The suicide of American television celebrity, actor, chef and author Anthony Bourdain on June 8, 2018 shock many people when the news hit the social media. Bourdain who was handsome, respected, successful, popular, and at the prime of his career should choose to commit suicide was a shock as we often think that suicide occurs only to ‘other people’. As many years before, the suicide of popular actor comedian Robbin Williams raise similar existential questions which was rapidly displaced by other distractions of our fast paced interconnected world. Kim Jong-Hyun, a popular member of the SHINee, one of Korea’s top boy bands, shocked his young fans worldwide by his suicide in December 2017. In his suicide note, Kim cited loneliness and depression. Suicide is a taboo subject in our culture and is not widely discussed unless in association with the publicity of celebrities. This article will discuss the prevalence and causes of suicide and how we as a church can help these who are contemplating such act as their final solution.
The World Health Organization (WHO) gives the statistics of 800,000 suicide occurrences per year which makes for one suicide in every 40 seconds! The highest suicide rate is in the 15-29 years and in the >70 years old age range. In the last 45 years the rate of suicide has increased by 65% worldwide. There are no reliable statistics for Malaysia as suicide is a crime here and hence not often reported. From anecdotal and accounts from NGOs such as The Befrienders and hospital sources, the prevalent rate of suicide in Malaysia is keeping pace with the rapid increase elsewhere in the world.
To act to commit suicide is an act of desperation. To kill oneself is again our natural instinct for self-preservation. People commit suicide to escape from a situation where they can see that there is no other way out. The pain they experience are so overwhelming and self-consuming that they see death as the only answer. Pastor Rick Warren who lost his son Matthew to suicide in 2013 said, “Suicide is a permanent, irreversible attempt to solve a temporary problem. You don’t have to die to end your pain.” The pain they feel may be physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Some people who suffering from intractable cancers or other chronic disease may be in an unending physical pain state that often anti-pain medication may not help. Depression is an important cause of emotional pain that is often overlooked or missed by others. The pain is the numbness of a cloud of darkness that suffocate the life of those who suffers it. Depression is all consuming. It is often impossible for one to come out of depression by will power alone. Emotional pain of loss and abandonment caused by loss of children, spouses, and of divorce can be crippling. Mental pain may come from financial disasters, addiction, and loss of self-esteem. Suicide as a solution to avoid paying a crippling loan from the ‘Ah Longs’ or moneylenders may not be as rare as we think. Spiritual pain is the existential pain of loss without God that manifest as an emptiness in our lives. It is often confused with depression. The spiritual pain associated with celebrity suicides are only the tip of the iceberg. As we look at suicide, it is important to remember that it is an act of desperation. We should view such people with compassion. Even the best of us may be driven by circumstances to the blink of this abyss.
As Christians, what should our thoughts be about suicide? Surprisingly, the Bible has little to say about suicide. There are seven incidents of suicides in the Scriptures: Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54); Samson (Judges 16: 29-30); Saul and his armor bearer (1Samuel 31: 3-5); Ahithophel (2 Samuel 15:31b); Zimri (1Kings 16:18-20); and Judas Iscariot (Matt 27:3-5)
It is interesting to note that of the seven suicides recorded in the Scriptures, the suicides of Abimelech, Saul and Zimri were recorded as direct judgement of God on their sins, even going so far as to say that God killed Saul. The Scriptures were silent on the other four suicides though the ignoble context in each case speaks for themselves. Therefore the Scriptures thus offer no specific guidelines on suicide, allowing each situation to speak for itself. Theologian Karl Barth noted in his multivolume Church Dogmatics, “a remarkable fact that in the Bible suicide is nowhere explicitly forbidden.”
In certain Christian traditions, suicide is regarded as an ‘unpardonable’ sin and those who commit suicide are not given the rites and burial in the church grounds. They are usually buried outside the church and regarded as being condemned to hell. What is the origin of this belief?
The root of this belief may be traced to Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of the church. In his thesis, On Suicide, Thomas Aquinas argued that to commit suicide is to sin against God, family and community. God is sovereign, and He decides when we are born and when we die. To commit suicide is to usurp the sovereignty of God over our time of death. Suicide deprives children of their parents, and community of the contribution of that person. Thomas Aquinas never said that suicide is an unpardonable sin. Unfortunately Church traditions made it into an unpardonable sin. The unpardonable sin is stated in Mark 3:22–30 and Matthew 12:22–32 as sinning against the Holy Spirit; suicide, is not.
What can we offer to those who are suicidal? To consider suicide is an act of desperation. There are several ways in which we can help.
Firstly, Christians must be educated on suicide so as to be remove the taboo on it. Education gives a clearer perspective on how desperate are those who consider it; they need more help and is not to be shunned or rejected.
Secondly, Christians must be willing to walk alongside those in pain. Suicidal persons then to withdraw from human contact. Often they are loneliness and became entangled inside themselves. They need someone to talk to, and to befriend them. That is why the Befrienders and other such voluntary suicide hot-lines are so effective to talking persons out of suicide. NGOs are just the frontlines and need to be able to refer to churches. At present, unfortunately, not many churches are registered with them to offer help. Help is not just the offering of platitudes but a journeying together for a period of time. It needs commitment
Thirdly, Christians have to learn to recognize the warning signs of a person who is suicidal. Usually such person are talking about ways to kill themselves often in great details, in unbearable pain as described above, withdrawn, increasing use of alcohol or drugs, giving away their favorite things, and experiencing extreme mood swings.
Fourthly, Christians should know when to call in help. A suicidal person should not be left alone, and may need to be committed to a psychiatric facilities. Depression and other pain may need the help of professionals such as psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and counsellors.
Finally, all the above action must be saturated with prayers. There are many occasions I have observed the power of prayer penetrating the hard shells that these desperate people had built around them.
Suicide will become increasing common in our high pressured society. Euthanasia or assisted suicide for the terminal ill has been successfully lobbied to become law in many countries recently. There is much Christians can do to help people who are suicidal. Any suicide will have serious ramification to the immediate family, community, and society. In this case, prevention is the only solution.
This article was published in Q3 2018 Berita NECF