A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 20, 2013
2 Samuel 13:1-4, 6b-21, 27b-29a GNT
It probably slipped by you unnoticed, but January 1st marked an important date in American history. New Year’s Day was the 125th anniversary of the peak of the famous Hatfield-McCoy Feud, one of the most famous conflicts in American history.1 The feud has become a common byword for any bitter feud or disagreement. Why would I make mention of this feud in a sermon? you many be wondering. The story holds some valuable insights on the causes, prevention, and resolution of family feuds. But first, a bit of background information is in order.
The Hatfield-McCoy Feud involved two families of the West Virginia-Kentucky border that began during the Civil War and lasted about 25 years. Both families came from Northern Ireland. The majority of both families fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War, but one of them, Asa Harmon McCoy, fought for the Union. One of the first real recorded acts of violence between the two families started when wounded Asa Harmon McCoy returned from the war and was murdered by a group of ex-Confederates. A Hatfield was suspect at first, and thus the violence began. The second recorded instance of violence occurred in 1878, after the dispute over the ownership of a hog. Some Hatfields believed that because the pig was on their land it was theirs, but the McCoys objected, saying the markings on the pig’s ears proved it belonged to them. This disagreement led to another murder. The feud escalated after Roseanna McCoy entered a relationship with Johnson Hatfield. She left her family to live with the Hatfields in West Virginia. Later Johnson Hatfield would abandon the pregnant Roseanna for her cousin, Nancy McCoy. But the feud reached its peak during the 1888 New Year’s Night Massacre. Several members of the Hatfield Clan surrounded the McCoy cabin in Pike County, Kentucky, and opened fire on the sleeping family and set the cabin on fire in an effort to drive Randolph McCoy out into the open. Randolph escaped, but two of his children were murdered, and his wife was beaten and left for dead. It is said that this incident was a turning point in the feud. But over the course of about 25 years, several members of both families had lost their lives.
Of course, the largest feud in the history of America was the Civil War that in many cases pitted family against family, and brother against brother. Curiously enough, this month is also the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves.
Well, in looking at today’s reading from 2 Samuel, we find that this is one of the most dramatic family feuds recounted in the Bible. We have read how David’s son Amnon took advantage of his half-sister Tamar, which led to a two-year feud with Tamar’s full brother, Absalom. The incident more or less ruined Tamar’s life. After two years, Absalom, still bent on revenge, invited all his siblings to a banquet, with the sole purpose of seeking revenge on Amnon, whom he had murdered. This act led to alienation between Absalom and his father, David. They didn’t see each other for over three years. Of course, David mourned the death of his son Amnon. When David and Absalom were finally reconciled, Absalom decided he wanted his father’s throne and plotted an overthrow. So the followers of Absalom waged war with the followers of David. In the process, Absalom was killed as well. And then David mourned the death of his son Absalom. Hence the famous quote, “O my son! My son Absalom! Absalom my son! If only I had died in your place, my son! Absalom, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33) And all of this is just a part of the dysfunction and scandal that rocked the house of David.
The interesting thing is King David stands as Israel’s most beloved and celebrated king. More is written about David than any other Israelite king. David is celebrated as the gifted writer of many Psalms. It was from the line of David that the Messiah was expected, and Jesus’s ancestry is painstakingly traced back to David. David remained Israel’s most beloved king in spite of the scandal that rocked his house. One of the things that we can learn from David’s story is that no family is perfect. No one is insulated from family problems. Problems, and dysfunction, and sometimes even scandal can rock even the best of families. So if your family isn’t perfect, take heart. There was an interesting article this past week in The Wall Street Journal about the surprises some people uncover in genealogy and researching their ancestry. The article noted, “Researching your ancestry doesn’t always turn up heroes and royalty. It may turn up a felon, a bigamist or another unsavory character. . . Experts say reactions can range from detached bemusement to identity confusion and soul-searching as the researcher tries to understand—and rethink—his or her lineage.”2
But the question is, What leads to such fighting and feuding in families in the first place? The answers surely are many and varied. But as in the case of the Hatfields and McCoys, and the family of David as well, often such feuding results because of a sense of family honor, justice, vengeance and revenge. As Malcolm Gladwell notes in his book, Outliers, “What was the cause of the Appalachian pattern [of feuding}? . . . . The consensus appears to be that that region was plagued by a particularly virulent strain of what sociologists call a ‘culture of honor.’”3 A “culture of honor” is “a world where a man’s reputation is at the center of his livelihood and self-worth.”3 Gladwell points out that the Scotch-Irish heritage of the Hatfields and McCoys that they brought with them from Ireland was a significant cause in the feuding and unwillingness on the part of both families to give in. And so it was with Absalom and his brother Amnon. It was a sense of family honor, and vengeance, and the seeking of revenge that caused Absalom to be obsessed with exacting justice, and he would not rest until the deed was done.
As I think about families today, and the disagreements and feuds that can lead to years of separation, I think often it is a sense of pride and feeling one’s honor has been damaged that leads to and perpetuates separation and feuding. When we do something that offends another, pride can keep us from going to that person or persons and saying “I am sorry; please forgive me.” Or when someone does something to offend us, our sense of honor may keep us from forgiving them.
We recall the teachings of Jesus where he admonishes his followers to forgive even as we want to be forgiven; to turn the other cheek; to go to great lengths to be reconciled to our brother. But all too often we forget this, as we let pride, and a sense of honor, and the desire to seek revenge, and exact justice get in the way. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
Back to the Hatfields and McCoys, in 1979 the two families united for a special week’s taping of the popular television game show Family Feud, in which they played for a cash prize and a pig was kept on stage during the games. In 2011, the Hatfields and McCoys Dinner Show, a musical comedy production, opened in nearby Pigeon Forge. And now the Hatfield and McCoy Reunion is held annually in June in Pikeville, Kentucky, and West Virginia as well. In other words, today descendants of both families live together peacefully. The National Geographic Channel filmed a special episode that will air on January 29.4
The good news is reconciliation often is possible. Misunderstandings often can be worked out. Old hatchets can be buried. Those who were once alienated can live together in peace. If we allow ourselves, lessons can be learned from family feuds such as that of David’s family (we can learn from David’s mistakes) and the Hatfields and McCoys. How much better to work out our differences amicably and go the extra mile to live together in harmony and peace, when possible. Amen.
Works cited and drawn from:
1Knoxville News Sentinel, Jan. 6, 2013.
2Sue Shellenbarger, The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 16, 2013.
3Malcolm Gladwell, Outliners: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008, pp. 166, 167.