In his fanciful play Ivan & Adolf: The Last Man in Hell Stephen Vicchio portrays Ivan Karamazov and Adolf Hitler as the last two denizens of Hell. The play follows the dialogue between them and their maid Sophie. Sophie makes the daily journey from Heaven to Hell over the course of several millennia to wait on them. The play deals with Ivan’s anger against Hitler for his atrocities. It also deals with his hatred of God which prevents him from being able to forgive. It also looks at Hitler’s being so wrapped up in himself that he has no feeling for those whose lives he destroyed, or for anyone else. Through their interchanges, Sophie attempts to help each man deal with love, forgiveness and compassion. At one point she tells Ivan about experiencing a sweet smell all day, later to discover that it was the smell of a violet which she had stepped on that stuck to her shoe. With each step its fragrance was released. She tells him “Forgiveness happens when the violet lends sweet fragrance to the heel that crushed it.” She also tells Adolf that “Revenge is the natural, automatic reaction to being deeply hurt. Forgiveness is an entirely creative art. It comes out of nowhere. It is completely unpredictable. For most humans it is incomprehensible.” Throughout the course of the play, Ivan learns to forgive and Adolf to show compassion towards Ivan. At the end, when Adolf is to be released from Hell, he declines, deciding to wait in Hell with Ivan until he is released.
While we might not overtly seek revenge for something done against us, we might still inwardly smile with satisfaction if a person who harmed us receives retribution from another’s hand. It can be difficult for us to love and forgive when we are affected personally. And yet such forgiveness and love, in God’s eyes, are not only possible, but are expected. As Jesus hung dying on the cross, looking out at the mass of humanity in front of him, he said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The sweet smell of forgiveness that exuded from the cross that day still has the same effect today. Stephen demonstrated this when he asked that the sin of those stoning him wouldn’t be held against them. Many of those martyred for their faith have said the same during their martyrdom. In more recent times we have seen the process that Sophie talks about at work in the forgiveness shown by the Amish towards the family of the man who murdered their children in their Amish school. For many people, the compassion they showered upon this family seemed incomprehensible. How could they do such a thing? Their forgiveness was created out of their love of God, for as Sophie tells Ivan “For you to love God, Ivan, you need God to have a human face.” Jesus saw the face of God in those who surrounded him as he hung on the cross and he loved them. Stephen saw God’s face in those throwing stones at him. And the Amish saw God’s face in the suffering of the wife and children of the man who murdered their own children and welcomed them in love. They opened the sweet smell of forgiveness to the heel that had crushed them. As we look out at the faces around us, can we say the same? In whose face do we see God? Are we willing to be bruised violets, lending God’s fragrance to the world?