Not Your Typical Holy Week – By Mr. John Williams

I recently observed a colleague’s Religion class. During the course of discussion, the perennial “problem of evil” arose. Among the topics: why do innocent people suffer? Why does a benevolent God permit the slaughter of children at Sandyhook Elementary? How does one explain the extermination of over six million Jews in the Holocaust? These are challenging questions for student and teacher alike. No glib answer will suffice.

The conversation reminded me of a pivotal moment in my life that occurred eleven years ago this week. During Holy Week 2004, my Marine battalion participated in Operation Vigilant Resolve in Fallujah, Iraq. The battle peaked between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. On the morning of Easter Sunday alone, three Marines were killed. It fell to me to collect the details about their deaths for my chain of command and, ultimately, their families.

The fighting that morning eventually grew so intense that the Iraqi government demanded we halt the offensive. All of a sudden, after a week of frenetic activity, I had nothing to do…so I decided to go for a walk around base.

It was now nearly evening and the sun was setting in brilliant pastel hues. The transcendent beauty of it all raised my heart and soul beyond the destruction around me. And then I remembered: it was Easter Sunday! I had totally forgotten.

The more I reflected, however, the more confused and angrier I became. Easter, so my faith informed me, was the day we celebrate God’s victory over sin and death: yet sin and death seemed all around me. On Easter, so my faith informed me, the joy of the resurrection vindicated the suffering of the crucifixion: but I felt no such vindication after enduring the crucible of war. Easter, so my faith informed me, foreshadowed eternal happiness in heaven, where Christ will “wipe away every tear” and “mourning shall be no more” (Rev 21: 4). To Marines mourning the loss of friends and innocence, though, such eschatological theology seemed saccharine at best, insulting at worst.

No, I wanted better answers…and I wanted them now.

I noticed similar impatience from the students I observed. From my vantage point, there was so much I wanted to tell them, so much “wisdom” I wished to impart…but it is their individual journey to walk, not mine to impose. If not already, they will one day experience the raw and intense reality of evil in their lives, when the theoretical discussion of the classroom assumes concrete form and stares them deep into the eyes. Then, and only then, can they begin to understand that the problem of evil is not something to be “solved,” but, rather, something to be contemplated.

That, at least, is the conclusion I reached while walking the perimeter of my base, eyes fixed on that setting sun, realizing that with its passing so passed a chapter in my life. I woke up that morning supremely confident in my worldview; I went to bed acknowledging that I had never critically examined it. I woke up that morning with an adolescent idealism bordering on naivety; I went to bed with a more mature appreciation for the messy ambiguity that is life. I woke up that morning, literally, with body armor and Kevlar; I went to bed with no such spiritual or emotional defenses. In short, I had been completely humbled.

I guess what I am saying is this: the problem of evil still concerns me, but it no longer consumes me. When memories of combat resurface, or life inevitably throws me another curveball, I no longer entertain the false choice between unquestioning faith and complete despair. Instead, I try to model the example of my namesake, the Apostle John. Confronted with the apparent catastrophe that was the crucifixion, he did not flee or deny Christ, as the rest of the Apostles did. Instead, he stood silent watch on Calvary, staring at the face of Jesus, trusting this was not the end of the story.

Mr. John Williams

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