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January 6, 2012
Stephen Lazarus

*Vaclav Havel - the playwright who became president - was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. Perhaps he's best known for his leadership and role in the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia. 

His life journey took him from playwriting to prison to the presidency. And as one commentator put it, he was nothing less than “the coolest head of state since King David rocked the lyre.” Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011.

The world lost a statesman of uncommon insight in December. Media coverage of Havel’s funeral at St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague noted how his life in some ways resembled that of a Czech fairy tale. The fable: The bold dissident writer persists in speaking truth to power. The harsh Communist authorities ban him and imprison him to lock him away out of sight. But, after decades of suffering under totalitarian control, the people of Czechoslovakia rise up in a peaceful revolution that catapults the unsuspecting Havel by popular demand from prison to Prague Castle to lead the new nation from oppression to democracy. The tale of the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 is true and documented in many good books published in both Czech and English, including Havel’s own riveting writings and memoirs.

However, most press reports failed to convey why Havel made such an unusual political leader, unlike almost any we see today. In his speeches, he frequently returned to one theme in particular. Despite our wealth and technological superiority, despite the apparently abundant freedom all our societies enjoy today, all is not well. The modern world is in a state of crisis. This is so, he said, because we have lost our connection to God, “our transcendent anchor.” Consider this quote from a speech given at Stanford University in 1994 entitled “The Spiritual Roots of Democracy.”

“The relativization of all moral norms, the crisis of authority, the reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate material gain without regard for its general consequences—the very things that Western democracy is most criticized for—originate not in democracy but in that which modern man has lost: his transcendental anchor, and along with it the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect.”

Or in Havel’s more picturesque mode: “The modern age treats the heart as a pump and denies the presence of the baboon within us.”

This is not the type of political rhetoric we are familiar with in secular North America. We don’t expect it from our leaders. In Havel’s case, these are the deep convictions and hard-earned insights of an imprisoned public intellectual who alongside many others suffered for his commitment to democracy and the common good. Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn before him, and Havel’s Czech predecessor Tomas Masaryk, Havel grasped—and communicated to citizens who were recovering from a totalitarian nightmare—that democracy and human rights have moral and spiritual foundations that cannot be ignored or denied. They must be nurtured.

As a gifted writer, Havel explored and exposed the weaknesses of both Eastern European communism and Western secular materialism, challenging the idols of both East and West. But for him this was no mere game of ideas. Generations of oppressive rule taught him that ideas have consequences for real life—for shopkeepers and families, for citizens and children, the nation’s future leaders.

For Havel, freedom was not merely the right to choose between a PC or a Mac, a BMW or a Honda. Freedom was a gift from above, a gift of divine not merely human origin. If democracy is to flourish, he wrote, “ must rediscover and renew its own transcendental origins. It must renew its respect for the nonmaterial order that is not only above us but in us and among us, and which is the only possible and reliable source of man’s respect, for himself, for others, for the order of nature, for the order of humanity, and thus for secular authority as well.”

Just months after the Fall of the Berlin Wall and weeks after the collapse of the communist regime, Havel addressed the nation in a New Years speech from the Castle. After describing the abuses of life under the previous regime which people knew all too well, he said, “The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we got used to saying something different than what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only for ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility, and forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions, and for many of us they came to represent only psychological peculiarities or to resemble long-lost greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships. Only a few of us were able to cry aloud that the powers that be ought not to be all-powerful.”

Havel spoke into the vacuum created by decades of state-imposed atheism and public passivity and irresponsibility. He not only made faith plausible again, but he illumined the relevance of one’s deepest convictions about life and God to the long road of recovery that lay ahead. With no formal training for his new role as president beyond his own life experience, Havel offered moral leadership in action. We could do with more leaders who share and model that kind of courage and conviction.


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