I was just beginning to process the death of Vaclav Havel and all he did for the cause of peace, freedom and democracy in the world when, like the insinuation of a great manipulator, news broke of the demise of Kim Jong Il. Once more the great are over-shadowed by the insignificant, the noble by the ignoble. A bit player on the world stage consumes all the oxygen in the house before just applause can be given to the superior talent. It’s not often one can legitimately employ the expression “good riddance;” this moment of another dictator’s physical death is one of those times. But, annoyingly, even his timing to die seemed calculated to eclipse the better man. I was also reminded of the coincident deaths of J. F. Kennedy and C. S. Lewis (November 22, 1963), whose imagined conversation in the next life was a popular book some years back.
One can only imagine the brief exchange that might have occurred as these two souls, Havel’s and Kim’s passed each other like ships in the night.
With the passing of Mr. Havel, the community of nations is at the point when there are fewer and fewer of the Old Guard with us. The current movie about Thatcher only reminds us of the departure of the other two greats of the Cold War endgame, Reagan and John Paul II. With Havel now promoted, Walesa, Gorbachev and the Iron Lady are the only three main players left from that helpful transition from Cold War to brief window of peace, prosperity and optimism. Remember optimism? Recall prosperity? Recollect peace?
My intersection with Korea and its division goes back to my South Carolina boyhood. Only recently did I learn my Dad’s absence for some two years in the late 60s was because he was responsible to keep tabs on every nuclear warhead on the Korean Peninsula. Four years ago, I personally experienced that bizarre border between North and South. Yes, the Northern side had its Potemkin village, its false life on display for near kin and foreign visitor alike to mock. No, there was not a single good which I wanted from the basement shop of the visitor’s center — even though a purchase would ostensibly aid the impoverished half of the divided Korean people. And for a friend I picked up a pebble from atop the slight prominence which looked over a bleak land raped by the Communist House of Kim.
Today, South Korea is the site of an enormous explosion of Christian witness, and Seoul hosts the largest church in the world. Few today know that the northern region of the once-united kingdom used to have a Christian vitality which was even more intense–and whose destruction was part of the great tragedy which is modern North Korea. Kyung-Chik Han, one of the evangelists who was forced to leave, fled south and with 27 others quickly founded the Young Nak Presbyterian Church, one of the denominations which (like the Catholic Church) is flourishing south of the DMZ.
Can we now concede that the presence of this great religion, Christianity, tends to bring in its wake compassion for humanity, expansion of freedom and economic opportunity? At a minimum, the honest observer must admit the corollary. Where the Good News is not allowed to be heard, men and women suffer all manner of indignity, profound repression and a state of affairs where an ordinary ball point pen can become an object of envy.
I find these proximate deaths no coincidence. Here’s another piece of timing that seems providential: that this year’s Christmas, the Incarnation, is celebrated on the religion’s ordinary day of worship. It would seem to one with eyes to see and ears to hear we are being gently drawn back to basics.
We have lost a great leader in Havel. I read his plays, The Garden Party, The Memorandum and Temptation, as a young man following the Cold War through the lens of behind-the-iron-curtain pen pals and periodic peeks behind the veil in undergraduate and graduate travels. I was one of few Americans in direct contact with East German citizens and ordinary folk from what was first Czechoslovakia then the Czech and Slovak Republics.
Late summer 2002 I attended Havel’s speech made on behalf of Cuban suffering at Florida International University in Miami. Is Cuba next in line to clean out the detritus of bad political and social leadership? Or will it be Syria? In either case, we will miss his advocacy firmly spoken and backed up by the integrity of having been imprisoned for maintaining conviction at cost.
Kim meanwhile will be lamented by no one but the suppliers of his expensive drinking habits and perhaps whatever armored train vendors there are. It is helpful to be reminded of the religious perspective in this other matter, that old fashioned idea of judgment. When we are able to observe the lives of two radically different men for an extended period of time, the ever-present leftist moral equivalency argument loses its plausibility. This moment of parallel deaths allows us to be reminded of a reckoning to come.
Make no mistake, both of these men will be held accountable for their leadership, not simply by the prominence of who attends their respective funerals or what the history books record, but from the judgment of the One who takes notice of world affairs. With such a perspective a greater seriousness can begin to re-emerge in political decision-making.
Kim Jong Il, famously, was fond of blondes. What man isn’t?
Havel, less famously, was fond of the idea of the horizon, that line where the Divine and human meet. It was the long-term view of horizon which enabled the man to endure the tedium of imprisonment (expressed repeatedly in Letters to Olga), serve as head of state, and champion the cause of freedom tirelessly beyond his native Czech borders. He didn’t dole out speaking circuit pabulum, but vigorously denounced the sinfulness of oppression, and identified with those who are still oppressed around the world.
His Charter 77 forthrightness was the direct impetus of China’s parallel Charter 08 dissident document. What a loss he is for those languishing in prisons around the globe, what an empty space he leaves at the table of enlightened discourse about international morality.
As we turn the page from 2011 to 2012, as a community of nations we have a signal opportunity to move toward the horizon of daybreak and away from sunset. Let us get our house in order, that America can once more with vigor stand for the former and push back the latter.
A third generation of oppression under ‘The Great Successor’ awaits a formerly-great and shining Asian nation, suffering under delusional pretensions which no objective observer can sustain. I am not naïve to that reality. Nevertheless, the exit of Kim, no less than that of Osama bin Laden back in May, is a grace note in a difficult year. Let us not lose this moment for moral clarity and proper alignment.
In stark contrast, Havel stands for something great: the dignity of humanity in its free religious, economic and political expression. It has been a while since I’ve had the joy of being in Prague, that great city advancing wholesome leaders since the days of the Holy Roman Empire. But rest assured, the next time I go, I will find a café whose vista looks over the Charles Bridge toward the Castle, Prague Castle, from which Havel executed his office (and chronicled in To the Castle and Back). And I will forget Kim at that moment. I will lift a tall beer to the memory of Vaclav Havel, and recommit my life to advance the causes he steadily defended.