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On tyranny and discipleship

Liberty faces tyranny

Democracies can turn into dictatorships. The Rev. John Boley summarizes what a history professor, Timothy Snyder, has to say to those who would oppose a slide toward tyranny and authoritarianism.


Clergy Assistant, Michigan Conference

My Christmas reading included a short book called, “Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” by Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder.

Snyder does a study of the democracies, which turned into dictatorships in the 20th Century, focusing on Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Russia. From this study, he pulls forth 20 lessons that are appropriate for today and every-day.

This is a decidedly secular and political book on citizenship, but we know that there are always ties between citizenship, politics, and discipleship. Perhaps the ties are strongest when, like in our times right now, we are facing so many political movements that tend toward authoritarianism and tyranny.

Here are Snyder’s 20 lessons and warnings, somewhat edited:

  1. Do Not Obey in Advance – Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given ahead of time.
  1. Defend Institutions – Institutions are what help us to preserve decency. They fall one after another unless each is defended from the beginning.
  1. Beware the One Party State – The parties which remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start – they exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their opponents.
  1. Take Responsibility for the Face of the World – The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Do not get used to the symbols of hate.
  1. Remember Professional Ethics – Authoritarians need obedient civil servants. Insisting on professional ethics inhibits control possibilities.
  1. Be Wary of Paramilitaries – When men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh.
  1. Be Reflective if You Must Be Armed – If you carry a weapon in public service, may God bless you and keep you. But know that the evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things.
  1. Stand Out – Someone has to. It is easy to follow along.
  1. Be Kind to Our Language – Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Make an effort to separate from the Internet.  Read books.
  1. Believe in Truth – To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis to do so.
  1. Investigate – Figure things out for yourself. Take responsibility for what you communicate for and to others.
  1. Make Eye Contact and Small Talk – This is not just polite. It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society. 
  1. Practice Corporeal Politics – Power wants your body softening in your chair, and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Involvement in local politics is essential.
  1. Establish a Private Life – Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Tyrants seek hooks on which to hang you.  Try not to have hooks.
  1. Contribute to Good Causes – Be active in organizations and pick a charity or two and set up autopay. Then you will have made a free choice to support civil society and help others to do good.
  1. Learn from Peers in Other Countries – Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends in other countries.
  1. Listen for Dangerous Words – Be alert to the use of the words “extremism” and “terrorism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary. 
  1. Be Calm when the Unthinkable Arrives – Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events to consolidate power.  The sudden disaster which requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.
  1. Be a Patriot – Set a good example of what America means for generations to come.
  1. Be as Courageous as You Can – If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.

Friends, we are closer to these underlying challenges now than we’d like to think. Thanks be to God for Christian discipleship which upholds human rights and institutional goodness. Christian discipleship is still the best path of life given to us by a gracious God.