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Did we win?


Bill Paxton brought all of his “Big Love” Godly smugness to his role as Randal McCoy.

The History Channel has aired its much-hyped “Hatfields & McCoys.”  I’ve only watched two of the three parts.  Thanks to the magic of Tivo, I’m hoping to finish it tonight.

I’m not a feud historian, but I’ve read a little bit about the dealings between Ole Ran’l and Devil Anse Hatfield.  Being a McCoy, I have been asked many times if I am related to this famed feuding clan.  While we don’t have any definitive genealogical proof, we do have some circumstantial evidence that points to the possibility.

There has been some family history done by one of my Dad’s cousins, and it appears that my family can trace its roots to Kentucky and West Virginia at about the time of the feud.

And then there’s the picture.  Many years ago my uncle Larry McCoy found a picture of Randal McCoy.  I wish I had a good picture of my Uncle Larry to show you.  You’ll have to take my word for it: there is a resemblance.

That being said, watching the History Channel mini-series was a somewhat strange experience for me.  I wasn’t just an objective observer.  I guess you could say that I had a rooting interest.  I remember as a kid when I heard about the McCoy-Hatfield feud, one of my first questions was, “Did we win?”

Me and my great-great-great-great uncle? I’m not sure, but the guy on the left is me, and the guy on the right is Ole Ran’l McCoy

Even now, as I watched the movie I found myself “rooting” for the McCoys.  It was clear that Anderson Hatfield was a terrible person for deserting, and profiting while his brethren and friends suffered.  It was clear that Old Ran’l was wronged when that thieving Hatfield stole his hog, then trumped up testimony in the trial. In the ruckus in the courtroom after the case, McCoy shouts, “This is a case of Godly right versus Damnation wrong!”  And I was all, “Hell Yeah!”

I had to catch myself.  It wasn’t about that at all.  It was about pettiness and grudges.  Eventually, McCoy’s godly self-righteousness started to grow tiresome. I couldn’t help but chuckle when later in the movie Hatfield tells Randall, “If you feel the need to bring up God one more time, and who’s side he sits on, you won’t be making the ride home.”

I won’t go through all of the details of the movie, or analyze any characters, because pretty quickly into the second episode it was clear that there were no good guys in this story.  I haven’t seen how it ends, but I feel like the movie has done a great job of showing the feud as what it was – futile.  There were no winners.

Stubbornness, false pride, hardened hearts, vindictiveness, and revenge fueled the feud.  As a child I saw the world in black and white and just assumed that the McCoys were good, the Hatfields evil, and there must have been a clear winner.  I’ve realized now that life is usually more about shades of gray.  I’ve learned that revenge is never good fuel for a soul.  As I watch the last episode, I’m hoping someone figures that out.  Then I’ll know who won.

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10 years later in a 9/12 world

Photo taken by my good friend Rev. Scott Elliott. This is part of a mural in a Sunday school room. The original art is by Steve Selpal and the gifted artists who painted it were Steve, Anita Knapp Kidney, Lizzy Knapp and Emily Knapp.

I’m wondering.  Did our world change, or just our perspective of it?  In many ways, the answer is obvious, and it runs deeper than longer lines at the airport and more flags flying from front porches. Two wars have been fought.  Thousands have died.  The lives of the families of those that were lost were changed in ways I cannot even fathom.  Billions have been spent.  Countless tears have been shed.  There are many ways the world has changed.  We live in a more fearful era.  There is less trust.  There is more resentment.

Yet at the same time I can’t help but wonder if the world really changed, or just the way we see it.  There was terror on September 10, 2001.  There were people that hated America.  There were people that feared Muslims.  There was injustice.  Innocents died.  People mourned.  We have a tendency to look back at our country before 9-11 and glamorize it.  Listening to the accounts of the day makes me wonder if people think that economic turmoil, political upheaval, and fearful lashing out with violence are new to the world.

We live in a September 12 world, and we are keenly aware of this world’s problems, but they were not invented on that terrible day.  We continue to struggle with the events of September 11 and wonder when we may get past it.  We wonder how long we will live in fear?  How long will we live with resentment?  How long will we live in suspicion?  When will September 13 come?  When will healing come?  When will peace come?  Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! (Psalm 130).

As Christians, none of this should come as a surprise.  We live most of our lives in a Saturday world.  Saturday is the day of waiting.  It is after the terror of Friday and before the joy of Sunday.  It lies in the midst of fear and speculation.  Most of the disciples responded to Jesus’ death as most humans would.  They ran.  They hid.  They locked themselves in a room and wondered, “When are they coming for us? How long will we live in fear?  How long will we live with resentment?  How long will we live in suspicion?”  They might have remembered the promises of Jesus while he walked with them, but all they could see were the lashes on his back and the crown of thorns on his head.  All they could hear were his cries of pain.  All they could taste were their own tears.  All they could touch was the cold and lifeless body of their teacher, their friend, their Messiah.

How long must we live in Saturday?  How long must we live in September 12? 

I’m not sure I can answer that question.  I know this: The disciples didn’t come out of that locked room on their own.  It took the resurrected Jesus to break through the barriers that men built.  It took the risen Lord to overcome their fear and their doubt.  It took the loving arms of the Son of God to set them free and send them into the world to set others free.

In the few days that followed the attacks on 9/11, none of us really had a choice.  We were deep in the shock of sadness and fear.  I remember being glued to the TV for hours on end with tears dried on my face.  I remember coming to grips with the fact that my freedom and safety was in jeopardy.  My world changed that day, or was it just my perspective?  Did I finally awaken to the reality of the world that had so long been easy to ignore?

