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 (22 November 1963), whose imagined conversation in the next life was a popular book some years back. One can only imagine the brief exchange a few days ago as one soul went one direction (the Czech dissident had a nun’s presence in his final hours) and – one would presume – the second soul sped toward a far different destination.
With the passing of His Excellency, 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 for keeping tabs on every nuclear warhead on the Korean Peninsula. Four years ago I personally experienced that bizarre border between North and South. Yes, there was the 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 recently departed.
Few today know that North Korea used to have a Christian vitality which surpassed even today’s remarkable South Korean people movement, which finds Seoul the guardian of largest Christian church on the planet.
Put in other words, the great tragedy which is North Korea was made possible by the evacuation of historic Christianity. Kyung-Chik Han was forced to leave that land and quickly founded the Young Nak Presbyterian Church with 27 others who fled.
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. Neither another timing: that this year 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 penpals 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. 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 blonds. 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. No speaking circuit pabulum, but vigorous calling out of suppression, as well as identification with those suppressed around the world.
His Charter 77 forthrightness was the direct impetus of China’s parallel Charter 08 dissident document. Oh, what a loss for those languishing in prisons around the globe! What an empty space at the table of enlightened discourse about international morality!
As we turn the page from 2011 to 2012 we, as a community of nations, 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 OBL in May, is a grace note in a difficult stretch of their national life as well as our own. 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’s 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 he executed his office (and chronicled in To the Castle and Back) … And I will totally ignore Kim at that moment… And not only lift a tall beer to the memory of Vaclav Havel … but recommit my very life to advance the causes he steadily defended.