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My wife and I are traveling in Turkey with some family who live here. We’re therefore at a distance from the storms surging back home—the thunderstorms that rolled over Ontario and Quebec last Saturday, the hail of racist gunfire at a Buffalo supermarket the week before, the sirens foretelling the revocation of Roe v. Wade, and the hurricane that just descended on the Southern Baptist Convention, blowing away its twenty-year cover-up of ministerial sexual abuse.

Distance from all this definitely does not make the heart less troubled. But perhaps the immediacy of very ancient history might lend some perspective.

Certainly, hectare per hectare, Anatolia seems to have more ancient ruins worth visiting than anywhere else on earth, and many of these manifest enough construction skills to put moderns on the defensive. How this much marble was quarried, transported, hewn to fit, and borne aloft in such walls and columns at such elevations in such now-remote locations defies the imagination. Except there it all is—and there, and there, and there.

I’m probably the eighteenth-million person to marvel at the sight of all this and then immediately start pondering sic transit gloria mundi. The edifices of Justinian and Mehmed II live on with their names attached, but the great Diana of the Ephesians, the goddess formerly known as Artemis, has but one of the 127 pillars of her temple still standing. Midas has a remarkable tomb and an enigmatic monument but otherwise trails only legends of gold and asses’ ears. As for the engineers and craftspeople and powers and rulers of the Ottomans and Byzantines, the Romans and Greeks, the Persians and Phrygians and Luwians and Hittites: lo, their record lingers on, anonymously, on scattered hills and seascapes and in marvelous collections like the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.

Still, if you think a bit, you can get plenty of hints of second chances. Most generally, the undaunted effort it took to rebuild these cities time after time in the wake of yet another of the earthquakes to which this region is prone. More specifically, for those who had to live through Sunday evening sermon series on Revelation’s Letters to the Seven Churches, the excavations at Laodicea are a bracing surprise.

Yes, there is the evidence you heard about of the mineral springs that gave the area its fame—the snow-white limestone mountainside of Pamukkale is visible a few miles away.

But a contemptible church which, waxing neither hot nor cold, qualified as a one big loogie to be “spued” (so the King James) from the mouth of the monitory angel? How then the massive, eleven-apsed church under recovery today where presided the bishops of this diocese down to the year 1450? How then the ecumenical council held there in the mid-fourth century that set out sixty canons for priest and believer? How then the magnificent theater and 30,000 square-meter agora with columns soaring three stories high? Laodicea was a player that long survived the threats of its recording angel.

Except that the rules laid out at the Laodicean council were mostly about ritual, doctrinal, and behavioral purity, befitting its moment between Constantine’s edict tolerating Christianity and Theodosius’s moves that made it the imperial religion. And the angel of Laodicea in Revelation scores the church for boasting of the wealth and opulence manifest in its ruins still today. Here is a cry for repentance befitting all churches courting riches and power, not least the American.

As you know not “that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eye-salve, that thou mayest see.” (Revelation 3: 17-18).

The ancients have plenty of company from our own time. The shores of the Gallipoli peninsula testify to one of World War I’s great follies, this the brainchild of the British high command, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill prominent among them. The idea was to seize control of the Dardanelles, dividing the Ottoman Empire, securing the Suez Canal, and opening safe passage for the Russian fleet into the Mediterranean.

“The Turk” was deemed so negligible a force that British troops were instructed as to his true and false signals of surrender. And who needed maps of the area when tourist books were at hand? It didn’t help that the Australian and New Zealand forces were set ashore a mile off target owing to undetected sea currents in the area. We stood on that beach, all fifteen feet of it, looking straight up at rocky bluffs that had to be scaled in the face of intense gunfire.

Things went on for eight months after this opening fiasco. You can still see the trenches atop the bluffs where the two sides dug in and mounted sorties at each other—precisely the Western Front scenario this operation was designed to circumvent. The corpses piled up under the summer Mediterranean sun, bringing in such a plague of flies that troops could not help inhaling them along with their rations. Then, when summer turned to winter, frostbite set in.

In January 1916, the British, along with their ANZAC, Indian, and French allies, called it quits. Together, the two sides suffered some 350,000 casualties in roughly equal measure. It was the Ottomans’ last great victory and one of the great comedowns of Churchill’s life.

Certainly there was competition for that honor. Prior to Gallipoli, Churchill had been wrong about the Boer War. He went on to be wrong about Ireland and India and the use of poison-gas to suppress Britain’s new “protectorate” in Iraq. In domestic politics he was wrong about labor and the gold standard. He was wildly off the mark during World War II when he proclaimed that he had “not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”

He was right, however, about the one big thing, steeling British resolve against the Nazi menace when others proposed negotiation, and maneuvering vital American support down to the last farthing in the British treasury. It’s a comfort for all of us to remember that being right just once might be enough. And yet, simultaneous with his triumph came the Bengal famine of 1943, whose three million deaths were aggravated by Churchill’s policies.

No victories without shadows, then. No second chances without further regrets. But perhaps also no disasters without hope. His command at Gallipoli proved the making of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of the Republic of Turkey, whose visage, name, and sayings are omnipresent in the land still today.

Their own stalwart conduct in the face of their imperial masters’ follies at Gallipoli proved to be the birth of Australian and New Zealand identity and pride. Thousands from their nations make the pilgrimage halfway around the world every year to pay homage at the ANZAC beaches.

None of this eases the pain or anxiety during our own storms. But maybe it will help to view things in a longer horizon.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    As usual, the world of wonders revealed.

  • Thanks. Very interesting. Second chances for Laodicea and the church in Asia? For the first thousand years, Christians in Asia and Africa outnumbered those in the West. In the the next thousand years, Christians in the West (Europe and North America) outnumbered those in Asia and Africa. Today, 67% of Christians (77% of Evangelicals and 86% of Pentecostals) are again found in what the UN calls the “Global South” — Asia, Africa, and Latin America. (Source: Todd Johnson, of World Christian Encyclopedia).

  • Daniel Miller says:

    Beautifully written! I like your prose more than most poetry.

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