By: Brian Harris
I’m taking today’s blog in a somewhat different direction, and a bit of a warning is appropriate.
I will be looking at some historic Christian responses to suicide, and what we can learn from them. While it is not meant to be, it could be triggering for some, and if that’s you, give this post a skip.
In spite of the warning, I think this is a really important topic. I can’t think of anything more tragic than when a person ends their own life. The pain that leads someone to this point is enormous. Individual reasons vary greatly – a broken relationship, an addiction that seems insurmountable, a health crisis, chronic depression, financial collapse, public humiliation, the loss of someone greatly loved, long term despair, a mental health problem, a chemical imbalance in the brain – well reasons go on and on, and all are excruciatingly sad.
While tragic for the person who has ended their life, the weight carried by those left behind is enormous. So enormous that you would imagine that it’s here that the church is usually at it’s most loving, caring and supportive. But that’s where things get muddled, because from a historic perspective, the attitude of the church to suicide has made the heavy load of surviving family and friends, heavier.
Let’s do a quick historic survey.
Historical Responses to Suicide
In pre-Christian Roman thought, suicide was viewed pragmatically, though it was “forbidden” for 3 groups: slaves, felons and soldiers, the reasons being essentially economic. If a slave ended their life within 6 months of purchase the purchaser could claim a full refund from the person they brought the slave from; if a felon awaiting trial took their life, the state did not get the opportunity to seize their property as they could if the guilty verdict was given (this law was later changed); soldiers who took their life were considered deserters who had abandoned their post.
Honourable suicides (to avoid dishonour) were usually considered patriotic, and in their own way, an affirmation of the status quo. The Stoics considered suicide an act of freedom, a logical choice if reality became unbearable. By and large, there was not a great deal of agonising over the ethics of suicide.
In the 5th century, Augustine became the first significant Christian theologian to condemn suicide, writing against it in The City of God. Augustine argued that it broke the 6th commandment (You shall not murder: Ex 20:13) as self murder was still murder. By the 6th century suicide was declared not only sinful, but also a crime and most often, as it was considered a crime, the state seized the property of the person who died this way, usually leaving survivors in a desperate plight. Reasons for why it was sinful were easy to suggest. If life is a gift from God, the refusal to accept this gift was seen as a blasphemous rejection of what God had given. It was also seen as an attempt to usurp the role of God – for God alone is the author of life and death. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century expressed the widely held view that suicide was a sin against God, and also noted that it was one that it was impossible to repent of, for it was the irreversible step from life to death.
Church Condemnation of Suicide
The churches condemnation of suicide was worked out in a variety of ways. Most commonly, those who suicided were refused a Christian burial and were not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. In some settings a burial service was allowed, but had to take place at night, when few would be able to attend. Some practices were simply bizarre – but excruciating in their impact on those left behind. Sometimes a stake was hammered through the heart of the person who suicided and their body was buried at a crossroad. Though this was not universally practiced, the logic was that the stake would prevent their ghost from departing their body to haunt those left behind, and by symbolically burying the corpse at a crossroad, it was thought that the sign of the cross would prevent the ghost of the person from inflicting harm on others.
For Roman Catholics the ban on burying someone who suicided was lifted in 1983, Pope John Paul II noting in the 1990’s that “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”
While the shift is to be welcomed, imagine the harm done in the previous centuries… Imagine hammering a stake through the heart of someone who has suicided, or refusing to bury them. That is not just harsh – it is unspeakably cruel to those left behind – a part of Christian history we have not adequately repented of.
Is there anything to be learnt from this?
Lots, and lots…
Black and White Theology is Often Deeply Inhumane
Theology cut off from the joy, pain and confusion of being human is often deeply inhumane. Of course life is a gift from God. Of course we should not fling that gift back into the face of God. Of course God is the ultimate author of life and death. And yet, and yet…
In his poem, Augeries of Innocence, William Blake writes:
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to Endless Night
Why some are born to endless night, I don’t know – but that some carry a far heavier load is abundantly clear. That we would make the load of those who cared for them even heavier, beggars belief – but for most of church history, we have done just that – tidy belief being more important than the obvious need for compassion and care in the face of tragedy.
Theologians sometimes divide themselves into categories. Some are systematic theologians, some are biblical theologians, others philosophical theologians. All have their place, but perhaps more than ever, the church should listen to its pastoral theologians – those who sit and listen to the actual, lived experience of those who stumble towards faith in the muddle that is life, and try to spot the fingerprints of God in the midst of it. The more we listen to those stories, the more we realise how rare it is for faith to be genuinely systematic. Life is often confusing, and God is sometimes found not because everything has gone as it should, but because it has not. To quote Augeries of Innocence again:
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day
Let me try to summarise a complex topic with a few observations: The church has made its greatest errors when it has attempted to implement “truth” without looking fully in the face of those impacted by those truths. It has made it’s greatest mistakes when it has tried to shut down the questions of life, rather than open them up in all their complexity. It has made its greatest mistakes when it has not allowed the pain of the world to touch its own heart. It has made its greatest mistakes when it has forgotten to be kind.
We don’t have to keep making these mistakes.