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Suicide and Christian Moral Judgment

by James T. Clemons

Dr. Clemons is professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and chairman of the Commission on Church and Society at Chevy Chase, Maryland. This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 8, 1985, pp. 466-469. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Three incidents illustrate the confusion that persists among many Christians who are confronted with suicide:

ēFive or six years ago, as I was ending a class lecture, a young seminarian rushed in from the hallway to say he had just had a call from his parish. There had been a suicide in the community and he had been asked to conduct the personís funeral. His anxiety was clearly evident in his question: Is it all right for me to do it?"

ē In anticipation of a directed study on suicide in the Bible, a young mother whose teen-aged son had killed himself a few years before spoke of her eagerness for such a course to her pastor. His response was simply, "There is nothing in the Bible about suicide."

ē Just after the usual round of holiday activities, a college senior took his life before his planned return for a final semester at Notre Dame. He grew up on our street and was frequently in our home. He was from a well-known Roman Catholic family and attended a prominent church in the city. As my daughter and I left home for his funeral, I wondered what kind of service we might expect. To my surprise, the entire service was very upbeat, with college friends sharing happy remembrances, appropriate music and a quite positive sermon. The burial was in the family plot in the churchís cemetery.

In sharing such stories with colleagues, students and laity in several churches. I have found that they are not unusual. There is confusion over what is acceptable and what isnít. There is ignorance concerning what the Bible says about suicide and what it doesnít. And there are a number of changes taking place at the grass roots of American churches that many Christians arenít aware of.

I have identified five needs that call for careful attention if the church is to respond to the present crisis in a responsible way. Anything less will result in a theological position that is not only unsystematic, but one that is also impractical and unpastoral. The church canít afford such confusion.

The need for a thorough re-examination of the Bible. The pastorís statement to the young woman is, unfortunately, indicative of a widespread ignorance of biblical texts dealing both directly and indirectly with the subject of suicide. Several major commentaries on both Old and New Testament works omit any serious discussion of suicide, even when the texts themselves deal with an episode of precisely that kind. Bible dictionaries have little to say, and one recent book on death in the Bible made only passing reference to the subject, not even listing the word in its index.

Yet students who have done directed studies with me have identified not only the several specific examples of suicide representative of the broad categories of Émile Durkheim in his book Suicide but also a large number of biblical passages that speak to the churchís response to the issue, even when suicide per se is not the topic of discussion.

Biblical scholarship has been remiss in neglecting this important subject. It has relied on stereotyped exegesis, which is often based on preconceived theological and ethical notions. The recent ferment in approaches to biblical study and new forms of criticism such as canonical criticism and narrative theology give promise of offering new insights on this subject.

In the early centuries suicide was not always condemned. Under certain circumstances, it was even considered a Christian, virtuous act. One of the first to set forth a logical argument against suicide was Augustine, the fourth-century theologian. By his day sentiment opposed to suicide was being reinforced by somewhat limited interpretations of the Sixth Commandment as a prohibition of self-murder. Some interpreters pointed to Jobís refusal to "curse God and die" despite his physical and mental torment and, by contrast, to Judasís suicide (recorded as such only in Matthew) as a self-murder -- a death befitting the betrayer of Jesus.

Aquinas, the most influential theologian after the 12th century, gave further support to Christian opposition to suicide with his reliance on natural theology. Suicide was contrary to observed nature, he said, and therefore contrary to Godís ordained laws.

Recently, through a translation of his work provided by William Clebsch, we have been reminded that in the 17th century the well-known English cleric John Donne raised serious questions about the established view. But apparently the church found it convenient to silence such objections, and the old norm prevailed. As late as 1790, after years of otherwise progressive thought and effort in such areas as poverty, unemployment, prisons and slavery, John Wesley could write:

It is a melancholy consideration, that there is no country in Europe, or perhaps in the habitable world, where the horrid crime of self-murder is so common as it is in England!

But how can this vile abuse of the law be prevented, and this execrable crime effectually discouraged?

By a very easy method. We read in ancient history, that, at a certain period, many of the women of Sparta murdered themselves. This fury increasing, a law was made, that the body of every woman that killed herself should be exposed naked in the streets, The fury ceased at once.

