Years ago my grandmother died. At her funeral, my grandfather asked me for a moment and took me aside. I thought perhaps we might talk about my grandmother, who was a very difficult woman. Or perhaps he might have words on my recent marriage, since he was married some 50 years. What I didn't expect were these words: "You need to forgive [unnamed relative]. Life is so short. You need to forgive him." I pulled away from my grandfather and stared at him in surprise. And then I said, "No." And walked away.
I was 20 years old at the time. For the last seven years there had been a serious rift in my family due to my accusations of rape against a family member. We didn't call it rape--it took a few years of therapy at a much later age to name what had happened--but the damage to my family was irreparable.
For my grandfather, in that moment, his grief and pain over losing his wife overrode concerns for my welfare. It has been 18 more years, and I have never received even an acknowledgment of my relative's actions, much less an apology, explanation, or request for reconciliation.
For a long time I feared retaliation from that relative. I made a police report, but legal action is a tricky thing with minors and statutes of limitations, etc, especially in 1985. As an adult, I worried he would find me. I worried for my own children. I warned relatives who had children. For four years I was vulnerable to the terror he perpetrated. 25 years after I was finally safe from him I am still aware of his presence on this earth.
When he dies, I'll probably tweet it. I'll probably blog it. There are people I will email and call to talk about this. I wrote a poem once about vomiting him out of the depths of my body. I meant it. I mean it. I will dance with the relief that I will not see him again on this earth.
Yesterday, as I saw the tweets and facebook messages expressing a wide range of emotions, I had my own response about counting the cost of this assassination. I started to feel smug and self-righteous about a "Christian" response to this event. And then my friend Margaret tweeted, " I am in tears. If you never were a New Yorker or from DC, you don't get it."
And you know what? She's right. That pulled me up short. I didn't get the outpouring of relief and joy because I was not close enough to 9/11 to know the terror it brought. I lived in California at the time, and the closest connection I had was the business partner of a second-cousin-once-removed who was on one of the planes. I experienced corporate grief and fear with the rest of the U.S., but I was not a first hand witness or victim.
It matters. My grandfather is right. Forgiveness is something to be hoped for, longed for, worked toward. And balanced with that is the protection of children and vulnerable individuals. A lot of people have been slinging around a scripture passage from Matthew 18:21-22: "Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times." But Matthew 18 begins with Jesus' adoration for little children and a warning to those who would cause them harm. Then Jesus says it's better to cut off your own arm than sin and have a whole body. Then a reminder that God searches for every last lost sheep. Then a structure for reconciling with community members. Finally, after that, comes the discussion with Peter about forgiveness. Jesus closes with a warning against refusing forgiveness when it is asked for.
It may be the Christian response to seek reconciliation and forgiveness with regard to Osama bin Laden and his associates. We may indeed have much to atone for ourselves. There is certainly a cost in human lives that I cringe at. We are not done as a nation understanding our grief and fear and how that has created its own set of ethical concerns. But it is human, reasonable, and appropriate to feel relief and joy at the removal of a threat--yes, even when that means the death of a person. And I know that when my relative dies, and I call Margaret to tell her, that she will feel and understand my fierce joy and deep relief.