Mental Health, Suicide and a Moment of Silence

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.

Misreading the Riot Act

The summer of 2011 will forever be branded in my mind, albeit for entirely the wrong reason. It is August 4th to be exact and an air of dissension lingers on the streets of London. A 29-year-old man from Tottenham will be shot dead in a concerted effort by armed police in an undergoing Trident operation to arrest him. His name is Mark Duggan. The truth surrounding his death is soon to become entangled in an intricately spun web of false information and police cover-ups. In the aftermath that ensues, the police swiftly assume their self-appointed position of judge and jury as they seemingly ‘lead the witness’ in defaming Duggan’s character whilst providing a rationale for their actions. The media will alert our attention to the alleged handgun in his possession and the supposed exchange of gunfire between the parties involved. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) will later issue a retraction stating, “It seems possible that we may have verbally led journalists to believe that shots were exchanged”. The handgun in question would later be discovered unused, approximately four and a half metres from his body. Also placed firmly at the feet of the IPCC was the allegation that the family had not been notified of his death. As friends and family of the deceased picked up the baton and marched on the local police station in a spirit of protest demanding answers, the sparks triggered by the death of Mark Duggan ushered in a wildfire which spread nationwide as cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, just to name a few joined in the chorus, seemingly singing in unison, the political anthem of social inequality and a fight to be heard. However, as the days of rioting continued, I became less convinced that the rest of the country were singing in key or even from the same hymn sheet at all.

As the world’s media, the police, politicians and experts within the field of social science alike gathered what little intelligence they had in a desperate attempt to stay abreast of the events occurring before their eyes, the reason that undergirded the rioting were as vast in number as the rioters that littered the cities’ streets. It seemed that the tragic death of Mark Duggan served as a catalyst, tacking down another well placed nail in the coffin for the already strained relationship between the police and those living within the black community. For those old enough to remember, this was the proverbial ‘trip down memory lane’ they would rather have avoided, as they were forced to recall similar scenes in the Brixton uprising of 1981. However, if this was a final stand against the abuses of power and the racially motivated mistreatment of black people at the hands of the police, the correlation between the fight for social justice and the countless shops that were looted was lost on me.

A collaborative effort from both the Guardian newspaper and The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) resulted in ‘Reading the Riots’, a 40-page qualitative analysis of the 2011 riots, where it is suggested that “many rioters conceded their involvement in looting was simply down to opportunism, saying that a perceived suspension of normal rules presented them with an opportunity to acquire goods and luxury items they could not ordinarily afford. They often described the riots as a chance to obtain free stuff”. Surely this presents somewhat of an antithesis over and against the intended purposes of the friends and relatives of Mark Duggan that rallied outside the local Tottenham police station seeking answers. Even if we give credence to the claim that all these nightly free-for-all ‘shopping sprees’ and the senseless anarchic acts of criminality serve as a way of making their voice heard, far from being hailed as freedom fighters for the plight of those who daily fall prey to the ills imposed by racial stereotyping and victimization, they now allow the authorities in question to forge for them, new identities – those of ‘looter’, ‘arsonist’ and ‘criminal’. If indeed the police were the intended target when venting their frustrations, then it can be argued that the rioters hit wide off the mark, forcing local business owners and shopkeepers to bear the brunt as homes and businesses were reduced to rubble and entire shops were left empty after being pilfered for their contents.

Five years on, I tend to think less about understanding the reasons behind the looting and place a more focused lens on the question of whether they are evident signs of reparations made between the police and the community at large. If the looting were simply a classic case of opportunism, then it needed no prompting to raise its ugly head, but instead searched for, dare I say it, the opportune moment. The inquest into the death of Mark Duggan, however has left us with more probing questions than it initially sought to answer. The returned verdict of ‘lawful killing’ only serves to perpetuate a system of policing with little to no accountability to those it promises to serve and protect. At the heart of the issue seems to be that despite not possessing a firearm at the time of his shooting, officers still believe Duggan posed an ‘imminent threat’. What constitutes the basis for such a belief? Answering this may help to steer the conversation in the right direction and uncover some of the ingrained prejudices that influence not only the decision process of the officers involved, but the Metropolitan Police as an institution.

My Journey to Rome and Back

Rome, ‘the Eternal City’…. As a boy, I would immerse myself in books that chronicled stories of Emperors and gladiators alike, all with a role to play in reinforcing its legend. Hollywood would also provide me with countless reference points as films such as Ben-Hur and Gladiator played out on the TV screen before me. During a recent excursion to Rome, as I travelled through its streets, talked with its residents, sampled its culinary offerings and marvelled at its architecture, one thing became glaringly obvious…. if everything I had previously read and heard were to leave me with an adequate picture of what Rome was truly like, it had fallen short of the mark. That is to say, Rome has to be experienced for yourself.