Only let a law be made and rigorously executed, that the body of every self-murderer, Lord or peasant, shall be hanged in chains, and the English fury will cease at once [The Works of John Wesley (Baker Book House, 1979). vol. 13, p. 481].

The heritage of Wesley s prescription to combat suicide has continued to have a strong effect on most Christians today. But as the issue is brought more directly to our attention, few people are entirely happy with the old teachings. Before thoughtlessly perpetuating past tenets, we should re-evaluate them in the light of both the original situations which called them forth and current circumstances.

The need for an awareness of changing situations in society. In spite of the attention given to it by both the news media and television dramas recently, the full extent of suicide in our society is hardly appreciated by most Christians. Among the elderly, suicides have increased in recent years. In U.S. News and World Report Dr. Robert Butler, one of Americanís foremost experts on gerontology and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his book Why Survive? Growing Old in America, said: "Up to 25 per cent of all suicides are committed by persons over 65. The highest rate occurs among white men in their 80s" (July 2,1982, p. 51).

A lengthy front-page story in the February 18 Washington Post was headlined "Jail Inmatesí Suicide Rate Rises Sharply." The director of jail operations for the National Sheriffs Association was quoted as saying, "The figures are a national disgrace." According to Lindsay M. Hayes, author of a major study of jail suicides in the United States, "The federal government is trying to help map out a prevention strategy, but the magnitude of the problem is enormous. . . . Even the threat of jail for a first-time offender is enough to put some people over the edge." With the meting out of more mandatory sentences for drunk driving, the number of suicides among first offenders is likely to increase significantly.

Time was when suicide among blacks was little more than a bad joke. Today, for reasons still not clearly established, the growing number of black suicides reflects significant changes in yet another segment of American life. For some, like the rising young Chicago journalist Leanita McClain and Clevelandís school superintendent Frederick Douglas Holliday, overt racism seems to be a major cause impelling blacks to take their own lives.

Perhaps the most startling of all such statistics are those that pertain to children and youth. Suicide is now the number-two cause of death among teen-agers, right behind automobile accidents. This prompts the obvious question: How many of the latter are really suicides also? Public announcements have put the figure of attempted suicides among Americaís youth for the coming year at between 400,000 and 500,000. At least 10 per cent of that number are expected to succeed.

Child psychologists now speak of "early-onset depressioníí in children who manifest suicidal tendencies as young as age three. Many try suicide several times before the age of ten.

If the church is to respond to the crisis made clear by these harsh statistics, it must take into account the social factors that lie behind so many of them. The societal cause of suicide was highlighted by Èmile Durkheim, a pioneer in studying the subject. We are living in an age quite different from that of any other in our brief national history, insofar as suicidal behavior is concerned. These changes should play a part in our theological considerations. Knowing our true condition is a basic factor in determining how to go about the task of forming religious answers to it. Statistics do have theological significance.

The need for a clear method for addressing the ethical issues. All of the matters mentioned thus far bear on the central question of ethics: Is it "right" for a Christian, under any circumstance, to take her or his own life? A related question is, If there are such circumstances, how does one go about identifying them? The next question might be, How can we go about preventing such circumstances from occurring?

How these questions are answered will determine the answers to a host of other questions, for example: What shall be said about the "soul" of the departed? Shall there be a full Christian funeral and burial? And what shall be the theological basis for pastoral care, not to mention Christian education, regarding suicide? Next come ethical questions related to hospital and nursing-home practices, insurance programs, legislation and the governmentís provision for (even encouragement of) the use of poison capsules by captured espionage agents and special-forces personnel.

Two further questions are sure to arise. First, might we, by drawing further attention to the problem, run the risk of inducing even more suicides by "making it all right"? Perhaps, but the alternative is to offer no real guidance at all, or to insist on an ethic based on ideas from the Middle Ages. The church should never be guilty of using poor biblical exegesis or theology to oppose or condone a specific act. As one astute young woman put it: "If I get poor theology on this matter, I canít really trust the theology I get on any other."

