Students in my Christian Ethics class at Ambrose discussed an excerpt from Vaclav Havel’s book Summer Meditations (1992) on Monday.
I was not surprised that no one had previously heard of Havel. The relative lack of public recognition of is not surprising. We do not pay much attention to political leaders outside of North America unless they threaten us or represent a major power.
Vaclav Havel was president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until 1992 (when the Slovak region separated to form its own country). Subsequently he was president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. Prior to entering into the political life of his country, Havel had been a dissident who was imprisoned by the communist government. The Velvet Revolution, which he led, was credited as a major factor in bringing down communism is Czechoslovakia.
It is important to know his background. Havel’s reflections on political life were forged in the heat of the furnace of experience.
I have listed below some of the things that impressed the students in my class as they reflected on his writing.
- Havel believed that there was a moral nature to politics. He attempted to nurture a sense of “higher responsibility” in conducting his duties as president. One aspect was to cultivate goodwill, decency, and respect for others.
- He recognized evil in the way political candidates displayed “… an extravagant hunger for power.” “Mutual accusations, denunciations, and slander among political opponents know no bounds.” He also understood that he had the same inclinations and was required to begin the work of moral renewal in his own heart. “As in everything else, I must start with myself.”
- He had a lifelong commitment to non-violence. “Communism was overthrown by life, by thought, by human dignity.” “Violence only breeds more violence.”
- He tried to use the office of the president to as a model for the larger government. He encouraged “… a climate of generosity, tolerance, openness, broadmindedness, and a kind of elementary companionship and mutual trust.
- He saw himself as a servant who had moral duties to the community and to future generations. Although not a professing Christian, he understood that he would answer to a higher power. “… we are observed from above, … everything is visible, nothing is forgotten…”
- He displayed what the New Testament calls steadfast endurance in times of discouragement. “I feel a responsibility to work towards the things I consider good and right… There is only one thing I will not concede: that it might be meaningless to strive in a good cause.”
We spent class time reflecting on two questions:
- How does the political morality of Havel compare to Jesus’ teaching about the virtues of leadership that were to guide his followers? The context of a European president is, of course, very different from a Galilean rabbi and his disciples.
- Is there one thing that each of us could learn from Havel for use in our own context where we are leaders by position or by influence?
I leave those questions with the readers of this blog post.