tell us that, around the world, somewhere over 150,000 people—men,
women, and children—die, on average, each and every day. Most of us, of
course, pass away unnoticed and unmourned by all but our relatively
small circles of family and friends and colleagues and neighbors. Some
people die all alone. Some deaths are the stuff of major news stories.
Some unleash great tides of mourning and catharsis, with grand state
funerals and public wailing and weeping, and great gnashing of teeth
and beating of breasts.
Perhaps you saw some of
the footage coming out of North Korea following the death of its “Great
Leader” Kim Jong Il on December 17. It was rather bizarre stuff, even
by North Korean standards. Men and women seemed to compete with one
another in expressing their outward grief. There was crying and
screaming and rolling on the ground. All for a second generation
dictator who had kept his nation in thrall for the 18 years he was in
power; who had quartered absolutely no opposition; who had cut off his
nation from the outside world; who had led a life of indulgence and
comfort while hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of his people
It is one of those fascinating
juxtapositions of history that within a day of the death of Kim Jong
Il, another world leader of note passed away—thousands of miles from
North Korea, in a small and rustic cottage in the mountains of northern
Bohemia. For Vaclav Havel, too, there was mourning in the streets
(though of a more restrained and dignified, and no doubt, more genuine,
form than that which wracked North Korea); there was also a grand state
funeral (with a few more world leaders making their way to Prague than
to Pyongyang). There were news reports on CNN, and obituaries in the
But there, the similarities
ended. For, to be sure, history could not have produced two more
different leaders than Kim Jong Il and Vaclav Havel. The former was a
tyrant and a thief, yet another exemplar of history’s dark night,
evidence of that fundamental stupidity that stalks the deep recesses of
our human nature. The other was, in my opinion, one of the truly great
men of our century, a Renaissance man in a distinctly non-Renaissance
age; a man who provided hope and inspiration to thousands over the
course of his seventy-five years.
It is Havel
that we remember this day; for tyrants come and tyrants go, but the
example of a truly decent man (or woman) is a gift of God and a joy to
Was he perfect? Hardly. No
more than Dr. King was perfect, though, he, too, we remember as a
beacon of our human race and of our human story.
In his personal life, Havel could be stubborn and impatient; he
not always faithful in his marriage; he a bit overly fond, at times,
both of the bottle and the cigarettes which ultimately shortened his
life. In his public life, he made mistakes, too, as when he, like so
many, got suckered into supporting the fiasco of Gorge W. Bush in Iraq.
The perfect soul has not stalked this earth for
at least 2000 years, and dear Vaclav did not threaten that record. Not
even close. No, sometimes we admire the people we do because their
imperfections draw their virtues into clearer focus. Their failings
serve as a bridge linking us with them.
Such an unlikely candidate for the halls of honor, Havel was.
Born into one of the leading families of Prague in 1936, he
seemed destined for a life of privilege and comfort and ease, until the
Communist takeover in 1948 confiscated his family’s property and
denied him a college education. He found work as a carpenter’s
assistant, but suffered from extreme vertigo, so couldn’t climb ladders
without taking his life into his hands. Reassigned to a scientific
laboratory, he studied at night to get a high school diploma, but was
then drafted into the army, where he was assigned to a unit that
specialized in mine clearing.
But then, after
being discharged from the army in 1959, his father used his old
connections to get his son a job as a stagehand at one of Prague’s
vaudeville houses. From there, he moved to the avant garde Theatre on
the Balustrade, which produced Havel’s first play, The Garden Party, in
The rise to power in Czechoslovakia of
reform Communists like Alexander Dubcek, with their dreams of building
“socialism with a human face”, brought Havel’s satires of the system to
the fore. His position in society rose, and he was even allowed to
visit New York City for six weeks in the spring of 1968. Within weeks
of his return to his homeland that summer, however, Warsaw Pact tanks
rolled into Wenceslas Square, and the “Prague Spring” was brought to a
crashing and tragic halt.
In place of Dubcek
and the reformers, the Soviets installed a dreary regime of
“normalization” in Czechoslovakia under the leadership of an old-line
Communist named Gustav Husak. Most Czechs and Slovaks seemed resigned
to the blow that history had dealt. They stopped taking any interest in
public affairs, and retreated back into their own private lives. For
their part, Husak and his cohorts reasoned that if people felt as
though their living standards were improving, they wouldn’t seek after
political freedom any longer. Consumer goods were imported from abroad
and sold in state-owned shops. A dull and dreary complacency seemed to
settle over the entire country.
realized that his very survival as a writer, as a creative human being,
depended upon freedom and the free flow of ideas. Soon, he and a few
other of the country’s banned writers began to meet informally in each
other’s homes, often at Hradacek, Havel’s country cottage north of
Prague (the house in which he died, ultimately). At these gatherings,
these men and women would share a meal and discuss a wide range of
subjects. They would distribute among themselves type-written
manuscripts of their latest writings. These self-published samizdat
were the country’s only alternatives to the official literary works of
the government’s publishing houses. The “dissident” movement in
Czechoslovakia had been born.
