In his essay “A Cup of Coffee” ( in Against the Tide, page 186) Miroslav Volf relates the story of a three year old girl who was shot by a sniper in front of her house in Sarajevo. When asked by journalist Zlatko Dizdarevic about this experience, the girl’s father said two interesting things. Dizdarevic writes, “The first comes when the stricken father invites the unknown assassin to have a cup of coffee with him so that he can tell him, like a human being, what has brought him to do such a thing. Then he says, aware that this question may not elicit any human response: “One day her tears will catch up with him.”
The reporter,who in the article refers to the snipers in Sarajevo as “wild beasts” and describes them as “being debased by an evil that destroys every human impulse”, offers this assessment in response to the father’s statement,
There is absolutely nothing to be done for this nation. It will never attain justice and happiness if it cannot bring itself to recognize an executioner as an executioner, a murderer as a murderer, a criminal as a criminal. If the most barbaric act imaginable in this war, a sniper shooting at a three-year old girl playing in front of her own home, elicits only an invitation to a cup of coffee and hope for forgiveness, then Bosnia-Herzegovina doesn’t stand much chance to survive.
Our initial response might be to agree with Dizdarevic that forgiveness is an insufficient response. Reflexly, viscerally, our first impulse may be that the father has a right to revenge, either personally or in a court system, for his daughter’s murder. It is a common attitude. In popular discourse people often speak of obtaining justice for a victim. If you listen to what they say, (at least as it is reported in the news media) what they want is for the perpetrator to suffer some sort of punishment because the victim and their family has suffered. I am not condemning those feelings. I suspect my initial reaction would be the same. But we must not stop there, with those feelings.
Volf notes that to forgive such an act and to be willing to be reconciled with the sniper is not an act of weakness but rather an act of great courage. “The refusal of victims to let violence committed against them contaminate their souls must be one of the most difficult and most heroic acts of which a human being is capable.” (188) I think two sorts of courageous acts are required by this father. First the very difficult task of meeting his daughter’s murderer. But secondly, the father must face societies inability to understand and support his act.
It has been said that forgiveness means giving up one’s “right” of revenge. This does not mean that there is no punishment for evildoing. Punishment and revenge are not the same thing. Evildoers must be held accountable for their actions. But revenge is a distorted sense of justice. A Christian sense of justice seeks reconciliation. As we have been reconciled to God, we are to seek reconciliation with each other.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are difficult. They are not single events. I may forgive you today and by tomorrow my desire for revenge may return and I must forgive you all over again. And again the next day. And again. And again. Forgiveness is a conscious act, a deliberate act and it may take a while, even a long time, for our emotions to become aligned with our will and intention.
We seldom call the act of forgiveness heroic. We think of heroes as people who overcome great odds, trials and difficulties. Dictionary.com defines hero first as “a man[sic] of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities” and “a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.”
By this definition, people who forgive those who wrong them are heroes.
The reporter writes about “eliciting only an invitation to a cup of committee and hope for forgiveness “ as if this were a small thing- an act of little consequence. But what could be more heroic? What greater challenge could that grieving father face than to forgive and attempt to be reconciled to his daughter’s murderer?
Perhaps we are at our most heroic, not when we seek revenge but when we struggle to forgive.