Shafts of Light, IX: Václav Havel
Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord,
your salvation according to your promise.
Then I shall have an answer for those who taunt me,
for I trust in your word.
Do not take the word of truth utterly out of my mouth,
for my hope is in your ordinances.
I will keep your law continually,
forever and ever.
I shall walk at liberty,
for I have sought your precepts.
I will also speak of your decrees before kings,
and shall not be put to shame;
I find my delight in your commandments,
I revere your commandments, which I love,
and I will meditate on your statutes.
He was a playwright, for crying out loud. He wrote 19 pretty good plays, but you haven’t seen any of them unless you speak Czech. You may not be all that familiar with his name. What is he doing in our stained-glass windows with the likes of Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Václav Havel was born in Prague in 1936. Here’s a friendly word from the Surgeon General. He smoked like a chimney and died of lung cancer in 2011 at the age of 75.
Václav Havel was to the manor born. His father was a prosperous, prominent Prague property potentate, so his childhood home was crawling with a small army of nannies, servants, and chauffeurs, but the family lost it all when the Communists took over in 1948 when little Václav was 12. That’s just one of the reasons Václav Havel thought Communism was an ideological disease.
So he grows up poor instead of privileged and gets a job as a stagehand at a theater in Prague, but he soon begins writing the plays instead of moving the props or running the lights. Many of his plays are about the absurdities of life under a totalitarian regime.
Finally, in 1975, he decides he’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore, and he writes a letter to Communist Party General Secretary Gustáv Husák which became famous and incendiary.
He complained about “the aesthetics of banality,” and “the cult of right-thinking mediocrity” in the Communist Party and just completely slandered the whole regime. He called Communist Czechoslovakia “Absurdistan.” Communism, he said, was “a monstrous, ramshackle, stinking machine.”
It probably won’t surprise you that impolitic language like this got Václav Havel thrown into prison for five years. The warden, an unreconstructed admirer of Adolph Hitler, took an instant dislike to political dissidents like Mr. Havel. When he found out Mr. Havel was writing letters for the gypsy inmates, because they were illiterate, the warden threw him into solitary confinement.
Mr. Havel’s five years in prison did him absolutely no good, however, and when he was released, he immediately resumed his epistolary warfare with Czech Communism. He and Lech Wałęsa in Poland were the two people most responsible for the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Not a shot was fired. They called it The Velvet Revolution.
When he became the most famous dissident in Czechoslovakia, people started asking him how this all happened to mild, unassuming dramaturge. “It was an accident,” he always said. “We just stumbled into it, we don’t know how. Then we started landing in jails, we don’t know how. We just did some things that seemed the decent things to do.”
Mr. Havel served as President of Czechoslovakia for three years until the Czechs and the Slovaks wanted to split up into two separate countries. He didn’t want to preside over this divorce between companion peoples, so he up and quit and walked out of the Prague Palace wearing a T-shirt and carrying a backpack. After what they called The Velvet Divorce between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, he was immediately elected President of the Czech Republic and served for 11 more years.
In 2003, President Bush awarded this Czech prisoner the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When he died in 2011, President Obama said, “His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire.”
Today there is a bust of Mr. Havel in the U. S. Capitol Building, one of only four non-Americans to be so honored, including Winston Churchill and Raoul Wallenberg, who is also in our windows. At the Capitol Insurrection on January 6, someone put a MAGA hat on his head.
Gil Bowen and his minions put Václav Havel in our stained-glass windows in 1993! That’s four years after the Berlin Wall fell, about the same time Mr. Havel was either quitting the Presidency of Czechoslovakia or beginning his Presidency of the Czech Republic. In 1993 he would still be with us on this earth for another 20 years, and you know how questionable it can be to build architectural tributes to living people, because you never know what they’re going to do before they shuffle off this mortal coil, but in this case it turned out to be an astute decision because Václav Havel was a crucial defender of democracy and denier of despots, and could anything be more timely than having that Shaft of Light in the Chapel where our children learn about God and Goodness?
Because it seems as if there is a curious global zeitgeist just now that is suspicious of democracy. We see it in Nicaragua, in Russia, in Hong Kong, in China, in Saudi Arabia, in Iran, in Poland, in Hungary, and even in Washington. Power grabs everywhere.
We’ve recently seen how fragile democracy truly is, and so we must all become fierce guardians of the only free and fair system of human government that’s ever been in the history of the world. Keep your Kings and your Emperors and your Potentates and your Single-Party Chairmen. I want a President.
Democracy is difficult to do but easy to understand. Its core principles and courtesies come to us from kindergarten. You take turns. When you lose, you stand down and let some other guy take a shot.
Everybody gets voice and vote, because we’re all children of God and have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Somebody described voting as the commonest and most important form of nonviolent protest. If you don’t like the scoundrel who is sitting at Town Hall or in the State House, or in the White House, or in the Capitol Building, you don’t have to arrest them or shoot them; you signal your protest by casting your ballot for someone else. It’s really quite beautiful. It’s genius. And it’s peace. And it’s fairness. And it’s justice.
Here’s some good news: Since last November, 28 states have passed new laws making it easier, not harder, but easier, for every American to vote. Ballot box locations. Early voting. Absentee voting. These states are taking what they learned during the pandemic and making it permanent. 28! More than half. Everyone gets a turn. Everyone gets a voice. Everyone gets a vote.
Here’s another core principle of democracy that comes from kindergarten: People of good conscience may differ. To put it a different way, your ideological or political opponent is integral to your own truth and to your own thriving. Václav Havel just abhorred the monolithic nature of the Communist Party. It crushed all dissent and eliminated every other option and made life flat, dead, sterile, homogenous, and monotonous. Democracy makes space for dissent and disagreement.
You’ve heard this story, right? When Thomas Jefferson was President, his European friend Alexander von Humboldt visited him at the President’s house, and while there the Baron noticed a fiercely negative Federalist newspaper lying on a table in the cabinet room, the epicenter of Republican power. “Why do you allow such libels?” he asked. “Why don’t you suppress this rag or arrest the editor?” President Jefferson said, “Put that paper in your pocket, Baron, and take it home with you, and if ever anyone questions the authenticity of American liberty, or our freedom of the press, show him this newspaper, and tell him where you found it.”
“I shall walk at liberty,” says the Psalmist. “I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought God’s precepts. I will speak fearlessly of God’s decrees before Kings.”
Václav Havel, “Dear Dr. Husák,” in Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990, ed. Paul Wilson, translator unknown (New York: Knopf, 1991), p. 66.
Quoted by J.Y. Smith, “Václav Havel, Dissident Playwright and Former Czech President, Dies,” The Washington Post, December 18, 2011.
Paul Wilson, in his introduction to Václav Havel’s Letters to Olga, 1979–1982, trans. Paul Wilson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), p. 8.
Quoted in Mr. Havel’s obituary in The Telegraph, December 18, 2011.
Dan Bilefsky and Jane Perlez, “Václav Havel, Former Czech President, Dies at 75,” The New York Times, December 18, 2011.
Elise Viebeck, “States Across the Country Are Dropping Barriers to Voting, Widening a Stark Geographic Divide in Ballot Access,” The Washington Post, June 23, 2021.
Jon Meachum, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (New York: Random House, 2012), pp. 362–363.