In my all too brief stay, I climbed stairways ascending to the top of the Castel Sant’ Angelo, the mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian overlooking the Tiber river and the whole of Rome. I had the privilege of being shown around the grounds of Rome’s most famous amphitheatre, the Colosseum by an archaeologist formerly responsible for much of its excavation. It truly stands as an enduring witness to the world, of Rome’s pioneering legacy in architecture amidst the vivid backdrop of its dark history. One cannot help but feel a deep sense of stillness standing in the Sistine Chapel, your head adjusting to its assumed tilted position as you study Michelangelo’s fresco spanning the entirety of the ceiling.  Words do little justice in describing how I first felt viewing the Pantheon, one of Rome’s oldest and most well preserved temples of the ancient world.

My fascination with this historic city did however leave me burdened with questions.  Within the walls of the Vatican, I witnessed an unsettling syncretism of sorts, a blend of the ancient world and Roman Catholicism coexisting harmoniously alongside one another. There is undoubtedly a valid argument and case to be made that had the Papacy signed off on the removal and destruction of these priceless artefacts, the ancient civilization as we know it would be forever lost to us. I don’t know about you, but being an avid student of history and knowing Rome’s sphere of influence in shaping western thought, this isn’t something in all conscience I could ever advocate for. My journey into the heart of the Vatican brought me to the Octagonal Court, a collection of sculptures assembled by Pope Julius II (1503-1513) and later expanded on by both Clement XIV (1769-1774) and Pius VI (1775-1799). Here I would discover statues of Apollo and in the great Round Hall be greeted by a colossal bronze statue of Heracles himself. On the surface, this provides no real cause for concern. After all, as any seasoned curator would tell you, many of these items were excavated in Rome and brought to the Vatican as a way of preserving Rome’s rich historical heritage, right?  However, on the other end of the spectrum, viewing the genius on display in the frescoes of Michelangelo and Raphael during Rome’s renaissance period seem to present a clear departure from the gods of old, with each brushstroke diverting us to a more biblical narrative. I am left wondering whether Rome creates a cloud of confusion in presenting a skewed portrait of the faith when the ‘Rome of the Caesars’ has pride of place alongside the ‘Rome of the Popes.’

On my travels, I met with a lady who regaled me with stories of her many pilgrimages, the most recent surrounding a trip to Medjugorje, a village on the outskirts of Croatia. Since 1981, this once sleepy village has awoken to the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims that descend on it annually, hoping to glimpse the reported ‘apparitions’ of the Virgin Mary. Although the Papacy have conducted investigations into the authenticity of these claims, the truth behind these religious rumblings remain shrouded in mystery but haven’t stopped the steady current of media speculation that flood its embankments. I however would not have to travel as far as Medjugorje as I was soon to discover the same devotion and worship of Mary could be found alive and well within the walls of Rome itself. Inside the Pantheon, you can find a whole basilica dedicated to and in honour of St Mary and the Martyrs. As a Christian, I have always been aware and been vocal in my concerns over the extra biblical vernacular Rome ascribes to Mary.

Article 9 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in a whole paragraph dedicated to her, states:

“Mary’s role in the Church is inseparable from her union with Christ and flows directly from it. This union of the mother with the Son in the work of salvation is made manifest from the time of Christ’s virginal conception up to his death”; it is made manifest above all at the hour of his Passion”

After doing nothing less than inducting Mary into the Godhead, they continue down their slippery slope of poor hermeneutics:

“Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians”

To see these doctrines, grow legs and take on a life of their own, not only in places like the Vatican but in the cafés, restaurants and street corners was disheartening to witness. As I would hate to be charged with making sweeping generalizations, I will not for a moment suggest that all the wonderful people I encountered, who I might add, made me feel welcome, all hold to the teachings espoused by Rome at large, but how long can the inhabitants of this city remain unscathed from an erroneous system of belief that has become entwined not only in their history and their great monuments but in their very way of life.

A Lily’s Deception

Like a recurring dream, I find myself in this familiar place again
A garden, nature’s self-portrait unblemished by time’s eroding touch
Had Milton been too quick to proclaim ‘paradise lost?’
Gently, the wind carries with it the aroma of flowers in full bloom
The sun’s gaze exhibiting these jewels in all their brilliance
I am drawn to a single lily, as the moth courting the light of the naked flame
Fortunes are squandered in pursuit of the rarest orchid
But is this lily mine to plant firmly in the crevice of my heart?
A second glance surely reveals my blind folly
The lily’s beauty fades in the blink of an eye
Its damaged silvery petals, now scar my fingertips at a single touch
Had I viewed this blossoming flower wearing ‘rose-tinted glasses?’
Darkness cloaks the place where the garden once stood;
Did I imagine it?
A world birthed deep in the recesses of my mind
The lines dividing the truth from lies for the moment appear blurred
The lily forever washed up on the sea of forgetfulness