Tackling the subject of mental health in our culture, is increasingly becoming something that is unavoidable. Yet in saying that, many approach it in a similar fashion to how they would obscene language at a high society function. One would hope that language of that nature was never uttered in polite society, but when confronted with a sudden outburst, it quickly reveals how alarmingly ill-equipped we are to deal with it. In the likely event of being guilty by association, we quickly turn our face in embarrassment and hope no-one asks for an opinion on it. Have you ever wondered about the reasons for such apathy in our culture for such an important topic? Does the stigma surrounding mental health threaten to produce holes in our perfect paradigm of how we view society? Do we simply bury our head in sand, fearing what appears foreign to us? Adopting this outlook becomes somewhat ironic, especially in comparison to the vast number of media corporations who spare no expense to remind us of a truth that we are all too ready to dismiss – society suffering from a number of mental health problems, namely anxiety, drug and alcohol dependence, post-traumatic stress, psychotic disorders, phobias and suicidal tendencies, just to name a few. A leisurely perusal through your morning newspaper should dispense with any doubts you previously held as to the unrelenting grip mental health imposes on our nation. Suicide, in itself, presents its own unique challenges. The fact that it is often not considered a mental health problem is deeply concerning, coupled with the very nature of suicide. People fraught with inclinations of suicide tend not to seek medical counsel and it is generally something that society tends to identify its symptoms far too late down the proverbial road.
In addressing the stark reality of skyrocketing suicide rates in our culture, the statistics themselves make for quite a depressing read. Gayle and Johnston (2016) writing for the Guardian newspaper, reveal that “the total number of suicides reached a 20-year high with 3,899 recorded rulings of suicide in coroners’ courts in 2015 for England and Wales”. As charities, support groups, councils and medical organisations work relentlessly to curb the rapid rise of suicide, amidst all the voices all fighting to be heard in this debate, I look for the church to provide some much needed ethical and moral answers to society’s probing questions. Has the new wave of secularism engulfing our shifting landscape done more harm than good in gagging the mouth of the church or do they view it much like the intertestamental period between Malachi and Matthew – aptly referred to as the ‘silent years’, and simply choose to remain as such?
Church history shows us there has been little in the way of agreement when deliberating on the finer points of this discussion. Many of the finest ecclesiastical authorities over the centuries have, one by one, bravely taken it upon themselves to enter the fiery ring of polemical disputations surrounding the issue of suicide. As you can imagine, given its longevity, the points of contention were privy to more than a few developments through the ages. An ample amount of confusion lies in the fact that despite directing our attention to a few character defects of certain individuals, the Bible seems to hold back from pronouncing any sort of judgment pertaining to the recorded acts of suicide mentioned in its pages. (Jdg 16:28-31, 1 Sa 31:5, Mt 27:3-5). Yet, there is no shortage of Christians that would appeal to the legal prohibition of murder outlined in the sixth commandment (Ex 20:13) as a strong advocacy for the sanctity of human life. On this point, the church father Augustine commented:
“God’s command ‘Thou shalt not kill, is to be taken as forbidding self-destruction, especially as it does not add ‘thy neighbour’, as it does when it forbids false witness against thy neighbour”.
Thomas Aquinas would later launch a threefold attack on suicide on the premise that it violated natural law, community and the sovereignty of God:
“Everything naturally loves itself, the result being that everything naturally keeps itself in being, and resists corruptions so far as it can. Wherefore suicide is contrary to the inclination of nature, and to charity whereby every man should love himself. Hence suicide is always a mortal sin, as being contrary to the natural law and to charity. Secondly, because every part, as such, belongs to the whole. Now every man is part of the community, and so, as such, he belongs to the community. Hence by killing himself he injures the community. Thirdly, because life is God’s gift to man, and is subject to His power, who kills and makes to live. Hence whoever takes his own life, sins against God” (Summa Theologica, Q64, Article 5).
This hard lined position gave rise to some of the societal sanctions that have become commonplace caricatures associated mainly with the Medieval period, such as the denial of burial rites, public exposure and humiliation leading in some cases to social exile for family members. It is very likely that earlier Jewish writings such as those of the historian Josephus may have attributed to how people viewed suicide as he recounts in vivid detail his objections to a death of this nature: “suicides should remain unburied till after sunset”. However, these earlier beliefs about the theological underpinnings of suicide would not go uncontested, as notable figures such as John Donne and David Hume fought back, publishing in-depth critiques of the church’s conservative stance, assuming a more libertarian outlook, condemning the church’s stance as being rooted in superstition (see David Hume’s ‘Of Suicide’, 1783).
Far from being silenced, this stroll through the annals of church history are an indicator to a time when the church was verbal in how they viewed suicide, even if the conflicting voices from the pulpit have made for a very convoluted sermon. But is this a reflection of how the church functions in a 21st century context? Any discourse on the topic of suicide seems, at least to me, to be absent from church programs today. In being open and honest, the lack of focus on a subject such as this is troubling as it begins to threaten the church’s cultural relevance in a time where society are seemingly desperate for answers. If John 6.:68 rightly accredits Jesus as ‘having the words of eternal life’, then it stands to reason that these very ‘words of life’ that should be offered to the culture who often see suicide as an escape from the crippling burdens society hangs around its neck.