Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, Václav Havel, and the Ethics of Responsibility

Lubomir Martin Ondrasek


By Lubomir Martin Ondrasek

October 4, 2013 

On August 11, 2013, Jean Bethke Elshtain passed away. Elshtain was a leading public intellectual at the University of Chicago, where she held a rather unusual joint appointment in both the divinity school and the political science department. One of Elshtain’s greatest legacies was her intellectual commitment to bringing God into the discussion of politics. Elshtain participated in various events with the Center for Public Justice over the years and references to her work and ideas have appeared frequently in CPJ’s publications. This is the second installment in a Capital Commentary series on Elshtain’s work and legacy.

Jean Bethke Elshtain had a soft spot for East-Central Europe and particularly for two of its remarkable leaders who each contributed in different ways to the demise of communist totalitarianism in Europe: Pope John Paul II and Václav Havel, a dissident who would later become president of Czechoslovakia. 

I encountered Professor Elshtain when I wrote to her in 2004, inquiring whether she might supervise someone at the doctoral level with my background and interests. Despite having a busy schedule and no obligation to reply to prospective students, she responded with utmost kindness and encouraged me to apply to the University of Chicago. Elshtain had written several essays about Václav Havel, cited him numerous times in her other works, visited the Czech Republic at least six times, and even presented a paper in Havel’s unexpected presence. She said she “loved my project” and was especially interested in my exploration of the religious dimensions found in Havel’s works.

After I applied, Jean Bethke Elshtain, my new adviser, informed me of my university acceptance, also stating “I look forward especially to discussing Václav Havel with you.” When I visited her office for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to see a poster of Havel hanging on the wall facing her desk. When he died in 2011, Elshtain remarked to me and two other colleagues: “It is indeed an unusual thing when a man so gentle and diffident plays such a role. We are very, very fortunate that he was there, in that time and place. A theme he always emphasized – one cannot move to some ashram somewhere and deal with the problems of one’s society. One must take one’s stance in the time and place in which the Lord has placed us.”

Considering that Elshtain devoted so much of her career to showing us that the separation of ethics from politics can have detrimental or even tragic consequences for human society and that Havel based his politics on moral foundations, it is no surprise that she had a great deal of respect and admiration for him. Elshtain often quoted Havel’s sagacious words pronounced shortly after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, “We now enter the long tunnel at the end of the light.” Both Havel and Elshtain understood that the transition from an authoritarian socialist state to a democracy would be neither quick nor easy. It required, among other things, constructing a robust civil society and awakening a sense of human responsibility. Havel’s realistic approach to political life, infused with hopeful possibilities and translated into responsible human actions, resembled Elshtain’s own political theory in many respects. 

Elshtain insisted that, contrary to popular opinion, “Havel was no naive idealist. He understood the often severe human cost of bearing responsibility for one’s society.” She offered these remarks at the National Endowment for Democracy’s memorial tribute to Václav Havel, showing us that the notion of “bearing responsibility,” so powerfully present in his life and work, was also important to her. She concurred with much of what Havel believed about responsibility: its origin and grounding is metaphysical; it primarily concerns a concrete human action in the here and now; it requires one to correctly name things for what they really are; it accepts the risks associated with bearing it; free society cannot properly function without the ethics of responsibility; politics represents “the realm of concrete responsibility;” the powerful have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable and suffering, which may in rare circumstances even require the use of force; and human responsibility should be oriented toward both human beings and the “higher horizon” that transcends them, puts restraints on their will to power, and keeps a record of all human deeds. 

Less than two years apart, we have lost these two remarkable individuals who promoted and exemplified human responsibility: American political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain and the Czech – as Elshtain called him – “performer of political thought” Václav Havel. Elshtain has left a rich legacy in her twenty-one books and over six hundred articles. Behind these writings is a brilliant scholar and generous person whose life and work were about being unafraid to humbly assume concrete responsibility for the here and now.

In my last private conversation with my beloved adviser in January 2013, I told her how much I admired and appreciated her work. She thanked me and responded with her characteristic modesty that we are just “laborers in the Lord’s vineyard,” though it is always encouraging to be recognized for one’s work by others. Her life and work are living testaments that she labored well. 

-  Lubomir Martin Ondrasek is a doctoral student at the University of Chicago and the president and cofounder of Acta Sanctorum, a Chicago-based Christian ministry that works for the positive transformation in post-communist Central and Eastern European countries. He participated in the Velvet Revolution as a young adult in Czechoslovakia.  

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”