More than a month after the event itself, a CT reader of Czech descent sent me a hand-typed transcript of the inauguration speech delivered by Vaclav Havel, president of Czechoslovakia, on New Year’s Day. I decided I could do nothing more worthwhile in this month’s column than to quote selected portions of Havel’s speech:

“For the past 40 years on this day you have heard the same thing, with variations, from the mouths of my predecessors: that our country is flourishing; that so many million tons of steel have been produced; that all of us are happy; that we trusted our government; and that beautiful prospects were opening up before us.

“I imagine that you did not propose that I should take this office to hear similar lies from me.

“Our country is not flourishing. The great creative and spiritual potential of our two nations [Slovak and Czech] is not being meaningfully exploited. Whole branches of industry are producing products in which nobody is interested while we have shortages of products we need. The state, which is called the workers’ state, has been humiliating and exploiting the workers. Our outworn economy has been wasting energy that is in short supply. The country that in the past was justifiably proud of the education standards of its people has been spending so little on education that nowadays we hold seventy-second place in the world.

“We have spoiled the soil, the rivers, and the forests inherited from our ancestors, and today we have got the worst environment in the whole of Europe. In our country, life expectancy is lower than in most European countries.… The existing regime, armed by its haughty and intolerant ideology, degraded man into a unit of production, and nature into a production tool. Thus it attacked their very natures and the mutual relationship between them.…

“None of this is the main thing. The worst is that we are living in a ruined moral climate. We have been taken ill morally because we have grown accustomed to saying one thing and thinking another. We have learned to believe nothing, to pay no attention to each other, to care only for ourselves. Concepts like love, friendship, compassion, humility, or forgiveness have lost their range and content. For many of us, these signify only a kind of psychological eccentricity or appear as greetings that have strayed in from the past, now somewhat ridiculous in the era of computers and space rockets.…

“The most recent past—and especially the last six weeks of our peaceful revolution—have proved how great has been our human, moral, and spiritual change and how great a civic culture slumbered in our society under the imposed veil of apathy.… Everywhere in the world people are surprised at our marvelous strength to shrug the totalitarian system off our shoulders within a few weeks in a decent and peaceful way.… We ourselves are surprised. And we ask from where our young people, who have never known any other system, drew their longing for truth, their free thought, their political information.…

“I think that this hopeful aspect of our situation today has two main sources. A man is never a product of the external world only, but is always capable of relating himself to something beyond, despite a systematic attempt to eradicate this capacity by the external world. Second, those humanistic and democratic traditions, which were so often idly spoken about, were sleeping somewhere in the subconscious and were transferred from one generation to another to be recovered by each of us at a correct moment and transferred into action.…

“Our first President has written: ‘Jesus not Caesar.’ … Today this idea has been revived. I daresay that perhaps we even have the possibility of spreading it further and thus to bring it as a new element into European and world politics. If we want it, the love, the longing for understanding, spiritual and intellectual strength can permanently radiate outward from our country. This is what we can offer as our individual contribution to world politics.

“Masaryk [a philosopher/politician who served as Czechoslovakia’s first president] based politics on morality. Let us try to revive this concept of politics in a novel way. Let us learn ourselves and teach others that politics should be an expression of the longing to contribute toward the happiness of the community and not of the need to deceive or violate the community. Let us learn ourselves and teach others that politics cannot be only the art of the possible, particularly when the art of speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret agreements and appointments, and maneuverings is meant. It can be also the art of the impossible, that is, the art of transforming ourselves and the world into something better.

“We are a small country, but despite that we used to be the spiritual crossroads of Europe. Why should we not become this crossroads again? Would this not be another contribution to repay others for the assistance we shall need from them?”

Havel went on to list his goals: (1) to bring about fair and peaceful elections; (2) to support better conditions for children, old people, women, the sick, and weakened members of society; and (3) to announce a broad amnesty for prisoners. “I ask the public not to be afraid of the discharged prisoners, not to embitter their lives, but to help them in the Christian spirit, after their return among us, to find in themselves what prisons failed to produce: repentance and the longing to live properly.”

Article continues below

The rich ironies of Havel’s speech have stayed with me ever since I read it. A man who got his reputation as a playwright in the theater of the absurd was in effect pledging to lead his nation in a spiritual renewal based on Christian values. Czech citizens were celebrating in the streets because for the first time in four decades Christian services were being broadcast on state television and Christmas carols played on radio (this while American courts were solemnly considering the legality of Christmas crèches in town squares).

Perhaps the deepest irony was in the startling honesty of the speech itself. Can you imagine an American politician delivering anything comparable to the first five paragraphs of this speech? How long will it take these fledgling politicians in Eastern Europe to learn that the usual goal of democracy is not truth but rather re-election!

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Philip Yancey
Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today and cochair of the editorial board for Books and Culture. Yancey's most recent book is What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters. His other books include Prayer (2006), Rumors of Another World (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Where is God When It Hurts (1990), and many others. His Christianity Today column ran from 1985 to 2009.
Previous Philip Yancey Columns:

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.