Suicide – who is responsible?

I have reflected on and wrestled with this over the last day or two and felt it would be right to respond to a particularly distressing tweet shared by a prominent Christian on twitter.  Before I go any further, I want to recognise that some people will find this subject matter too distressing to engage with at the moment.  So I just want to make 3 comments at the start and if this is all you are able to read and take away at the moment I hope it will be of help.

  1. If you have struggled and wrestled with suicidal thoughts then that struggle is not sin. Please know that you do not have to face this painful struggle on your own.
  2. If you have been bereaved as a result of suicide then this is not a matter of shame or guilt for you. Again, please know that you do not have to face this painful grief on your own.
  3. If you have contemplated and attempted suicide then you do not have to look back on this as a cause for shame and guilt that you must always carry with you. Again, please know that you do not have to try and deal with this on your own.

Here are the words of the tweet.

It is worth noting that the context for the tweet was  thread about same sex attraction. The author had been challenged about the effect of his comments on gay teens struggling with suicidal thoughts. His initial response was to say that there were a number of faulty assumptions there and so he would not be responding further. I wish he had stuck with that but he did not.

Given the context, it is worth starting a response by saying that we should not duck the issue of what the Bible says about sex and sexuality. However, we do need to be alert to the context in which our words are heard. We need to consider whether what we say, and how we say it, will lead someone to the Gospel, to forgiveness, justification, reconciliation and peace in Christ.

When it comes to the question of suicide itself and moral culpability, I would like to make the following observations.

The author is right to recognise that taking life is wrong and by implication that includes seeking to harm myself.  Indeed, knowing this may well have been a deterrent for some in following through on suicidal thoughts.  They may also have been held back by an awareness of how it will affect others that they care about.

However, to place a moral culpability on their shoulders and their shoulders alone is deeply unhelpful for the following reasons. 

First of all it assumes a rational process happening in the person’s mind.  As another tweet commented.

Indeed, even that may suggest a level of rationalisation that may not be there. A person may simply be overwhelmed with a pain that they simply want to end. I’ve observed before that this does not always work out as suicidal thoughts but may lead to a desire to run, hide or just walk out and keep walking. It may lead to subconscious self-destructive behaviours.   We cannot assume that someone intended to follow through with taking their life or even that it was a cry for help unless there is an explicit suicide note. 

Secondly, I am reminded of the conversation between God and Cain in Genesis 4 where Cain asks “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  If my response to the possibility of someone taking their own life is to wash my hands of all responsibility and to say “it’s their problem.” Then it suggests a similar level of hard heartedness to the height of a fellow human being.

Thirdly, the response is careless in its failure to recognise the harm that weaponised words can have.  If a person takes their own life as a result of constant, relentless cyber bullying then who is morally culpable? I think at that point I have got to say that culpability lies with those who pushed and pushed. Now, I cannot always know what has been said to someone before and there is the risk that I simply say something in ignorance of that at the end of a long season of words and actions that have killed hope for the person.  So, I would want to be careful about laying the burden of moral culpability on the shoulders of one person, the last person to talk to the one who takes their life. However, perhaps this will give us pause before we speak.

This conversation matters because of how the church has engaged with the issue of suicide in the past and the mythology that still surrounds it. Suicide used to be treated as an unforgivable sin and to some extent it still carries that stigma. The root cause of that was the assumption that a person who killed themselves would not have time to repent.  This would of course have particularly mattered in a sacramental view of repentance, forgiveness and salvation because the deceased will not have received last rites. However, even how we sometimes talk about this in contemporary evangelical circles can still fall into the same trap. We say things like “Well you don’t know what their last thoughts were.”  This misses the point that the basis of our salvation and forgiveness is the finished work of Christ on the cross so that we are justified and forgiven for all past, present and future sin. This must surely include any death bed sins that we don’t have time to repent of.

If we are to become better at engaging with emotional and mental health issues, if we are to offer true and lasting hope, then we need to learn to talk better about this. That must also include a willingness to renounce careless talk about suicide. Once again, please know that suicide is not an issue that you need to hide away with, to carry shame and guilt. You can face it together with God’s people and with the Holy Spirit.

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