As it has for many people, the news of Osama bin Laden’s death has stirred up a lot of old memories for me: Sitting in front of my television, wiping sleep out of my eyes, seeing a tower with smoke billowing out the side. Seeing the horror-stricken look on a woman’s face as she looked up from a New York street and cried, “Oh no, no! They’re jumping!” Looking at the block of windows where my husband used to work in the South Tower, watching them crumple when it fell, wondering if his old coworkers were okay.
At the time I was an atheist, so the terrible event, as sickening as it was, didn’t trigger a moral conundrum for me. Bad things happen, there’s not much you can do about it, and that’s how it is, the thinking went. It wasn’t until I came to believe in God and started learning about Catholic teaching that I would look back on that awful day and have my mind reel as I tried to absorb one of the most difficult moral truths I’d ever heard: That God not only could, but wants to forgive Osama bin Laden. That even someone who was responsible for a terror attack that slaughtered thousands could ask for God’s forgiveness, and receive it.
The first time I encountered this concept, it was, to put it bluntly, terrifying. I came across a blog post by a Catholic woman named Drusilla, which remains one of the most powerful essays I’ve ever read. She told of witnessing the murder of her grandfather when she was a young child, after her parents had also been murdered. She described how the event impacted her by saying:
Mine was an ancient pain beyond utterance and I could not have said whether I was angry or sad or filled with hate. And until now words had not come along with the tears only pain. But when words did come it did not surprise me that rage accompanied them. That too was ancient. In this time of looking into the past, of accepting that what was there was part and parcel of me and could no longer be ignored, rage had finally been given safe passage and was quite pleased to emerge whenever necessary.
Then one day, years later, when she found herself so consumed with rage and grief that she could hardly function, she heard a voice that filled the entire room. It said:
Your grandfather’s life was worth no more to me than the lives of those who killed him. Your parents’ lives were worth no more to me than the lives of those who killed them. Your life is worth no more to me than the life of every other person I have created.
I was shocked. It was one of those things that I’d read about but had never internalized: God loves murderers as much as he loves the rest of us, even as much as he loves the people whom they hurt. What does that say about our God? What does it mean for us, given that we are called to love as God loves?!
This most difficult of truths has come to mind again as I see Osama bin Laden’s image splashed all over the media, and hear the reports that he is now dead. God loves that man as much as he loved Mother Teresa? God loves that man as much as he loves the people on Flight 93? As much as he loves each of the other victims of 9/11? As much as he loves me? It’s true. It’s completely counter-intuitive to our fallen human nature, which sees love as something that is earned, something finite and fluctuating, something that can be permanently lost with enough bad behavior. But it’s true.
At the end of Drusilla’s post, she tells of the shattering transformation that occurred within her when she allowed herself to try to love as God loves, when she dared to open her heart to care about the soldiers who so casually took her grandfather’s life. “Now I cried because something hard and painful had been pulverized and was being washed from my heart,” she wrote. “I cried because I was worth no more than anyone else. And I cried because I realized that God had offered me a choice and showed me that I could love the unlovable.” In many ways it’s unpleasant to think of people like those soldiers and Osama bin Laden as being loved by God; it’s easier to focus on other parts of the moral equation, to ponder the severe penance they would face, or the possibility that they chose evil until the end and will now face a richly deserved punishment in Hell. But the more we can follow Drusilla’s path and open ourselves to that unfathomable, scary love that’s big enough to extend to even the world’s worst evil-doers, the more we will find ourselves transformed.