Havel was soon
fingered as the country’s leading “troublemaker” by those in power. But
by 1975, Havel felt he had had enough of “private life” and
“normalization”. He believed that if there was going to be any hope of
freedom in his country, someone had to challenge the Communist
leadership directly. In April of 1975, he took the daring step of
addressing an open letter to General Secretary Gustav Husak himself.
“Dear Dr. Husak,” the letter began. Havel told Husak that,
beneath the calm façade of life in Czechoslovakia, there was a deep
fear that crept “like the invisible web” of a “hideous spider” through
the whole of society. This fear, though not as harsh and brutal as the
terror of the Stalinist period, nevertheless had the same kind of
deadening effect on people’s spirits.
present repression, Havel continued, would have long-term negative
effects on the nation’s well-being. A society based on fear and apathy
would eventually become unable to express itself creatively at all.
Havel then reminded Husak of the responsibility he, as both president
and party leader, carried for the present spiritual crisis in their
“So far, you and your government have
chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for
society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outer appearances; of
deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the
spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading
human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power.”
So the die was cast, and the credo of the dissident was uttered in the most direct and unflinching terms.
Havel paid for his dissent—not with his life, perhaps, as he
might have in Stalinist or Nazi times (or as he might have had he been
a North Korean addressing his letter to Kim Jong Il)—but with one jail
term after another; with constant surveillance and harassment at the
hands of the authorities; with severe limitations on his freedom of
movement and expression, by powerful men who would not let such
“troublemaking” go unchecked.
another letter he wrote around this same time (a few years before,
actually), this one to Alexander Dubcek, the great reformer whom Husak
had toppled, Havel had implored Dubcek not to recant his former
positions, but to hold fast to them, though all seemed lost. Havel went
on to remind Dubcek that, in the long sweep of history, that ideas
which once seemed discredited eventually can become more powerful than
ever. Though the freedom and decency of the Prague Spring had been
forced underground, Havel wrote, those ideals would remain alive in the
hearts of their nation’s people and would come to flower again someday.
In less than twenty years, Havel and Dubcek
would be embracing on the stage of the Magic Lantern Theater in Prague,
and toasting each other with champagne, as Husak and his minions
surrendered their hold on power.
If it wasn’t
for the troublemakers, this human story of ours would not progress. It
has been said that “Well behaved women do not make history”, nor do any
of those who refuse to stick out their necks in defense of unpopular
ideas. It is usually the children of those who stoned the prophet who
use those same stones to build monuments in the prophet’s memory. Even
though history is not a long and inevitable progression onward
and upward forever, we can affirm, with the great Unitarian
abolitionist Theodore Parker (whom his more staid and respectable
colleagues in the Unitarian ministry often derided as a “troublemaker”,
too) -- and with Dr. King who used his words more than a century—that
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends inexorably toward
It bends toward the just because
there are men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit who choose
not to live for themselves alone.
Men and women like Parker and Dr. King—and John Brown and Rose
Parks—and Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman—and
the hundreds and hundreds we don’t remember, who lit the light of
freedom in this American land, and kept it lit with their lives.
Men and women the world over who defended truth, who refused to
accept the Big Lies of their own day. Men and women like Havel, and
Sakharov, and Lech Walesa. Like Mandela, and Steven Biko, and Oliver
Tambo, and Helen Suzman.
And in our own land,
in days that some of us still remember, add the names of Rev. James
Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister killed in Selma in 1965; and
Viola Liuzzo (a Unitarian Universalist lay woman) and Emmet Till,
and Medgar Evers, and Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, and all the
others lynched and gunned down and beaten to death and dumped into
ditches by the side of the road, because they would not—could
not—accept an evil and unjust status quo.
King Weekend, let is remember people like Burma’s brave voice of
freedom, Aung San Suu-kyi. People like Sophie and Hans Scholl and the
other students of Munich and Ulm and other German cities who defied
history’s most hateful regime armed only with the courage of their own
convictions. Men like Franz Jaggerstatter, a simple Austrian farmer,
who dared to stand as the only man in his entire town to vote “No” to
the German takeover of his country.
So great a cloud of witnesses
encompasses us on our human journey. And make no mistake that often
those who stood in solitary witness to the evils of their day, were
sore afflictions to those who were comfortable and powerful and seemed
to have it all.
But everything can change on a new year’s day.
That is, often, because there are those among us who dare to make
trouble. Men and women, sometimes with extraordinary talent, sometimes
not, somehow inspired by a spark from heaven, or by the light of truth
in their own souls, to put aside the easy well-worn path of lukewarm
living, and find within themselves a little more love, a little more
courage, a little more responsibility, a little more hope.
of Vaclav Havel’s favorite mottos was this: "Pravda a láska musí
zvítězit nad lží a nenávistí.“ For those of us who don’t know Czech,
that means: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate.”
So it must. But it will only happen, though, if we make it so.