Last week, over three nights, 51 million people tuned in to the watch the miniseries on the History Channel about the most famous family feud in American history. My husband and I were part of those millions who decided to watch it. Watching the Hatfields & McCoys was something we looked forward to. We share an interest in American history, but also an interest in genealogy. We both love digging into the roots of our family trees. I love discovering bits and pieces of unknown family members and around each corner we investigate, we also discover little pieces of history. The interest with this family feud is also a bit personal. You see, my great-grandmother was Lula Belle McCoy McCord and while we don’t know the exact point the McCoy branch of my tree intersects with the infamous McCoy family just yet, we have found out that the McCoy families who settled in Maryland, West Virginia, and Pike County, Kentucky all come from common ancestry.
The miniseries did not disappoint in depicting the conflict. It featured a lot of wonderful historical details, especially in the language (I’m a sucker for dialect), a lot of violence and heartbreak, and some darn fine acting. This depiction of rural Appalachian life after the Civil War in the prism of the feud, shows that there were valid reasons for the conflict and it was not merely backwoods brawling. Hatfields & McCoys producer, Darrell Fetty spoke in an interview about how this film differs from the majority of movies that portray ‘hillbillies’ in a negative context. Fetty, who also plays ‘Doc’ Rutherford in the series, admits he grew up “resenting the term which actually means “a friend from the hills.” Describing a “positive portrayal” of West Virginians as “one of the reasons I’ve been wanting to do this project,” he disdained media that portrayed “stupid hillbillies fighting with themselves over nothing,” when “there were substantial reasons for conflict in the 1800s, just as there is today.”
Still though, a lot of us might entertain a sort of mental sneer when we hear about the feud, but the truth is we are just as guilty of similar behavior; even over valid points. Now-you and I don’t usually shoot each other over pork loin or timber, but we do engage in verbal battles. In fact it almost seems as if it is our nature to fight first and ask questions later. And this begins very early in life-I mean almost as soon as we are able to relate to others we begin to quarrel with them about this or that. I remember a particular nasty episode between my younger brother and I over the position of the cooler between us on what seemed like a never ending trip to a vacation spot. I would nudge it a little bit further over onto his side of the seat; further than was fair and he would do the same thing. The conflict escalated to the point we were both leveraging our body weight’s against it trying to keep it off our side of the seat. Think about the squabbles with your siblings over who got to play with what toy or who got to use the bathroom first or who got to wear whose clothes. In fact, parents sometimes feel like powerless UN Peace-keeping troops trying to keep their kids from killing each other.And we don’t grow out of this tendency toward fighting over foolish things. Some of my fellow pastors have told me about grown men and women-husbands and wives-whose entire marriage relationship deteriorated to the brink of divorce because of an argument over something as foolish as where to take a vacation or whose job it was to take out the garbage.
And unfortunately this tendency to feud and fight is even seen in relationships between Christians-people who claim to follow Christ; the Prince of Peace. I’ve heard of believers that quarreled over everything from what color to re-stain their church’s pews to which style of worship was best. The church we attend has been embroiled in its own ‘family’ feud over the building of a Family Life Center. One group favors building the center while, even though the building is starting to go up, the other group vehemently opposes it. The disagreement escalated until the church was divided into two camps and finally reconciliation and healing had to be brought up.
Justified or not, fighting over ‘nothing’ or not, the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys also serves as example of the unbridled fury of failure to forgive. Where one grievance that is forgiven is a small occurrence, a series of unaddressed offenses creates a perfect storm of resentment, anger, and malice. Anger is a dangerous emotion precisely because it can easily spin out of control. Scripture recognizes this reality and prescribes proper ways to address it. For example, the maxim “an eye for an eye” is not a barbaric command at odds with the teaching of Jesus. When the law was revealed to Moses, people in the surrounding pagan cultures often expressed their wrath unjustly. Avenging one’s honor after an insult could involve murder and other acts. “An eye for an eye” limits the execution of anger and punishment. Retribution must not take more than the offense did (Lev. 24:17–23).
