By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
LINCOLN, NEW MEXICO (ANS – February 13, 2017) — As I was sitting on the porch of the historic Wortley Hotel — briefly owned and operated by Sheriff Pat Garrett — I couldn’t help but think of the tumultuous past of this sleepy town.
Today, Lincoln, New Mexico is a quaint village with dilapidated buildings, renovated homes, museums, souvenir shops, and a few personal residences. But back in 1878 Lincoln was the bastion of American violence. To contrast the two periods is hard to do. I’m sure Lincoln’s beauty was as grand then as it is now, tucked between two mountains with a creek running through it, deer walking its paths; a perfect picture of peace.
But in 1878 it was anything but peaceful — made infamous by Billy the Kid and the Regulators. As I looked across the street from the Wortley Hotel I found myself gazing straight at the courthouse that Billy the Kid broke out of, killing a couple of men along the way. And since 1881 when Pat Garret caught up with Billy the Kid at Fort Sumner and ended his life, countless of books, Hollywood movies, and documentaries have been produced to highlight the exploits of William H. Bonney-McCarty (1859-1881) — Billy the Kid. Since then, Billy the Kid has become a media superstar.
The conflict Billy the Kid was involved with is called the Lincoln County War . The war spanned a two-year period, 1876-1878. The Kid had just arrived from his childhood home in Silver City, New Mexico. He took a job with an Englishman named John Tunstall. As it turned out, Lincoln was caught in the midst of a web of warring factions involving businessmen, insurance policies, politicians, and land rights.
On one side were Tunstall and Alexander McSween. Tunstall was a new transplant to Lincoln, setting up a business in 1876. McSween, a former preacher turned lawyer, was Tunstall’s friend and financial partner. In the other camp were Irish business owner James Dolan and his business partner Lawrence Murphy. Each side gathered ranchers, businessmen, and hired hands to fight the other group. The Tunstall-McSween faction was known as the Regulators. Billy the Kid was part of this group.
The Lincoln County War was marked by revenge killings and political intrigue, including Lew Wallace, then Governor of the Territory of New Mexico and author of literary classic Ben Hur. On December 15, 1880, Governor Wallace put a price on “The Kid” for $500.00. This led to Billy’s arrest, conviction, and then escape from The Lincoln County courthouse — the one I’m looking at from the Wortley Hotel.
When all was said and done, the Lincoln County War produced modest results, promoting suspicion and hatred in the region rather than peace and justice. The remaining Regulators, including Billy the Kid, continued as fugitives for a year.
In due course, Sheriff Pat Garrett and his posse tracked down and killed some of the Regulators, finding Billy in July 1881 at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Billy the Kid was shot and killed; buried at the fort on July 14th.
According to the most reliable accounts, the Lincoln War left between 19-20 casualties. Other reports state that there were closer to 30-40 murders, even up to 60 over the course of the two-year conflict.
We may never know how many people were killed. The fact is that the Lincoln County War was a picture of humanity at its worst: murder, political infighting, deceit, revenge, mass drunkenness, greed, business dishonesty and hatred. In a way, the Lincoln County War was a snapshot of wickedness.
But as I sat on the porch I wondered if the homicide rates were greater or less during the 1880’s than they are today.
Here’s what I found:
* In 1878 the murder statistics are estimated at 5 per 100,000 residents . And if the US had roughly 40,000,000 residents , the homicide rate would fall somewhere around 2,000.
* In 2015 the murders were listed at 15, 696  or roughly 4.5 per 100,000 people .
* As one can see, the homicide rates are roughly the same, falling somewhere between 4.0-5.0 per 100,000 people.
It appears that the amount of violent acts leading to death is relatively the same. And the myth of a violent, wild west is just that — a myth . Violence isn’t relegated to a specific area — or even time period; it encompasses any region and era where people reside.
Prior to 2015 there was a decrease in the murder rate in some cities , but by 2015 many major cities saw an increase in homicide rates (see chart). In general, the United States has the highest murder rate in the developed world , but still falls behind compared to other nations (see chart).
Most cultures deem murder a sin or something similar. This being said, the question is: is there a solution to murder? Can it be stamped out or stopped? The short answer is yes and no. But to help answer the question, I need to go back to a prior visit to Lincoln, New Mexico, one that took place the day after Christmas. Why go to a place of murder the day after Christendom’s second most holy of holidays you may ask?
