(Forgive me in advance for the length of this post. I cannot do this subject justice in 500 words).
Previous to last night’s viewing of the HBO miniseries, The Hatfields and the McCoys, (which is now out on DVD) I knew nothing of their particular history.
I am, however, intimately acquainted with a feud of my own.
One broke out in our family almost ten years ago. I remember the date well because the baby I bore just days before the feud started is now on the cusp of ten years old.
A decade later, those involved in this feud still don’t talk. They don’t email. They don’t write letters. They missed each other’s weddings and the births of five children have gone unannounced and unwitnessed between them.
Because I’m the oldest in the family and our parents divorced just a few years before the feud broke out, I’ve always felt a keen sense of responsibility to help the combatants resolve things. I’ve sent them copies of the book, The Peacemaker, which outlines the Christian reconciliation process. I’ve listened to both sides. I’ve counseled ad infinitum. I’ve wet my pillow many, many a night grieving the lost fellowship between these two that I love so much, but cannot fix.
A decade of trying and, at long last, I’m done.
Why it has taken me so long, I don’t know. Acceptance of a reality that doesn’t fit my ideals has never been my strong suit. I’ve always felt that my Christian obligation is to never, ever lose hope, to keep on trying, initiating, pursuing, pressuring, guilt-tripping…whatever it takes to bring the family back together. I’ve alway thought if I just say the right thing, if I’m compelling, if I, in A Few Good Men style, object strenuously enough, the involved members will see the light, hearts will soften, confession and forgiveness will ensue, and now-enemies will become friends, move next door to each other, and hang out their laundry together.
And I’ve failed, as anyone playing God usually does. The words I intend to be helpful get skewered and end up biting the one I mean to encourage. Trying to help one sibling see the viewpoint of the other backfires into them questioning my sisterly loyalty. My heartbreak over the situation turns me to other’s ears and I am labeled a gossip. My eventual anger and frustration pollutes my motives and damages any good I may have done once upon a time.
Like the Hatfields and McCoys, our feud started small. Twenty years of tiny, almost imperceptible offenses grew and grew until they finally exploded. A lifetime of tit for tat and teasing and minor, but unresolved fights grew into this behemoth of a feud so big I can’t even fathom what it will take for it to be resolved. Church pastors and elders were called in and limply refused to get involved. Sides were chosen, trenches dug, weapons sharpened. This is full-out warfare, albeit a Cold one these last few years.
Watching the movie last night I grieve all over again. And I ask, how is it that one comment, one small act can tip the dominoes toward such destruction? Then I recall the small spark that caused the raging wildfires in our beloved home state and I hang my head.
Feuds don’t always start with something huge like a murder, you see. Most of the time they start small. One person offends another person’s wife. That person turns around and insults the other’s girlfriend. The first person raises the ante and sabotages the other’s business. The second person goes behind the first’s back and gives away private knowledge. Before you know it, there is murder. Maybe not the physical kind, but the kind that goes on in minds, killing one another over and over with our hatred and anger over their offenses toward us. We decapitate their reputation, their past, and their future. We wish them harm and failure and destitution. We long for revenge and vindication and wait with wicked anticipation for their downfall and clap our hands with glee when it comes.
Oh, Hatfield and McCoys, we are shocked at the violence you perpetrated, but we shouldn’t be. For it is in our own hearts. One moment we are brothers in arms, side by side in solidarity and filial love and the next we are praying for the coals of condemnation to rain down on their heads. In Christian circles it gets even uglier because we use scripture to bludgeon each other into submission, a battle that can get gory when both parties are well-read, well-versed and more articulate than a trial lawyer.
We haven’t yet seen the third episode of the movie, so I cannot draw a conclusion based on how it ends. What I know is this: Moments ago I picked up my two youngest children from swimming and they broke into a squabble in the backseat over something that happened during their lesson. It was a minor difference of opinion, so petty I couldn’t even regurgitate it for you. By the time we got home three and a half minutes later, it had escalated to slammed doors and small character assassinations. A potential feud was born. He called me this name. I called her that name because she said I didn’t win the contest. I said he didn’t win the contest because he’s the teacher’s favorite. No, I’m not! Yes, you are! No, I’m not! Yes, you are! No! Yes! No! Yes! Doors slam and he accuses her of ‘blackmailing’ him.
In the time it takes to suck in breath, a potential feud is born.
I sigh because one of my greatest fears is that history will repeat itself in my own children. This decade of feuding has exhausted whatever emotional stores I had and I don’t know if I can bear another generation of it. So I turn to the pages of script I wrote years ago when it all started, verses about Hatfield and McCoy feuds:
Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.
An angry man stirs up strife, and a furious man abounds in transgressions.
He who troubles his own house inherits the wind.
The house of the wicked will be overthrown.
A fool rages.
Pride goes before destruction.
A perverse man sows strife.
A fool has no delight in understanding, but in expressing his own heart.
A fool’s lips enter into contention and his mouth calls for blows.
Wrath is cruel and anger a torrent.
He who is cruel troubles his own flesh.
See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire…
But before I fall into complete despair, I see these beside the others, words that could save us from the murderous likes of the Hatfields and the McCoys if only we took them seriously:
A soft answer turns away wrath.
He who is slow to anger allays contention.
He who covers a transgression seeks love.
It is honorable for a man to stop striving since any fool can start a quarrel.
Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles.
A gentle tongue breaks a bone.
A man of understanding holds his peace.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Do not say, ‘I will recompense evil,’ wait for the Lord and he will save you.
Where there is no wood, the fire goes out.
Perhaps the greatest is this one: The beginning of strife is like releasing water; therefore stop contention before a quarrel starts.
When tempers flare, STOP. When the first harsh word is spoken, STOP. When the first name is called, STOP. When the fist raises for the punch. STOP. Don’t wait for things to take their course. Don’t let it escalate. STOP. Calm down, walk away, come back later for real conversation. Because, in the torrent of angry words and acts, feuds are born. Foolish, life changing, decades-long, sorrow-producing, relationship-shattering feuds are born. Feuds your children will witness and question. Feuds that the world will watch and say, If this is how Christianity looks, I want NOTHING to do with it.
As the first decade of our feud comes to an end, here’s what I know: I need to let God be God. I need to pray (really pray and not just talk about it) instead of shaking my fist at Him for not healing our family on my timetable. I need to leave it with Him and focus on my own little ones, where because we see in living color this example of what NOT TO DO, we understand all the more what can happen if fights are not lovingly resolved. Here, where we’re daily working to shed the feuding skin of our past and learning ever so slowly the ways of love. Soft answers. Deep breaths. Calm down for a bit. Placing cushions of love around small hearts so they have the grace to cushion others. Speaking words of peace…I’m sorry, will you please forgive me? Let me help you. I didn’t mean it. I was wrong. I love you. Let’s be friends.
Over, and over, and over.
If you have not traveled the feudal path yet, learn from the Hatfields and the McCoys and from us. Feuds don’t stand up and announce themselves, “THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF A FEUD THAT MAY LAST A LIFETIME, BEWARE!” They creep in slow and stealthy, sliding you into destruction one day, one unforgiving moment at a time.
Stop them before they start, won’t you, friend?
p.s. If you made it this far, thank you for your kind patience…and won’t you share your stories?
Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins.
Photo credit: June Etta Photography