Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

The Dawn, the Twilight, and the Darkness

I’ve walked these mountains before, but then I was distracted. My eyes probably glazed over as the guide spoke of the Lycian League. But this time, these ancient ruins which are found in the southern part of Turkey captured my attention. Here in this Lycian region, where people suffered under one conquering army and one despotic leader after another—the Persians and their generals, Alexander the Great, Egyptian hegemony, the Seleucids, and the Rhodians—the Lycians held on. They endured a world in which power was centralized in a single authority, where laws were created to enforce the ruler’s will over those they conquered.

And then, for a moment, things changed. When the Romans came to take their turn at dominating the world, they allowed the Lycians to have their own self-rule. From 166 BC to 43 AD, these people carried out an experiment of sort. They formed a federation. Political authority would not be the personal privilege of a ruling elite but rather a public trust held by representatives on behalf of the whole society. Each of the twenty-three towns within this region sent representatives to speak for those they governed.

Before me two days ago stood their forum. There are thirteen rows of stones that form a semicircle, and at one time these chosen representatives came together to speak, listen, argue, and resist outsiders (and insiders) who would seek to challenge their freedom and independence, seeking to dominate and rule.

I like to imagine they gathered to create a culture of reason, rational debate, and compromise. They established checks and balances to ensure they would not lose this fragile democracy. Citizens were expected to participate, engage, and even argue—so long as it was civil. Representatives were to guard against insularity, losing sight of the true needs of their people. It happens over time. Leaders begin to operate, as one put it, “with a view only to itself, its own internal conversations and psychodramas.” Instead, these men chose to listen, work at careful persuasion, show deference to one another, tolerate opposing views, and shift positions when it seemed right. These chosen representatives came for this one purpose–to promote liberty, justice, and equality.

In a world of elites and oppressive rule, what was happening in this region was unique. Some in distant places noticed this turn to a more liberal world order. Among them, a man named James Madison, the father of the American Constitution, appealed to this federation as the example America should follow, and it did. I looked at these ruins and realized for the first time that our roots go back to the place where I am standing. This was the dawn of democracy.

Ironically, the day before, I had finished Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritaritarianism. In it, she warns that any society can turn on democracy. In fact, all societies eventually will. Democratic ideals do not survive simply because they are right or true. Without special measures (e.g., checks and balances, moral safeguards, belief in one’s ideals), democracy becomes corroded by division and polarization, and hyper-partisanship. Eventually, democracy slides back to tyranny. Without appropriate defenses, men succumb to their passions. The irrational overcomes the rational. We become suspicious of others with different ideas. Eventually, we find ourselves turning to demagogues—authoritarian personalities who favor homogeneity and order.

The jungle is always seeking to overrun the garden. The garden, as Kagan puts it, always needs tending, be it democracy–or Christianity. Especially Christianity. For forces of history and human nature never stop exerting their rule.

Yesterday we hiked up to the top of St. Nicholas Island. Along the way are numerous ruins of ancient churches. They are all over Turkey. Sadly, one will not find thriving congregations—living stones as Peter put it—but overturned stones that mark the place where followers of Jesus once met. The land of Turkey represents the dawn of Christianity; it also represents both the twilight and now the dark. For the perceptive, it stands as a warning–just like the Lycian League, which also is ancient history.

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