Concluding a series of posts (a modification and serialisation of one of my MA-level essays) thinking through a Christian response to suicide, today we reach the end of this discussion. Following an introductory post, a post about suicide and the biblical material, and one on how suicide has been engaged with by the Christian tradition, and an overview of the Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God, today I want to offer some tentative pastoral pointers. I hope it is useful to some of you.
v. Some Pastoral pointers
In our examination of the biblical texts and the Christian tradition, we have seen that the overall verdict regarding suicide can be summed up in two broad ways. Firstly, that the biblical text is intriguingly neutral regarding the topic of suicide, choosing to only report that the event took place, rather than providing specific guidelines for this kind of murder. Secondly, that the Christian tradition has firmly seen the concept of self-murder as being sinful, but that, rather than seeing suicide as unforgivable, as Aquinas would argue in the Roman Catholic category of mortal sin, it might be wiser – and better reflective of the biblical text – to see it as one sin among many. Such a position does not reduce the seriousness of self-murder, but is in line with the direction of travel identified by Bonhoeffer and Barth in terms of the redeeming Sovereignty of God.
When the emphasis in an articulation of the Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God is shifted from a dictatorial model to an understanding that focuses on the radical Grace God offers in Christ, the possibilities for pastoral responses become clearer. Suicide can be seen, as is noted by Bonhoeffer, as a radical act of freedom, yet it is not true freedom, due to the complexity of social factors involved. Human agency, articulated in terms of the ‘right to life’ or ‘right to death’ is insufficient, in light of what Barth identifies as God’s ‘Yes’, echoing his action of grace and his gift of life. And the inter-related and given nature of humanity, under God, is vital. Stanley Hauerwas writes that;
‘the language of gift does not presuppose we have a “natural desire to live,” but rather that our living is an obligation. It is an obligation that we at once owe our Creator and one another. For our creaturely status is but a reminder that our existence is not secured by our own power, but rather requires the constant care of, and trust in, others” (1988, 106)
This is not some cold, hard, unthinking legalism, but rather a recognition of the reality of creatureliness, and an acknowledgement of the relational imperative of being human – that we do not justify or exist ourselves, but only in relation to others, by the grace of God.
Discussion of suicide is controversial, emotive, and yet necessary in a world where it is a reality. Flippant appeals to the future where there will be no more self-murder will not do, a robust pastoral response must be grounded in the revelation of Jesus Christ, and God as Creator, Giver and Lord of Life, to echo Barth. The way that this God acts, we note in following Bonhoeffer, is in the posture of Grace calling for repentance, rather than judge handing down prohibition. The biblical data is inconclusive at first glance, but has been carefully sifted and interpreted by the tradition in line with the wider counsel of scripture. By calmly considering these we can reduce the ‘scare-factor’ of treating one sin as worse than an another, and point to a God who gives and sustains life, and who is for us and not against us. These are the truths that should underpin a pastoral engagement with a suicidal person or their community.
Bibliography for this section :
Hauerwas, S. (1988). Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church, (T&T Clark, Edinburgh)