Remembering Sváťa Karásek

1. Pamět národa441-photoSvatopluk Karásek (18 October 1942 – 20 December 2020), a pastor of the ECCB who influenced Czech Protestantism in a fundamental way, passed away recently. He had an astonishing capacity to be his natural self in environments as different as underground culture, the church, and the establishment. 

In 1981, he came to Zurich, Switzerland. He was not exactly a typical pastor for the area. He had long hair, a stout figure and laughed very loudly. He would often pick up the guitar. He played badly, but without restraint. The secret police had driven him out of Czechoslovakia. Their aim at the time was to do so with as many opponents of the totalitarian regime as possible, using never-ending interrogations, house searches, kidnappings and beatings. Sváťa finally gave in to this pressure and left, although he was not happy to do so, especially with regard to his family. His wife, Stáňa, a mother of three, had a weak heart, and the accumulating stress was definitely cause for serious worries.

The secret police had reason to celebrate. They managed to get rid of a distinctive personality: in word and in deed, Karásek was giving many people around him the courage to act freely. A few years later, it turned out that his work and the ideas he stressed were more powerful than the power of the seemingly omnipotent totalitarian state.

Art and the community

Karásek was born into an anti-communist family. His father, originally a clerk, then a workman, was taken into custody in the 1950s for political reasons. Concerning his mother, Sváťa used to say he inherited a sense of humour and an urge to always play the clown after her. This meant that during his school years, he often got bad grades for misbehaviour and he was expelled a couple of times. His sources of spiritual inspiration included the Beat generation and the Bible, especially the books of the New Testament, which he would often reach for not primarily because it was nearly forbidden literature at the time, but simply because the Biblical message was something he could truly relate to. He became familiar with Christianity already in his early childhood, as his mother took him to church on Sundays.

His journey to studying at the Comenius Theological Faculty (as it was called back then), the only Protestant theological faculty in the country, was not an easy one.  The state authorities did not want to let the young non-conformist study anything other than the Agricultural University, justifying this with the fact that his high school education was in the field of gardening and viniculture. For a while, therefore, Karásek started working as a miner in the Kladno mines, then he tried the entrance exams again in 1964 and he was admitted. The fact that the Dean of the Faculty, J. L. Hromádka, who was a respected man, put in a good word for Sváťa, probably played a role. This outstanding theologian, a holder of the Lenin prize, had very good relations with the communist regime.

Sváťa Karásek brought a new perspective into the Faculty environment. The students and the teachers alike were striving, above all, to be able to keep studying and researching in the field of theology; the more courageous ones were also trying to engage in a critical dialogue with the regime. With Karásek, however, an artistic spirit started to have more and more influence at the Faculty. His enthusiasm, straight-forwardness, his tall figure, his slow, as if always well-considered speech, and above all his unwavering self-confidence helped him create an aura of authority. As far as the form is concerned, he really didn’t come up with anything new. The country had already developed a strong tradition of genres on the verge of theatre, cabaret and political folk singing during the pre-war era, and these were experiencing a renaissance during Karásek’s university years. Karásek had already tried theatre plays, playing in a band, he had been setting poetry to music since high school as well as writing his own poems. Many of his fellow students from the faculty and outside of it wanted to join in and try similar things. However, it was clear Karásek was more interested in creating artistic communities and passing on the message of the Gospel than in achieving a perfect artistic performance.

The freest period

Given his family background, he never believed in communism or in socialism. Until 1968, however, he did not feel the need to protest against the regime in Czechoslovakia. This changed with the invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies, and also following a family tragedy. Sváťa and his wife Stáňa were expecting the arrival of their first baby twins. They were born premature, there was no incubator at the hospital and the twins died of hypothermia on their way to another hospital, because there was no heating in the ambulance. When a church official tried to comfort Karásek with pious words about „God’s will“, the angry young minister answered that it was a matter of a dysfunctional state much rather than of God’s will. However, the young couple did not let this tragedy break them. One year later, their daughter Adélka was born.

