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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Thinking About Suicide

Three events in the last few days have compelled me to consider the Church’s position on suicide. First, I was required to participate in a suicide prevention seminar developed by the Mississippi Department of Education. Secondly, I watched a Law and Order episode in which physician-assisted suicide was the issue at trial. Finally, Vermont’s legislative declaration on physician-assisted suicide was ratified on May 20th.

I personally have a hard time talking about suicide from a theologically informed perspective, a struggle that I share with the Church at large. It wasn’t too long ago that suicide was categorized as a mortal sin, an act equitable with murder in its danger.[1] Christians who ended their own lives were not permitted burial in their own parish cemetery because suicide cut them off from God, and therefore also cut them off from the blessings of the Church.

In a more contemporary frame of reference, my Baptist peers have said little on suicide, opting instead to stand on pro-life issues like abortion.[2] Further, advances in medical technology have allowed us to prolong the life of many who would have otherwise died of injuries or illness, therefore creating entirely new ethical dilemmas that are infrequently addressed by the Church.[3]

What has been on my mind in the last two weeks, though, is a question of foundations. What is the fundamental, ground level motivation that informs our opinion of suicide? Regardless of my position on abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, or suicide, I have a fundamental assumption about human life. That assumption is grounded in the Christian doctrine of humanity usually referred to as Christian Anthropology.

Allow me to illustrate this idea by means of contrast. In my state-mandated suicide prevention workshop my colleagues and I were required to answer a “myth or fact” questionnaire about suicide and to watch and discuss a video addressing how to recognize suicidal tendencies among students.[4] The seminar was necessary and useful, especially in our school’s context.[5] A student’s friends and teachers are certainly the first line of defense against suicide and therefore need to be aware of warning signs and tendencies that might help counselors assist the student.

I came away from the seminar asking why; why should a school be so involved in protecting the lives of its students from self-inflicted harm?  The only answer that the video and accompanying discussion gave was that suicide is a liability to the school district and therefore should be avoided. That’s it. We must prevent suicide because the institution is liable for the lives of the students within it.

This is not the fault of the school, or the state. Public schools cannot approach suicide or other moral issues as the Church does, because at its heart the public school is a secular institution that cannot promote any particular view of humanity other than that permitted by the terms of the state. In short, liability is the rationale of the suicide prevention training I underwent because the categories within which the school operates are legal and financial. It is not the state’s prerogative to make statements about the value of human life; it is the state’s prerogative to maintain the state.

I applaud my school for being vigilant and for keeping a keen eye out for emotionally distressed students. I am led to wonder, though, just how the church’s treatment of suicide would be different in such a seminar given that the Church has a much different foundational belief system than “mere” liability.

The church treats suicide differently than a state institution because the church is built on the theological position that human life is better than human non-life. I chose these words because I have become convinced in recent days that the Church should be about the work of humanizing people, for no fewer than two reasons.[6]

First, the church has an authentic word to speak about the nature of humanity, a word that a state institution (by definition) cannot utter. The Church sees human beings as created in the image of God, and therefore treats people as beings of great worth to God. This is not the language of “you’ll throw your future away” or “you’ll hurt your friends and family;” rather, this is language of the inherent value of every human being beyond the financial or legal value they represent to an institution. If, as we believe, every human being is created in the image of God, and that every person is the object of Christ’s atonement, then the Church has a unique word to say to suicide and to end-of-life issues and all of the other ethical issues that surround those things.

Secondly, the Church has a word to say to the de-humanizing powers of the world that lead to non-life.  When Jesus said to his disciples that “the thief comes to only to steal and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly” he is talking about humanizing people.[7] The Church’s mission, at least in part, is to demonstrate that real life is possible through the relentless seeking after God. It is the Church’s mission to stand as a witness against those things that de-humanize people by calling their attention to the life-giving Creator and Savior.

We are helpless in the face of depression and circumstances that lead people to suicide without this foundation. We have nothing to say about the worth of human beings if we do not first say a word about their value as human beings rather than their value to society.  I do not fault the state for doing what it can; I challenge the Church, though, to do what it must.

[1] See Nichols, Terence, Death and Afterlife, Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010.
[2] The great irony of the typical pro-life position is that it generally only concerns abortion and ignores the death penalty, euthanasia, and quality of life issues related to persistent poverty.
[3] See Soulen, Kendall R. and Linda Woodhead, God and Human Dignity, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006. Also, we recall the Terri Schiavo case ( and the Kavorkian case (
[5] See my previous post, “On Hope and Disappointment” for a glimpse of our school’s operations.
[6] Thanks to Chuck Poole for his recent sermon “A Little Lower Than God” delivered at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi.
[7] John 10:10.

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