Second, what are our priorities? In the midst of grave concern about nuclear war, world hunger and rising racism, are we justified in giving so much time and effort to suicide? This question is one that individual Christians, local churches and denominations will have to answer for themselves. But none of the three big issues, or all of them together, will warrant our dismissal of other concerns that impinge on human welfare -- especially one -- suicide -- that affects more people each year.

Fundamental to any consideration of more specific matters is the need for a method whereby a Christian moral judgment on suicide might be achieved. Such a method would of course be no guarantee of a single ethical stance, but to proceed without such thought concerning the how of Christian ethics would most surely end in further frustration.

Unfortunately, Christian ethicists themselves have largely ignored the issue. Few textbooks on Christian ethics even mention suicide, much less offer any enlightened comment on it. At the most recent annual meeting of the leading ethics society, not one paper was devoted to suicide. Yet Christian ethicists have a special responsibility, along with biblical interpreters, church historians, sociologists and workers in pastoral care, to lead the church in rethinking the theological dimensions of suicide. It should be clear by now that this is a task that must involve the whole church.

To be sure, the churchís failure to address a particular issue seriously or effectively has often resulted in the emergence of a helpful non-mainline group determined to deal with that need. The Salvation Army is perhaps the most obvious example from the past, but the phenomenon is still occurring today.

Largely because the church was not dealing directly with the broad subject of death and dying ten years ago. Father William A. Wendt, an Episcopal priest in Washington, D.C., established the widely acclaimed St. Francis Center. Today the center also addresses other issues of life and living; staff members teach semester-long courses in intermediate and high schools, as well as offer workshops and group counseling to the bereaved.

At a recent St. Francis Center workshop on suicide, the 19 participants came from northern Virginia, the District of Columbia, and several Maryland suburbs. They included three psychotherapists, two nurses, two pastors, a seminary professor, a graduate student, three counselors, a school psychologist, a half-dozen teachers and one member of a city council committee charged with identifying emerging issues. The center is but one of several church-related groups around the country responding to the present need outside the "normal" mainline church channels.

A more controversial group also dealing with suicide is the Hemlock Society, founded by Derek Humphry, who assisted his wife to take her own life in England several years ago. He said on television that his book Let Me Die Before I Wake has helped hundreds of people to end their lives. It is widely read, even though assisting another person to commit suicide is a crime in some states.

As effective as interdenominational and nonchurch groups are, however, the effort must be made to involve as many churches as possible. It is only through a willingness to study the issue with the express purpose of changing the attitudes of society and providing more effective pastoral care that the church can rise to the challenge of suicide.

Fortunately, there are some encouraging signs. The large number of interdenominational studies on a host of sticky theological problems have produced some agreements that would have seemed absolutely unthinkable 20 years ago. These newer understandings are taking hold in many churches at the local level. Given the enormity of the present problem and its obvious urgency for all segments of society, it should not take another 20 years for the churches to begin getting their theological act together.

A first step would be the decision by each religious group to reassess its own position. (As a United Methodist I can point to the various descendants of John Wesley as being among those most in need of such reassessment!) Centers of theological education could offer courses, directed studies and graduate research projects that focus on a broad range of related topics. A number of youth groups have already begun having psychiatrists and social workers meet with them. Several have gathered parents and youths together to watch and discuss a television drama such as the recent film Surviving. Regrettably, few preachers have addressed the matter from the pulpit -- partly because most arenít really sure what the Christian position is and partly because their understanding of the Bible and the teachings of the church does not square with either their experience or their reason.

Yet several very important steps could be taken. As suggested above, those who are directly involved in any field in which suicide is a professional concern should press their colleagues, societies and institutions to address the issue. Local councils of churches could sponsor joint community meetings, perhaps more easily than hospitals, counseling centers or universities. General church boards and agencies could be urged to support symposia that bring together laity, clergy and a cross-section of other professionals to identify the complexities of the ethical problems involved and to prescribe the next urgent steps to be taken.

These things can be done in a matter of months. Whether or not the attitudes of society will soon be changed is not our concern now. What we are called to do is to begin the process, on whatever levels we can, with determination and confidence. In failing to provide a theological position and effective pastoral care related to suicide, we have been napping too long.


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