I can think of a couple of reasons:
First, Christmas represents the reason why God sent Jesus: to seek and save lost. And by all accounts, the participants in the Lincoln County War fall within the arena of those needing redemption. The Incarnation (the event we celebrate at Christmas) is the point in history where God provided a new beginning, a new Governing authority for the world, Jesus. Isaiah, writing hundreds of years before Christ’s birth, states concerning the Messiah, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”
In Jesus, the Father was establishing a kingdom of righteousness, one providing justice and salvation. In order to be a part of this kingdom one must receive — and believe in — the gift of salvation provided by Christ. And then become a kingdom builder as represented by a pursuit of Christ’s truth, beauty, goodness, and justice.
So, yes, there is a solution — Jesus. And for those who follow Christ, a life of justice will ultimately prevail. And though murder is still with us today as it was when Jesus was born (people still are sinners by nature after all), the road to the final point in history when wrongs will be made right is one step closer.
Yet this leads to the next point answering the “no” portion of the question. Even with more Christians in the world murder will not cease (evil is still present), but maybe it will decrease as the kingdom is continually built, brick upon brick, life upon life. With newfound faith people may take items of harm and turn them into objects of healing. We can only hope. The Christian’s job is to proclaim Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to convict and call the person to repentance.
But there’s another thought just as intriguing: the Lord may use the horrendous incidences caused by humans — murder included — to paint a picture of His grace working through providence.
As an example, one of the individuals who survived the Lincoln War became a Christian and a respected member of the town. George W. Coe, Billy’s right hand man who lost a finger in battle, became a staunch follower of Christ and prosperous landowner, starting the Golden Glow Ranch in Lincoln. He hung up his guns to serve the community and Christ.
And as mentioned above, Lew Wallace penned one of Christendom’s most popular novels: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, later made into two Hollywood movies. Many consider Ben-Hur to be the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century.
Wallace worked on the novel in the New Mexico Territory while serving as territorial Governor. According to a popular online encyclopedia, Wallace wrote that he “composed the climactic scenes of the crucifixion in his room by lantern light, after returning from a dramatic encounter with Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid.” Think of this: the events of murder, greed, betrayal, and hatred spawned during the Lincoln County War influenced one of Christendom’s great works of literature. Grace arose from the garbage.
As the two examples show, God can work anything out for good, a portrait of his affectionate love consuming the abhorrence of hate. Like Ben-Hur found forgiveness in Wallace’s novel, and George Coe found forgiveness for his actions in the Lincoln War, the cornerstone of both incidences is Christ; the solution is the same.
In 2010 a group of New Mexico citizens were pushing for political exoneration for Billy the Kid. Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson declined the pardon . Since then, others have taken the mantle to see that the outlaw — who some consider an honest person in the midst of political and corporate greed — get a fair hearing, with the ultimate result being a posthumous pardon. To date, Billy has not been politically forgiven.
I know true forgiveness doesn’t come from a political pardon; it comes from Christ. Yet if Billy were pardoned at some point in the future, the picture would be poignant, an ember shinning in the ashes. And as many can attest, the Lord can make beauty from ashes (Isaiah 61:3), a flicker of light in the midst of darkness.
Speaking of the light: as the sun began to peek over the mountains in Lincoln, I decide to take a morning jog down Lincoln’s only paved street. With the silence about me, I began to reflect on the light of Christ. I pondered the way His life has changed lives throughout history, renewing individuals, cities, counties, regions, and even countries. Later in the day, my wife and I had tea at the Dolan House (the rival gang of Billy the Kid), drinking and eating a scone as the hostess explained the history and the renovation of the house. It was present calm in the midst of historical chaos. After tea, we walked by churches and saw Christian symbols on doors and bumper stickers. Light has come to an area of darkness.
And what’s true of Lincoln is true for any community: Christ’s light shines bright for all who will receive; forgiveness comes to those who bask in its renovating luminosity through a humble request.
And though murder is a reality that we live with around the world, lets not forget the slaying of the One that has led to the salvation of many. The revenge of a realm can be transformed by the renewal of the Redeemer. If it can happen in Lincoln, it can happen elsewhere.
Photo captions: 1) Billy the Kid standing by his Wanted poster. 2) City murder rate map. 3) Country murder rate chart. 4) Lincoln, New Mexico Courthouse. 5) Billy the Kid tomb. 6) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
** You may republish this, and any of our ANS stories, with attribution to the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net). Please also tell your friends that they can receive a complimentary subscription to our news service by going to the ANS website (see above) and signing up there.