This blog series on Appalachian Spirituality is a mixture of my personal religious upbringing tethered to reflections made on Appalachian culture in Loyal Jones’ book, Appalachian Values (1994).
One line of my family heritage goes back to a mountain called “Dean Mountain.” (You can read more in this book.) Now a part of the Shenandoah National Park, Dean Mountain is known for a family run cemetery that serves as a stop along the Skyline Drive. Such a peaceful setting, however, is juxtaposed to a harsh and violent history. Dean Mountain was the site of the murder of one of my ancestors.
Newton Wesley Dean, my third-great-grandfather, was murdered by an axe to the head for saying a derogatory remark about another man’s wife. An axe to the head. Neighbors who quite possibly worshipped together became enemies (to the point of death) over a derogatory remark. Not fist-a-cuffs…an axe to the head.
Neighborliness as godliness. This was engrained in me as a child—myself a product of a line of people with such violence in their story. You looked out for your neighbors. Someone always had it worse than you. “Our independence is tempered by our basic belief in neighborliness and hospitality,” (Jones 1994, Kindle Locations 144-145).
Simultaneously, if your neighbor didn’t reciprocate you vilified them. As my ancestor’s story reveals…you may take their very life. The vitriol is less from a help not received and more a violation of an unspoken social contract. Mountain life is difficult and people need to band together. Neighborliness was a God-given survival strategy.
But the difficult reality is that neighborliness was often an illusion of unspoken social contracts and pinned up aggression. Therefore, godliness became just as vaporous by default. A neighbor today could be a feuding partner tomorrow. What does this say about the social contracts and bonds that fall under the umbrella of “neighborliness?” It says that at first glance there is much to affirm in Appalachian relationships. Beneath the surface, however, a sea of frustration and animosity with life churns. As Jones notes:
Those receiving hospitality were expected to reciprocate. In the ballad, “Jesse James,” known throughout the mountains, the most damning thing said about “that dirty little coward” Robert Ford who shot Jesse was that,
He ate of Jesse’s bread, and he slept in Jesse’s bed, Yet he laid poor Jesse in his grave. (Jones 1994a, Kindle Locations 148-150)
While hospitality to the other is stressed to the nth degree, there develops a duplicitous relationship with the world. Externally you go towards people while internally you go against them. Is the goal to help the other or to be seen as a help to the other? If it’s the former, then when help is not reciprocated we find solace in the good that was done for our neighbor. If it is the latter, then there is hell to pay when our neighbor overlooks out moments of need. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. If you forget to scratch my back, then there will be a dagger in yours.
Appalachian Spirituality has made me quite mindful of the hidden motives of others…always trying to figure out the question behind the question. Simultaneously, in a true duplicitous fashion, it has blinded me to my own motives. The dilemma of Appalachia is a truly American one—does genuine altruism exist? Do we love our neighbor for our neighbor or does our independence find a way to manipulate our neighbor for our own needs?
If hospitality is a godly virtue to instill in young lives, then is our godliness a genuine experience or a way to mitigate the anxiety of our independence? Do we love God, our divine neighbor, for God’s sake or do we love God to get something from him?
Such questions haunt my Appalachian soul. I’m eternally grateful for the hospitality it has cultivated in my life. I’m challenged by the blindness it developed in me regarding my motivations.
Next Post: “Family as Transcendence”