What perspective can we hold about faith and suicide? In the ancient Roman world, suicide was accepted and practiced by many for reasons of defending honor. The church Fathers of the 4th century forward repudiated this perspective and condemned suicide as a mortal sin. The traditional reasons go to the 6th Commandment, “You shall not murder.” All human life has value and no innocent life should be taken, therefore the one who suicides is a murderer. For centuries the Catholic Church taught that the Last Rites should be withheld from those who suicide, condemning them to an agonizing afterlife. Protestants agreed, preaching that this was an act from Satan’s influence and leading to damnation. Sometimes in the 16th century leaders mutilated the bodies as a warning to others. Secular philosophers held a different view from the early 18th century onward and suicide for honor returned to the mainstream in Western societies for a period of time. Today, ethical permissions for suicide are made from a freedom of personal choice perspective, or as a rational choice when terminal illness is present. Resisting such ideas, the Catholic Church in a 1980 statement about euthanasia declared again that suicide was a sin against the sovereign and loving God.
I believe it is wiser to operate under a different perspective today. Psychological science has given a better understanding of mental conditions than the pre-scientific world held. We know now that 90% of suicides are related to a diagnosable mental disorder or substance disorder (NAMI statistics). This does not mean that everyone with some mental disorder will try to kill themselves. But it does say that suicide is an action taken when cognitive processes are not operating normally. There is a profound depth of emotional pain and a sense of being overwhelmed with despair, shame, pain, or confusion. Psychologist David Jobes says that hopelessness is the most common factor in self-harm. A person intent of self-harm seems mildly delusional, caught in thoughts that distort the situation and their own agency. Many of those who survive suicide attempts give anecdotal support to how irrational their thoughts had become, explaining they see life differently after the attempt.
I believe this data from the world of psychology changes the theological perspective completely. With the basic idea that suicide is frequently an irrational act during a time of cognitive negativity, we can understand suicide is not a sin committed by a morally culpable person. No theological system would hold that such a person, deprived of fully rational moral and spiritual capacities, should be condemned. Just as theology holds that God gives grace for children and the intellectually disabled, so the same can be said for those who are gripped by the thoughts of self-harm. It seems to me the essential love and goodness of God should be the prevailing principle with all spiritual considerations of the suicide victim.
From this perspective, we can develop the response we should have. Instead of judging, shaming, or vilifying the suicidal as guilty of sin, we should act with support and wisdom. When a suicide attempt is survived, we should rush the support proven to help. Jobes points to the value of giving empathetic emotional support, addressing the perceived issues, and offering new perspectives of meaning. We must care for the attemptee as never before to walk with them to a place of renewed hope and energy.
(Photo by E. Vittorio on unsplash.com)