1. Paměť národa2449-photoAt that time, the family was already working in Hvozdnice near Prague. Karásek’s pastoral work was clearly successful: the local community quickly started growing. This, however, was not something the communist authorities liked to see, which was why Karásek was forced to move to North Bohemia, near the borders. There, the situation repeated itself. A minister with long hair who played the guitar and owned a Jeep, which was very unusual at time, was like a magnet attracting the local youth. This led to Karásek losing his state permission to serve as a minister. He simply wasn’t allowed to work as a minister any longer. He and his family moved to the abandoned Houska castle in a romantic region of rocks and ravines. There, he worked as castle manager and administrator of the book depository. This was the freest period of his life, as he later recalled.

At Houska, he was hidden away from the public eye. However, friends from near and far would come and visit, and even complete strangers sought his presence. A new community was forming and Karásek started preparing sermons in the form of songs, because he didn’t find it appropriate to be preaching around a campfire. Singing and playing the guitar, on the other hand, was very fitting, even though Karásek was a bad singer and an even worse guitar player. He used American spirituals as the basis for his songs, but he wrote his own lyrics. He knew how to play with words, used the onomatopoeia of the language, but always made sure his message remained clear and comprehensible. People were sharing amateur tape recordings of his songs.

„I don’t know which recording it was, perhaps the twentieth, the sound was muffled, as if it were coming from the bowels of the earth. His voice was incredibly deep, kind of hypnotic. I couldn’t get away from the cassette player.“ This is how Michal Plzák, an atheist student at the time and currently a pastor, describes his first encounter with Karásek’s music. Karásek was the one who inspired him to study theology, a choice that involved some risk in a communist state. „In his approach to life and in his words, he presented Christianity as something that was not stupid, obsolete or laughable. He showed us a credible, stimulating alternative that had the potential to create a living, spontaneous community. This alternative drew dozens, hundreds of people into the church – some for a while, some for longer, some for good.“ The orderly-mannered Czech Protestantism thus began seeing a new influx of non-conformist youth.  According to Plzák, however, the „church was getting used to this and perhaps even started to be grateful“.

It was especially his popularity with young people that made Karásek such an important enemy in the eyes of the regime that he was summoned to trial and sentenced together with the community around the legendary underground music group, the Plastic People of the Universe, which he had also hosted at the Houska castle. History sees this trial with young people as a key event leading up to the establishment of the Charter 77 movement, which, headed by Václav Havel, demanded that human rights be respected in Czechoslovakia.

1. Benjamín Skála-Jimramov2009h

Karásek remained faithful to underground culture all his life. His approach to life, however, went far beyond the ideas of underground. He used its formal, aesthetic part, perhaps also contributed significantly to creating it and he was definitely one of the visual symbols of this cultural movement. He participated in the life of underground communities. Following the example given by Jesus, he understood people with problems, people on the edge of society. Nevertheless, he never had any sort of partiality for nihilism or lowness, coarseness. His whole personality was focused on movement in the very opposite direction. In his sermons, published under the humiliating title Boží trouba (God’s Fool, Kalich, Torst, 2000), we repeatedly read words of faith in good will and in God’s guidance, with a final aim that is often referred to using the metaphor of a big, joyous feast that everybody is invited to. In this regard, Karásek’s faith was quite simple and firm. He did not hesitate to contest those passages of the Gospel that claimed otherwise.

At St. Salvátor

After the revolution of 1989, he spent a few years travelling back and forth between Prague and Switzerland, where part of his family settled for good. In 1997, he became minister at the Prague St. Salvátor church, one of the most important churches of the Czech Protestant tradition. He was also active in politics. He was a Parliament deputy for four years, then the Government’s human rights commissioner for two years, and he was a member of the local authority for Prague 1 until 2018. Following the sudden, unexpected death of his wife Stáňa, he remarried. They brought up two children with his wife Pavla.

The final years of his life were affected by a brain stroke, after which he lost the ability to speak and had to learn all over again. This must have been a terrible blow for somebody who had been preaching all his life. Surprisingly though, Karásek would always talk about the advantages that this situation brought – he was no longer focused on being an intellectual, he lost the urge to argue with people, his quick temper was gone. His faith in a good end remained unshattered. As he preached in one of his Advent sermons: „The Peace of our Lord, the kingdom of justice and freedom, that is not a long-lost cause. It is – believe it or not – our future, it is God’s promised land, […] it is God’s future, coming to meet us.“

Adam Šůra