Walking in the Light: Insights from Vaclav Havel

My father's family escaped the Soviet Union in 1934, a few months after the United States established diplomatic relations there, in 1933. They had Russian roots and naively returned to visit an ailing relative in 1922. The Russians said "Welcome back, comrades," seized their passports, and kept them for twelve years. In God's providence, my grandfather was a well-known musician and artist, with friends in Germany and France, so his family became three of 1,800 people that the Soviets released in 1934.

     This heritage has led to my fascination with the brave people who resisted and undermined communism. Chief among these is Czech Vaclav Havel (1936-2011). Havel was dissident playwright, a fearless foe of Czechoslovakia's Communist government – despite threats and imprisonment – and eventually the democratically elected prime minister of the Czech Republic. Havel was no Christian, but he understood certain biblical principles and his writing contains echoes or paraphrases of Scripture occasionally.

     First, Scripture says believers need to walk in the truth, that we shine like stars in the world when we do. John said he had "great joy" when he heard his people were faithful to the truth and "continue to walk in the truth" (3 John 3). Before that, Jesus said, "You are the light of the world… let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matt 5:13, 16). Paul agreed: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you… You shine as lights [or stars] in the world, holding fast to the word of life" (Phil 2:12-16).

     Second, Exodus 23:2 says "Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong…do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd." It is both easy and dangerous to follow the majority, for whatever is common seems normal, and what is normal eventually seems to be right. A leader must question what is common, to discern if it be right or not. Havel understood both of these points. In particular, he began his influential essay, the "Power of the Powerless" with a story about these matters.

     Havel invited readers to consider a shopkeeper, a green-grocer who sells fruits and vegetables in a city in Eastern Europe. The green grocer puts a sign with a venerable communist slogan in his window, "Workers of the world unite." Does he put the sign in the window because he believes it? Not at all. He puts the sign in the window because it came from headquarters, along with the lettuce, carrots and onions. He puts it in the window "because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be."

     If he refused to put the sign in his window, there would be trouble, including accusations of disloyalty. He doesn't operate in a market economy. "Disloyalty" means the fruits and vegetables stop coming. He would lose his shop and be assigned to work in a factory, with lower pay. More, his children would never be admitted to a university. They would be laborers, like him.

     So he puts up the sign to say "I will behave in the manner expected of me. I am obedient and therefore have the right to be left alone." In truth, the sign means "I am afraid and therefore obey without questions."

     No one says this. That would be an affront to the shopkeeper's dignity that could prompt rebellion. So no one says anything. Everyone pretends to live in harmony. Havel calls this "Living within the lie."

     Havel said residents of totalitarian countries must stop this, cease to pretend that all is well. They must "live within the truth," must live as they would if the totalitarian communist regime didn't exist. Yes, the state controlled all businesses and schools and banned free speech and a free press. But what if people lived as they should? Suppose an American traveled to Poland and stayed with friends. The law required him to register with the local police. Suppose his hosts told him "Don’t do that. The police have no right to know who stays with us." If no one registers, the law becomes unenforceable. Havel also urged people to start groups for music, sports, literature, philosophy, work, to have an independent life, and refuse to let the state control everything. This was "living within the truth."

     To live in the truth is to stop acting in ways we know to be false. The grocer doesn't believe the world's workers have united. He knows that if he pretends to believe, he will be left alone and have a marginally better life.

     The shopkeeper doesn't realize that when he puts that sign in his window, he supports the system that suppresses him. If one shopkeeper refuses the sign, he loses his shop. But if every shopkeeper rejects the slogan in the window, they are safe, because the state can't close every shop. So the "obedience" of each shop enforces the system on the others. 

     The terrible genius of the communist system lay in the way it led people to create their own subservience. Take a childless couple that is eager to adopt a child. The interviews are complete, the forms filed, the payments made; the child will arrive soon. At the last moment, a message arrives, "I'm sorry, Mr. Novak, something has happened. Your child will not be coming today." This happens three times. Mrs. Novak is distraught; Mr. Novak is pensive. He goes to party offices and asks "What do I need to do?" He agrees to become a petty informant; their baby arrives shortly. When he informed on people, he surely told himself, "I did it for my wife. I had to do it." But is it true? Is he living in the truth or in the lie? This (true) story illustrates how tempting it can be to act in ways we know to be wrong.  

     We also go along with the crowd when everyone does the same thing. Who wants to be the first to resist, to stop living a lie? But some do are bold and strive to live truly. Take a Russian operatic tenor saw his career surge around 1930. He sang the lead role in prominent opera houses in major. Then, after a performance, an official introduced himself.

     "Mr. Tischkovsky, your career has been going quite well lately. You're very popular. People like to go to parties with you after you sing. Next time you have a party, we would like you to invite Mr. Sokolov as a guest." It was not stated, but understood, that Mr. Sokolov was a KGB informant. The official would never ask the singer to inform the authorities if his friends made a joke about Stalin. That would be crude. Rather he receives an invitation to join the system, to "live within the lie" by pretending Sokolov is just another opera lover.

     Mr. Tischkovsky refused to add Sokolov to his guest list. He wasn't beaten or sent to a gulag. He was informed that he had a good career. He should be grateful. If not, he might find that his engagements were cancelled. Tischkovsky refused, his engagements were canceled and he and his family slowly fell into poverty, before they escaped Russia. Mr. Tischkovsky* was my grandfather. He refused to live a lie and the Lord spared him.  

     Scripture, illustrated by these stories, invites us to ask if we live the truth and walk in the light or not. No American is tempted to walk in darkness as residents of Communists lands were. No one pressures us to put slogans in our shop window or to invite informants to our parties. But every culture makes it easy to walk in light in some ways and to walk in darkness in others. In a prosperous nation, powered by a potent market economy, the temptations will run toward materialism, toward lies that have to do with wealth, prosperity and security. There is a temptation to see everything in financial terms. May the Lord give us courage to see where we tend to follow the crowd and how we may live in the light, for the light of Lord's people should shine brightly in this age, as we walk in the light of the Lord.

*Doriani was his principal stage name and he decided to keep it when he reached America

These accounts are adapted from Doriani’s forthcoming book on faith at work, The Reformation of Work.

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.

Dan Doriani