Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Context of "free and uncoerced actions" is worth weighing in our deliberations

GOING TO HELL? Somehow, the question of whether or not one who commits suicide will go to hell arose in the 5th and 6th grade Christian Life Club I work with on Wednesday evenings. Some of the churched kids asserted that one who commits suicide is hell-bound because, they insisted, the Bible says "Thou shalt not kill." Good literalists we're developing; and they would make Augustine proud, as this was one of his arguments. Though, technically, I could point out that the Hebrew would translate more like "You shall not commit murder." But I've waited to pray and read and contemplate a week before broaching the subject with the preteens again.

THE SILENCE OF SCRIPTURES. The question of the moral acceptability of suicide is weighty and complex, certainly not something to wrap-up in a mere blog. In light of the overwhelming reality of the sacredness of life, even a relatively mild consideration of the subject of suicide seems to be plumbing dark places. But among several books and articles I consulted, Thomas Kennedy had an insightful article in the conservative evangelical magazine Christianity Today. In Suicide and the Silence of Scriptures, Kennedy explores whether or not suicide is morally contemptible and under varying circumstances. Further, Kennedy, offers some sound guidance for Christians and the church who relate to folks who have relatives who have committed suicide or who are contemplating it.

SAMSON'S SITUATION. Occasions of suicide mentioned in the Bible are rare (there are seven and one attempted suicide) and there is an absence of moral condemnation associated with most. The most readily recognized suicides in the Bible are those of King Saul, Judas Iscariot, and Samson. Samson's suicide seems to have been considered martyrdom. Even Augustine and Aquinas, the two leading church teachers who condemned suicide and whose writings on the subject continue to form the main rationales held in the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches to this day, could not condemn Samson's act.

"FREE AND UNCOERCED ACTIONS" Kennedy defines suicide within this framework: "free and uncoerced actions engaged in for the purpose of bringing about one's own death." With that, Kennedy explores exceptions:

"If we define suicide as consisting of only free and uncoerced
, we must ask a series of questions as we try to understand any
particular suicide: To what extent do we know the suicide in question was
genuinely free? Could pain (either physical or emotional) have coerced the
individual to do what he otherwise might not have done? But even if we could
know that an act of suicide was genuinely free, can we know that the aim of the
act was indeed one's own death rather than a misguided cry for help? Can we know
that the suicide believed this action would really kill?"

Kennedy explores a further, more telling question:

"Did the individual aim at removing himself from God's goodness by suicide?
Was this an act of suicide directly aimed at saying no to God? Or was it rather
a tragically misguided attempt at saying yes to God? Eternal punishment is
reserved, Christians believe, for those who directly reject God and reject God
as a consistent pattern in life, not merely in a solitary final act. Every
suicide is not a rejection of God's goodness. Indeed, in many cases suicide is
mistakenly chosen to bring one nearer to God. We cannot say that such a motive
for suicide is correct. Nor can we say that a person who makes this tragic
mistake has removed herself forever from the grace of God."

Instead of focusing on pointing a finger in judgment and condemnation, those who represent the people of God would do better to be the people of God in truth, love and joy in relationship to people whose loved ones have committed suicide or with those who are contemplating it.

I welcome your helpful comments.

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