Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Faith Works 6-2

Faith Works 6-2-12

Jeff Gill


A feud with heaven



This past week "The History Channel" ran a mini-series with the fairly self-explanatory title "Hatfields & McCoys."


Kevin Costner starred as "Devil Anse" Hatfield, along with other Hollywood stars like Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, and Tom Berenger (in an incredibly unpleasant character which he renders so well I'd feel nervous today if that actor walked in the room).  Costner was a major player in getting this story to the screen, and his band "Modern West" put together a concept album around the events, which actually preceded the making of the movie, and whose title may even be better than the one for the production in summing up the grim narrative: "Famous For Killing Each Other."


That is what the Hatfield & McCoy families are best known for in general: killing each other. The movie makes it clear that retribution and suspicion and recrimination and revenge are what kept the feud going from the end of the Civil War to 1891 . . . but many locals along the Tug Fork, separating Kentucky & West Virginia, say the tensions and hostility continued until the present day.


And with the great migrations from Appalachia up into the industrial Midwest after World War II, there are Hatfield and McCoy descendants in central Ohio, in Licking County today. I know a few of each sort; none with the memorable family name, but with genealogy that ties them closely to the valley of the Big Sandy River.


Their stories, when you hear them, are less of gunslinging heroics from the menfolk as they are the grinding realities of everyday life in that time and place from the womenfolk. In portrayals by Mare Winningham, Sarah Parish, and Lindsay Pulsipher you see the cost of this sort of grudge-holding, of an honor culture where guns represent a higher law than any court can offer.


When we hear about the culture of different lands where other faith systems are dominant, it's easy to get judgmental with an overlay of "well, that's how less developed cultures get by." One of the benefits of a historical movie like this one is that it forces us to remember that less than 200 miles and 120 years from right here, people pretty much like us lived lives not much different from what we hear about in Fallujah or Kandahar.


In fact, many mornings I watch the sun rise over a beautiful pair of hills to my east. It's a lovely scene, but darkly tinged with my knowledge of a story from the pages of the Advocate about the same time as the Hatfield & McCoy feud.


On the southern slopes of that hill here in Licking County, back around the 1880's, there had been a string of chicken coops broken into after dark. One property owner, guessing his hens were the next target, sat up inside the coop with a shotgun. Sometime that night, the hen house door opened; somehow, when all was said and done, two dead men lay in the farmyard. At dawn, as the neighbors gathered, all agreed that the corpses were not local residents. The two deaths, and their lack of identification, were reported in a chillingly casual tone, akin to the next note about the county fair.


Violence is not far away from the human heart. Not in distance, not in time. Our decision to value human life, when it isn't a life that's blood relation, is contingent . . . constrained by factors from self-interest to passion to simple greed.


I wonder about those two dead, anonymous chicken thieves. They died un-mourned, and some even today would say that's only just. But where were they buried? On the slopes of the hill I contemplate with my morning prayers and sunrise coffee? Tossed into Raccoon Creek for nature to take its course? Or buried in unmarked graves on the margins of a cemetery nearby?


Here and on the Tug Fork, "say your prayers" would have been words that in the 1880s did not bring hope. And many prayers, heartfelt and sincere, such as those of Randall McCoy in the film, go unanswered, then and now.


We still wrestle with that feud of the divided heart, those conflicts between earth and heaven , deep within; our outward vendettas may be less vicious and deadly, but they still have ultimate implications. And like Uncle Dyke Garrett at the movie's end, the community of faith has certain tools for making transformation possible, and visible.


From the blood of the Lamb to the waters of Island Creek. May it ever be so.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him your story of feuds and forgiveness at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

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