to be or not to be…
For anyone not familiar with the title of this post, it’s where Shakespeare’s Hamlet debates his own suicide as a cure for his depression. In an intensely charged news story that we discussed at our weekly study a couple of weeks ago, Jack, a 59-year-old retiree is trying to decide whether to use Oregon’s assisted suicide law to end his own life, of which he only has about 6 months left due to bone cancer. To avoid all the pain and loss of dignity and control to himself and his family, he thinking over the options he has, but is at least thankful that Oregon law provides such options to him in the first place. At present, the White House has instructed the Justice Department to prosecute any doctor who prescribes drugs for assisted suicide under federal law, regardless of state statutes. That decision has been stayed pending a court decision.
Hard to know where to start in this situation, there are so many issues. Does the federal government have the right to supersede state laws in this way? Do we the people have the right to pass laws that allow us to kill ourselves legally? Does Jack have the moral right to kill himself, even in this situation? What are the obligations of the people closest to Jack? To talk him out of it, to warn him of his moral duty, to let him be and make his own decision? Is suicide always wrong? What does Scripture have to say about suicide and its implications on salvation? Is there any circumstances when suicide is acceptable?
Did I get them all? There are so many issues surrounding our rights and obligations as Christians and people of faith with regard to our political and legal process, that I think I want to leave them for another post (to follow shortly) that is even more on point. But what of the issue of suicide itself from a moral and Biblical point of view? If you grew up Catholic, as I did, then you know that suicide is tantamount to a free trip to hell. It is the ultimate expression of despair and selfishness–an unrecoverable “I don’t care” to the feelings and concerns of loved ones. It is the ultimate desecration of life–murder of self. It is the ultimate thumbing of the nose at God and any hope of something better. And when it is all these things, it’s pretty bad, but is it instant hell?
I had someone come to me recently concerned about the state of a friend who’d committed suicide, afraid she was now in hell. The pain on her face was heartbreaking as she turned this possibility over in her mind. In fact, the Bible is silent on suicide. There are two recorded suicides in the Bible (Saul and Judas), but there is no commentary on the acts themselves, and no teaching on suicide specifically. There is the injunction against murder, so there’s that if you consider suicide a form of murder. But even then, there’s only one unforgivable sin, and neither of them are it. Further, the issues that drive a person to suicide are often much different than those that drive a person to murder. How responsible for their actions are people in the throes of despair and pain so deep as to end their own lives? The scriptures don’t tell us specifically, so Catholic theology notwithstanding, it’s pretty risky to assume. But now let’s take a step further.
When is suicide not despairing, selfish, a desecration of life, or a rejection of God and hope? Let’s look at Jack again. He doesn’t want to die–usually considered an essential ingredient of suicide. He wants to live, but there is no medical hope of that. He wants to spare himself the incredible pain of bone cancer and the indignities of losing all control of bodily functions and having his family have to clean up after him. He wants to spare his loved ones the pain of watching him slowly die. Apart from a miracle, he’s going to die within 6 months one way or another. Now before you answer, think about this. Is lying always wrong? Is stealing always wrong? Says not to do it in the Bible, but when we lie to Nazis to save Jewish lives or we steal to keep our family alive, we seem to understand that there is a larger imperative here.
Jesus broke the Sabbath laws deliberately in order to make the point that sometimes in order to fulfill the intent of the Law, you have to break the letter of the Law. The intent of not working on the Sabbath was to provide refreshment and renewal and to keep holy the Lord’s name. Jesus deliberately made mud in his hand as salve for a blind man’s eyes to cure him, knowing full well that the act of mixing the mud was “kneading,” a violation of Rabbinical Sabbath laws. But then what was more refreshing, renewing, and glorifying to God than to heal this man that day? Jesus is saying that it’s not merely keeping the letter of the Law that has any component of love, but the intent behind the actions. If lying and stealing can be fulfillments of the law of love when the intent is to preserve life, then what of suicide when the intent is not to die but to spare the living unnecessary pain and suffering. From a spiritual point of view, it is not the actions themselves that matter, but the intent behind them. Even our good actions mean nothing if love isn’t motivating them–Paul calls them clanging cymbals in 1Corinthinians.
And there’s another point. I hear pastor/teachers sometimes say that sin leads to separation. This is a typically Western view. Western in the sense that it’s based in duality (pairs of opposites, discrete and separate) and separation between subjects (us) and objects (them). These concepts are really the basis of Western science and society. Eastern thinking (and like it or not, Jesus was an Eastern man, speaking an Eastern language to Eastern people with an Eastern worldview and culture) is much different. It’s based in unity and the connectedness of all things. Even dualities like good and evil, light and dark are seen as continuums connected to each other. Saying sin leads to separation doesn’t go far enough. To the ancients, sin is separation. The separation itself is the sin. Anything that disconnects a person from another, that separates a person from the normal working of the community in any way, is unclean, impure–sinful. That’s why we see such things in the OT Law as a woman’s period, or touching a dead body making a person unclean/sinful and in need of purification through the temple system. Seems crazy to us that normal bodily functions would be “unclean,” but they were seen as interruptions in the normal flow or function of community relations. So, anything that leads to separation/sin is seen as sinful, and anything that leads to unity/connectedness is seen as righteous. When an act like suicide leads to the heartbreak and breaking down of relationships among those left behind, it is surely sinful (but not necessarily unforgiveable), but when, in situations like Jack’s, it may knit the family closer together and cause them to celebrate the end of Jack’s life with him, we may need another measuring rod.
So before we run off to conclusions about suicide, we need to stop and carefully consider the circumstances surrounding every decision. When we enter the voting booths to decide laws that govern these issues, we need to think about what rights and options people should have in their lives. And when we counsel and try to comfort those like the woman who came to me about her friend’s suicide, we need to leave open every possibility of God’s ultimate acceptance of all of us–even those who for whatever reason cut short their time here… I continue to have this nagging feeling that God is much more reluctant than we in handing out tickets to hell.