It’s seldom wise to tinker with the psychic glue that holds people together, the particular belief system that helps them cope in the wake of a tragedy. Sometimes, though, I have to catch the impulse.
Amina, a slender, silver-haired woman of forty, lost her husband, son, and parents in a single day when Chetniks set fire to their home. The boy and his father were shot before the fire was set, but her mother and father were trapped on the top floor of the house when flames engulfed the building. There was no way to save them. All she could do was stand in horror, surrounded by soldiers, and watch the burning house become a crematorium.
I asked her how she’d managed to cope with such a terrible experience. She answered without a moment’s hesitation, “Because of God. Thanks to God I survived.”
I didn’t know what she meant exactly. Was it that she found comfort in praying to God, or that she survived when most of her family didn’t because of God’s divine intervention? In either case, her response mystified me. How did this incident not weaken her faith? Where was God when her parents were dying a terrible death, trapped in the smoke and flames of the burning house? How could she thank God for anything, without first asking why he’d let her husband and son be killed without reason or meaning? They were unarmed villagers whose only crime was being Muslim in a country claimed by Serb and Croat nationalists.
I’m puzzled at times by the complexities of religious faith. Who is this God who offers comfort but seems unable or unwilling to prevent calamities from happening in the first place? As a young man, I’d been an observant Jew until I visited the Dachau concentration camp while spending a year in Germany as an exchange student. The experience shattered my faith. I was haunted by images of the camp—the red brick ovens used to cremate bodies, the claustrophobic wooden barracks, and the iron gate with words promising freedom through work (Arbeit Macht Frei). I found myself unable to continue saying the traditional Sabbath prayers thanking God for bread and wine. If he had the power to provide wheat and grapes, why couldn’t he have intervened to stop a genocide? A bit more divine intervention and there’d be a lot less need for comfort, far fewer tears to dry.
I nodded when Amina finished speaking, as though I understood. It was hardly the time for a theological discussion of the nature of God and the mystery of her faith—or the absence of my own. Amina’s belief in a benevolent deity had offered solace and helped her get through the most excruciating days and nights. It had eased the seemingly unbearable pain of her memory’s persistent ghosts: the family she’d lost between sunrise and sunset on one war-torn Bosnian day. For all my doubts and questions, I had to accept the humbling truth that I had nothing in my therapeutic toolbox to match the power of her deep and unwavering faith.
Excerpted from War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love, and Resilience. Larson Publications (2016).