Vaclav Havel's Greatest Sermon?
by Patrick Lafferty
And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.
(Mark 10 :36b-38a)
It’s as if there’s a run for the exits from this mortal coil here at year’s end. In the last two weeks, the world has seen the passing of such notable figures as Christopher Hitchens and Kim Jong Il. Perhaps lost in the shuffle of headlines covering the deaths of the outspoken atheist and the muted dictator was the loss of the playwright and former President of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel.
Born into an influential family with a flair for the aesthetic, Havel became a prolific writer whose notoriety skyrocketed as he began to compose works either lampooning or outright attacking the Communist regime that had overtaken Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. His efforts provoked as much persecution from within the former Soviet satellite as it did acclaim from without. When the Velvet Revolution of 1989 ushered the Soviets out and freedom in, Havel’s name came to the fore as a natural pick for leading Czechoslovakia into its new, liberated era.
In an address at the University of Copenhagen shortly after being elected President of his reborn country, Havel spoke with candor, perhaps never before expressed by someone in political office, about the privileges and perils of holding power. (HT: “You have no power”)
It’s always tempting to inject, anachronistically, all sorts of psychology into a biblical text. But it’s not hard to see some of Havel’s modern concerns about power playing out in the very text Mark led us through last Sunday. You remember how James and John petitioned Jesus to see if they might share in His authority and glory by becoming part of kingly retinue whenever His reign came into its own. At least part of their motivation for asking resonates with some of Havel’s comments in Copenhagen.
Havel acknowledged how many come to power inspired by their own desire to enact real measures that lead to human flourishing. A polity hears the vision and values of the one seeking authority and the resonance between the constituency and the candidate ushers him into it. We’d expect anyone willing to make themselves accountable to the people to be passionate about improving the societies they come to lead.
At one level then, James and John (and all the disciples for that matter) had become convinced that the “platform” Jesus embodied was both true and worth promoting. So they sought to be appointed to service to see the kingdom ushered in. They sought power to enact goodness. On its face, their request appears both sensible and laudable. But we know from the passage that the Dynamic Duo’s request had something else mixed in with their motivations for seeking authority--something to which Havel also pointed in his address.
The more candid of Havel’s comments centered on an intuitive, but rarely conceded, motivation for pursuing power. The truth is, he argued, we like power because it represents a self-affirmation. Being invested with authority validates the bearer of it; it substantiates their own meaning and significance. Havel didn’t consider this impulse for power-seeking necessarily suspect, but naturally acknowledged that the desire for self- affirmation could become so dominant that the one in power is tempted to compromise the virtues that may have initially inspired the pursuit of power. Preserving power for the sake of propping up one’s sense of importance can become more important than using power for the sake of enriching those who entrusted it.
So Havel notes what Jesus knew long before: rulers tend to “lord [power] over” those they rule--they instinctually “exercise authority” over their subjects because the interest in power can quite easily and insidiously derive from a quest for importance. That is why Havel concedes that his newly bestowed power forced him to become “permanently suspicious of [himself].” And that is also why Jesus had to gently upbraid His young upstarts, whom He loved, by first of all warning them of the perils of power. But then also how the path to power for the follower of Jesus would be a path of service through suffering.
It’s a political season. We wish there were a way to see beneath the surface of all those who seek power to see if they are as equally suspicious of themselves as Havel was of himself. But Havel’s comments about power, which only reiterate far more ancient notions we find on Jesus’ lips, perhaps ask us all to ask ourselves in whichever venues we both hold and exercise authority: is the use of the power I have--as a parent, a professor, a president, or a pastor, to name a few--an inordinate attempt to validate myself or serve those entrusted to me?
I give thanks often that Jesus allowed those with mixed motives to keep His company and participate in His work. He refined their motives amid the work. But refine them He did, lest their authority become guilty of neglect or idolatry.
Who is more served by whatever authority you have--you or those you serve?