When God’s people abandon this principle, the consequences can be severe. Consider Simeon and Levi who avenged the honor of their sister Dinah after she was raped in Genesis 34:1–4. The brothers’ outrage was just, but they acted rashly and pillaged the offender’s city before God sanctioned holy war (vv. 5–31). Simeon and Levi, Jacob’s second and third sons, could have inherited the kingship of Israel from Jacob after Reuben (Jacob’s oldest son and first in line to be king) disqualified himself. (35:22; 49:3–4). Yet they too lost the throne because of their murderous rage against Shechem (vv. 5–7).
The book of James puts it this way in the first chapter: “13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” This scripture is literally brought to life as a war-time injustice between the Hatfields and McCoys followed by an allegedly stolen pig and leads to what nearly became a second civil war between two neighboring states. Forgiveness is more for the offended than it is for the offender. When we forgive, we are saying that the person who hurt us no longer has the power of pain and hurt over us.
Forgiveness is that all too often Achilles’ heel for us, and even more so for those of us who claim a relationship with Christ. Oh, we know we should forgive, but sometimes it’s just so much fun to harbor resentment, to wallow in a sort of self-pity. After all to not forgive someone of their wrongs protects us. Withholding forgiveness protects us from being vulnerable, from future hurts and certainly from any pretense that we could in fact be wrong. To stay stuck down in the mire of our own foolish pride and pity like that does nothing to the person we are angry with. Instead, it travels like a slow poison, slowly eating away at our soul. Failure to forgive turns us into bitter, spiteful, haters. You probably can recollect the name of someone you know who is a “non-forgiver.” Something may have happened literally years ago, and he or she will speak of it as if it happened just last week. The hurt and resentment is almost as raw today as when this distant event happened, except it has had the time to fester and infect other parts of life.
So is it any wonder Jesus gave Peter the answer he did, knowing, truly knowing, our human nature? Judaism would say to forgive the one who sins against you and you will be following the spirit of the law. To forgive that same person a second time would be exemplary. Should that same person sin against you again, while you had risked being hurt another time, and you forgave him or her once more, your behavior is beyond reason. So what does Peter ask, knowing full well with whom he’s dealing, for after all he’d confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, just two chapters previously? He asked Jesus if he should forgive SEVEN times. An outrageous number, isn’t it? Knowing that Jesus goes for the “big picture” as in, “not only give your shirt but your cloak too,” “if your brother asks you to walk one mile, go two,” etc., Peter wants Jesus to know he’s “getting it.” Instead, Jesus responded by saying not just seven times, but seventy times seven or seventy-seven, depending upon one’s translation. In other words, keep on forgiving with such magnitude as to forego any sense of limit. Hmmm . . . and we often have such a difficult time forgiving just once.
Such is the story of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. The Tug Fork River snakes a crooked line between West Virginia and Kentucky, winding its way northward through the rugged, steep hills. Until the coming of the Norfolk & Western Railway in the 1890s, it was a remote, isolated valley, removed enough from the main paths of commerce to form a people of strong independence and self-sufficiency. The Hatfield and McCoy families were from that stock. For those who didn’t catch the miniseries or don’t know the historical details of the feud, it seems to have sparked during the end of the Civil War. Hatfield, tired of war and the cost in human life, decides to desert the army and go home while McCoy, honor-bound to fulfill his duty to God and country, twists and frets over whether to bring Hatfield to justice or let his friend go home.
Hatfield seems to settle back into life and when McCoy comes home he shows his animosity for Hatfield’s desertion. Fueling the fire, Anse’s uncle; Jim Vance, reportedly murdered Randall McCoy’s brother; Harmon because he fought for the Union during the war. Even though the evidence is a little murky, the story is that the deadly feud escalated in 1878 when Ran’l McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield of stealing one of his hogs and took him to court. The verdict, in favor of the Hatfield side, resulted in bitter feelings, resentment, and more anger. Then on Election Day, August 7, 1882, Ellison Hatfield got into a brawl with Tolbert McCoy and two of his brothers. Ellison was knifed by the McCoys and died three days later. Ellison’s brother, Anderson Hatfield, nicknamed “Devil Anse” took revenge. Three McCoy boys were hauled from Kentucky, tied to a pawpaw bush and gunned down. Just a year earlier, in 1881, Johnse Hatfield had courted Roseanna McCoy, who later gave birth out of wedlock to a daughter; the baby girl died shortly thereafter. Seven years later, on New Year’s Day 1888, Johnse and some other Hatfields raided “Ran’l” McCoy’s home, the patriarch of the McCoy clan. They burned the house down, killed two adult children, and beat Sarah McCoy. The McCoys retaliated, taking nine Hatfields. Seven Hatfields were charged for the New Year’s Day killings, and one man involved in the proceedings was hanged.