Ten years later, we all have a choice.  The shock has long worn off, so now we have the ability to choose.  With what perspective are we going to look at the world?  I have lived through the pain of Good Friday.  I have waited through the despair of Saturday, and I have risen with Jesus in glorious resurrection on Sunday.  I know there is much to do.  I know we are not there yet, but I have been shown the way.

So now, in the midst of our September 12 world, we must choose.  In your own September 12 world, which do you choose? Hope or despair?  Understanding or ignorance?  Mercy or vengeance?  Reconciliation or bitterness?  Grace or judgment?  Justice or oppression?

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Jesus, Pilate, Barabbas, and centuries of violence

As we approach Easter, my church continues to work through Adam Hamilton’s 24 Hours that Changed the World.  This Sunday, we will be looking at Jesus before Pilate.  As found in the gospel of Mark, the story goes like this:

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Gospel of Mark 15:1-15 New Revised Standard Version

Here we have an incredibly powerful narrative of Jesus, Pilate and Barabbas.  If used properly, this story can be a mirror to our own souls – forcing the reader to ask the question, “What do you wish me to do with the man?”  In this dramatic scene, the people are given a choice.  The Gospel of Mark presents this choice in clear and uncertain terms.  Barabbas is describes as a rebel who murdered someone during an insurrection.  He was an enemy of the state – and he used violence to achieve his goal.

Barabbas was resentful of Roman rule and wanted, like so many Judeans at the time, to be free of Roman rule.  For centuries Judea had been under the thumb of one world superpower or another.  Rome was just another in a long line of foreign rulers.  The people longed to be free of oppression.  Barabbas had followed one path toward freedom.  We don’t know if he lead a great uprising, or if he was just a part of a troublesome skirmish, but the details of his crime are not important.  He is presented as a symbol.  He is the path of liberation through violence.

More than this though, he is the way of the world.  His path is the same path as the Romans.  Though he had the goal of overthrowing Roman rule, his means were the same that Rome used.  His path of violence was, in many ways, the only one that people knew.  It was the way of the world – it was the way of “might makes right.”  He wanted to make a new Kingdom, based on God’s law and God’s people, but he used the tactics upon which the Kingdom of Rome was built.  They were the same tactics on which the Kingdom of Perisa was built, and the Kingdom of the Babylonians, and the Kingdom of the Pharoah.

Jesus presents a different option. He was trying to build the Kingdom of God, which can only be built with peace, grace, humility and self-sacrifice.  Jesus told his disciples to love their enemies, to sell their possessions, to leave their families and their status and their well-being and their comfort.   Barabbas said, “Pick up your weapon and follow me.”  Jesus said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.”

As we read the Gospel account of the people choosing to set Barabbas free, we must remember that the choice is ours.  Everyday we stand in that crowd.  Everyday we hear the chief priests – the pompous, the powerful, the comfortable, the talking-heads, the radio hosts, our friends, our co-workers, our neighbors – egging us on to set Barabbas free.  Everyday we must choose between the way of the world and the way of God.

We work either to build kingdoms of men, or the Kingdom of God.  Every time we choose to work for the good of others, every time we seek out a closer relationship with the outcast, every time we sacrifice our comfort or status for the sake of love, we reverse the decision that was made that day.  When we pay a little more for fair trade coffee, when we make an effort to recycle our trash, when we pick up our Bible and spend some time with God, when we ask a friend if it’s okay to pray for them, when we go to worship instead of sleeping in, when we witness to our faith through word and deed, we reverse the decision that was made that day.

Don’t let evil ones tell you that the decision was made by the Jewish crowds.  Don’t let them get away with pawning off this decision on them, because we are there making the same decision everyday.  Don’t let Pilate off because he tried to “wash his hands of this.”  It’s not that easy.  Jesus’ blood isn’t washed away with water and a towel.

This text has been misused to justify violence against millions for centuries.  It has been misused by people who want to avoid the question, “What do you want me to do with this man?”  Don’t let Mel Gibson’s movie tell you that it was the Jews that killed Jesus.  Don’t believe the lies.  Too often, depictions of the gospels in drama – called passion plays – get lazy.  They allow and sometimes encourage the viewer to side with Pilate, the reluctant Roman, and denounce the actions of the Jewish mob.

Don’t forget that the road from Oberammergau to Dachau is only a short drive in a car, and throughout history has been shorter than that in the hearts of those looking for someone to blame.  Read about the history of Oberammergau.  Read about Hitler’s visit in 1934.  Read about the changes they have made since 2000, and wonder why it took so long.  I live close to the longest running passion play in America, and yet its website is conspiculously free of anything about the link between violence against Jews and passion plays.

There are those that have deeply emotional responses to passion plays.  Part of my faith development includes a powerful experience with a passion play.  They are designed to emit emotional response.  There is a basic human response to the suffering of an innocent that should invoke emotional response.  All I am saying is, be careful.

If you see a passion play this year, do so with your eyes wide open.  Be honest with your own feelings.  Those emotions you feel – are they about the sin you see in yourself?  Do you have a contrite and broken heart because you see yourself in the crowd?  Do you see yourself in Pilate, trying to wash your hands of a something that you had the power to stop?  Or are you angry with those that killed Jesus?  Are you quick to blame others for sin in which we all participate?

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