There is a legend that Gordius, founder of Phrygia, lashed his chariot (or was it an ox-cart?) to a pole with a knot so intricate that only a man great enough to conquer all Asia would be able to untangle it. In 333 B.C. (the story goes) Alexander the Great solved the problem of the Gordian knot by slicing it in half with his battle sword. Since then a “Gordian knot” has become synonymous with any intractable problem. Alexander’s solution has become an advertisement for swift, decisive action.
Phrygia possessed just one Gordian knot. We Americans seem to be in possession of a barrel-full. The issues of race, class, inequity, due process, immigration, law and order, rampant crime, and corruption seem to become more complicated with time. Police shootings (by which I mean police shooting civilians, and civilians shooting police) may once have been under-reported. They are not under-reported now, and the mayhem produced seems to grow exponentially.
I recently reread Larry McMurtry’s book on massacres in the American West*. Some of those mass killings were the result of evil plans carried out by evil men – the Mountain Meadows Massacre for instance, or the Massacre of the Blackfeet at Marais River. Some were led by unrepentant racists – like Major Chivington’s massacre of peace Indians at Sand Creek, or John C. Fremont’s massacre of Maidu at the Sacramento River. Some massacres - the Fetterman massacre and the Little Bighorn - were the result of a toxic brew of hubris and stupidity. Most of the massacres, and the worst of them (Washita and Wounded Knee) were caused by fear.
Young men, frightened, a thousand miles or more from home, cold, tired, stressed, often acting on false information surround a village of Sioux, or Cheyenne, or Paiute and during a tense standoff something happens – a horse bolts, or a gun goes off and then everything explodes into violence. When the smoke clears the bodies of women, children, and the aged litter the prairie.
Fear was the cause of the majority of, and the worst of the massacres in the American West. The fear itself was reasonable. Many of the Plains Indians were formidable, often merciless enemies. But much of the time reasonable fear produced unreasonable acts.
In the July 13th Washington Post there was a story covering the much-discussed study by economist Roland Fryer, of fatal shootings by police. He found, much to his own surprise, that although racism played a role in many of the shootings, fear was the primary culprit. In high crime neighborhoods officers were quick to draw a weapon, and quick to feel threatened. These two responses to a reasonable fear made unreasonable force seem perfectly reasonable in the moment. This finding seems to describe a problem even more intractable. Racism is never reasonable, but fear often is.
If the issue is fear, we Christians alone have a response. There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear because fear involves punishment. The one who fears is not perfected in love (I John 4.18). I didn’t say we Christians have an answer – only a response – we still live in a sinful, decaying world (I John 2.17). But when we love selflessly, when we are involved in our communities as loving Christians (instead of griping about them and cocooning ourselves), we plant seeds that will bear fruit (James 3.13-18). This is the only response that will mitigate the level of fear which has tied this knot. Maybe then our communities will not demand more of our officers that they ought.
Love requires a significant investment of resources, energy, and time. We prefer Alexander’s strategy – we prefer to hack through a problem in one irritated stroke. Most problems are not so easily solved.
The earliest version of the Gordian knot story has Alexander cutting into the knot in order to find the ends, so he could begin the intricate job of untying it. This is more like real life. This is something we can do – especially since love provides the knife with which to begin.
*Oh What a Slaughter, Larry McMurtry, Simon & Schuster, 2005.