Over the years, the accounts have been exaggerated and mythologized, but deep within the conflict is the unwillingness on either side to work toward reconciliation and forgiveness. If one or the other had forgiven just once, much less the seventy-seven times about which Jesus spoke about, much heartache and bloodshed could have been spared. The capacity for sin as a result of anger is not just one-sided in this tale. Anse Hatfield doesn’t have a monopoly on godlessness. Despite their differences – At the beginning of the feud Hatfield is a ‘self-made’ man while McCoy is quick to lean on God in the tough times and attribute his successes in life to God, they both do some things that are not right. Randall McCoy, while grounding in his faith is not exempt from letting his humanity get the best of him. At times when grace and forgiveness would have saved him a lot of heartache, he chose to dig in his heels and make some decisions on his own that eventually led to more bloodshed. During all of this, it is his wife; Sarah, who at one point challenges him. She says essentially, “When was the last time you sat down and prayed?” He was eager to give lip-service to trusting God, but was also taking matters into his own hands to fix the situation, rather than truly giving it up to God.
Stressing that this production unlike others has an accurate emotional conveyance of the families and conveys “truer lessons” for viewers, Darrell Fetty told reporters,, “you should learn if you are mad at your brother or sister to forgive them. You should not hold grudges. There’s collateral damage. People take sides. This is an American tragedy. You have one visceral character that goes toward the light. And, another starts as a very righteous man and he goes to the dark.” A small thing allowed to fester can become a blazing fire. A stolen pig and and timber rights and an unsolved murder turned into a long lasting feud that costs many lives, including innocents. We can also learn a lesson about knowing when to call a truce.
I admit I was on Team McCoy at the beginning of the miniseries - just a given, considering my lineage. However, the bitterness of Randall McCoy and his thirst for vengance started to turn me away from that opinion. Devil Anse Hatfield actually called for a truce even though the McCoy’s had the upper hand at the time. At the end of the miniseries we realize that McCoy’s anger and inability to forgive had destroyed almost his entire family. Hatfield takes his family into a cool, quiet wooded spot in the hills to read a letter that is essentially what he now views as the importance of peace.Their lives end very differently. The last two scenes in the miniseries are of McCoy, white-bearded and alone in his cabin, mad with grief and a bitter heart, accidentally setting himself on fire and hallucinating one final show-down with his nemesis Hatfield; and then Hatfield, long-bearded and hung with a clean white shirt, being baptized in the river and thereby redeemed. Always a critic of religion and God, he gave his heart to the Lord, was forgiven of his sins and was baptized. According to history this is exactly what happened and it had a great impact on his family. Many generations of Hatfields have come to know the Lord and serve Him, all pointing back to the example of Devil Anse. Truth is, no one on this side of the grave is beyond being forgiven.
Both Randall McCoy and Devil Anse Hatfield chose sides in this life. They chose to be on opposite sides of a family feud. They also chose opposing sides on the matter of forgiveness and anger. One chose to be forgiven and to forgive others while the other remained in a whirlwind of anger for the rest of his years. Which side of forgiveness are you on? Do you feel like the sinners – or at least those who’ve sinned against you – have all the advantages? Is there festering anger buried deep within your soul, of which you cannot seem to let go? Has the “feud” been going on long enough, and it’s time to end it?
Part of forgiving others is to accept God’s forgiveness of our own shortcomings, sinfulness, and hurtful ways and goodness knows we all have plenty of those. We’re being forgiven daily, by others and by God. As Barbara Brown Taylor said, We are being set free by someone who has arranged things so that we have all the advantages. We have choices. We have will. And we have an Advocate, who seems to know that we need lots of practice at this forgiveness business. How often should we forgive? Will seven times be enough? ‘Not seven times,’ Jesus said,‘but seventy-seven times.’ This is no chore; this is a promise, because forgiveness is a way of life. It’s God’s cure for that which can fester and poison our very soul. It’s how we discover who we really are, deep down, inside, where no one really sees, and every time we forgive, our true selves shine a little more.