Over the summer, I wrote a series of posts on how western culture has increasingly become dominated by highly distorted and deeply destructive narratives. Increasingly, these sobering words from the prophet Jeremiah describe our situation: “Everyone deceives his neighbor, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies” (Jeremiah 9:5).
I ended the series with this exhortation:
As Christians, we must never willingly allow ourselves to be manipulated and ensnared in a web of lies and distortions. Rather, we must be committed to the truth above all else. A popular expression of the 1960s counter-culture movement was “question authority.” Today, we must tap into this same spirit, but our rallying cry must be: Question the narrative!
As we do this, we have much to learn from courageous men like Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, who led a truth-based resistance movement against Communist totalitarianism during the Cold War. Communism was built on a foundation of state-enforced lies and an enormous tangled web of deceptive narratives. Havel and his movement pushed back with the truth. Speaking recently at the Front Porch Republic annual gathering, Rod Dreher wrote the following (the underlining is mine).
Havel, who died in 2011, preached what he called … ‘living in truth.’ His most famous and thorough statement of this was a long 1978 essay
titled ‘The Power of the Powerless,’ which electrified the Eastern European resistance movements when it first appeared. It is a remarkable document, one that bears careful study and reflection by orthodox Christians in the West today.
Consider, says Havel, the greengrocer living under communism, who puts a sign in his shop window saying, ‘Workers Of The World, Unite!’ He doesn’t do it because he believes it, necessarily. He simply doesn’t want trouble. And if he doesn’t really believe it, he hides the humiliation of his coercion by telling himself, ‘What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?’ That’s how ideological fear keeps the system in place. Fear allows the official ideology to retain power — and eventually changes the greengrocer’s beliefs. Those who ‘live within a lie,’ says Havel, collaborate with the system and compromise their full humanity.
Every act that contradicts the official ideology is a denial of the system. That’s why people who may not really believe in it behave as if they do: to avoid standing out, to avoid suffering for their convictions. Those who “live within a lie,” says Havel, collaborate with the system and compromise their full humanity.
What if the greengrocer stops putting the sign up in his window? What if he refuses to go along to get along? “His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth’ — and it’s going to cost him plenty.”
He will lose his job and his position in society. His kids may not be allowed to go to the college they want to, or college at all. People will bully him or ostracize him. But by bearing witness to the truth, he has accomplished something potentially powerful. Writes Havel:
He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.
Because they are public, the greengrocer’s deeds, are inescapably political. He bears witness to the truth of his convictions by being willing to suffer for them. He becomes a threat to the system – but he has preserved his humanity.
And that, says Havel, is a far more important accomplishment than whether or not this party or that politician holds power. He writes, “A better system will not automatically ensure a better life … In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.”
Such as? Havel gives a number of examples. Think of teachers who make sure kids learn things they won’t get at government schools. Think of writers who write what they really believe, and find ways to get it to the public, no matter what the cost. Think of priests and pastors who find a way to live out religious life despite condemnation and legal obstacles, and artists who don’t give a rip for official opinion. Think of young people who decide not to care about success in society’s eyes, and who drop out to pursue a life of integrity, no matter what it costs them.
So, what will you do to revolt against destructive narratives of our time, and to “live within the truth?” Yes, you’ll need to count the cost—and with each passing day, the cost gets higher—but there is an even greater reward. As Havel says, you will preserve your humanity.
- Scott Allen