their hearts to forgive. In the History program, Mr. McCoy is depicted as a religious man who prays for his enemies and tries to do things by the law, but he never learns to turn the other cheek. Not realizing that his own hateful grudge is what keeps bringing bloodshed and disaster upon his family, sadly, he blames God, and is shown losing both his faith and his mind as he is consumed (both figuratively and literally) by the fires of bitterness. 

'Devil Anse' Hatfield
William Anderson 'Devil Anse' Hatfield
By comparison, "Devil Anse" Hatfield seemed to be the antagonist through most of the History program, but in the end, it is he who decides enough is enough. In the last act, he finally understands and declares, "Somebody's gotta bend to stop it. Randall can't,'s gotta be me." If you want to see an end to a conflict, the answer is not to strike so hard the other person can't respond, and the answer is not to fight until a point "when there's no blood left to be spilled" (as Mr. McCoy puts it in one scene). The answer is - to borrow a line from a Michael Jackson song I referred to last month - "If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change."

And so, Mr. Hatfield chooses not to retaliate in the end. He chooses to walk away from the fight while he's still able. I don't know if he ever really forgave the McCoys for their part in the feud, but he certainly takes a step in the right direction. In fact, in the end, we see him being baptized (as he was in 1911), and we learn that he went on to die a peaceful death at age 81 (in 1921). It's a good reminder that no matter what terrible thing we've done, it's never too late - as long as we're alive - to turn to the Lord and find redemption. Nothing you can ever do is so terrible that God will not forgive you and welcome you into his family if you simply turn to him and accept the grace he offers through his Son Jesus Christ. 

There is no winner in a feud. The McCoys may have made the last strike, but at what cost? Both sides lost sons, daughters, cousins, and friends. Beyond that, the fight cost the McCoys faith and sanity, and both family names will forever have a sullied reputation. 

While we may never personally be involved in anything as bloody or sordid as a full-out feud, we all still have much to lose. So if someone has wronged you, learn a lesson from the Hatfields and McCoys, and don't try to sweep it under the rug. Don't let it boil up inside you, but instead, learn to forgive. Seek reconciliation. Be the bigger person. Love your neighbor, and let God be the judge. 

Both bitterness and love can be contagious. Which one will you spread?

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