Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) was a playwright, essayist and dissident under the communist regime of Czechoslovakia.
He spent several years in prison. His movement, the Civic Forum, played an important role in the Velvet Revolution that brought communist rule to an end in his country.
Havel served as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until 1992 (when the Slovak region separated to form its own country). He was president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.
In other words, Havel was not a detached theorist or a critic from the sidelines.
His book, “Summer Meditations,” is one of the assigned texts for the Christian ethics course that I’m currently teaching.
It was written during a 10-day holiday in 1992. It represents the unique reflections of a president during his term in office and offers insight into the ethical issue of political leadership.
Havel emphasized the moral nature of genuine political leadership. He believed that, as president, he should stress the significance of moral values in all spheres of life, including the economy.
He engaged in a deep reading of his context. Liberation from communism had unleashed “an enormous and dazzling explosion of every imaginable human vice,” Havel observed. The new breed of politicians were hungry for power: “Mutual accusations, denunciations and slander among political opponents know no bounds.”
Havel was particularly pained by the imminent separation of the Slovak population to form its own country. He remained convinced that politics itself was not a disreputable business, “and to the extent that it is, it is only because disreputable people make it so.”
Those who enter politics, he asserted, “bear a heightened responsibility for the moral state of society, and it is their responsibility to seek out the best in that society and to develop and strengthen it.”
Havel wrote of three personal convictions that guided his work:
1. Public speeches should repeatedly and regularly draw attention to the moral dimensions of social life. He sought to stir the dormant goodwill in people and emphasize the importance of placing the shared good above personal interests. “People want to hear that decency and courage make sense,” he said.
2. The office of the president should act as a positive influence on the government and the country creating “a climate of generosity, tolerance, openness, broadmindedness and a kind of elementary companionship and mutual trust.”
3. Ideals and values should be injected into the decisions that he was required to make as president. “My longing for justice, decency and civility, my notion of what, for present purposes, I will call the moral state,” he wrote.
As far as I know, Havel never fully identified with the Christian faith. In an interview, he once stated that he tried to live in the spirit of Christian morality. In an excerpt my students will read, Havel displays his belief that a higher power stood over his life, “we are observed from above … everything is visible, nothing is forgotten.”
Havel’s reflections provide a helpful place from which to evaluate the moral qualities of political leadership in our own time and context.
It means little to call oneself a Christian. It means a great deal to act as a follower of Jesus. Havel helps point the way forward.
Gordon King serves as Canadian Baptist Ministries’ resource specialist and is the author of “Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting our Lives in the Parables of Jesus.” A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission.