Suicide and the self

The Hutton Inquiry has given theologians a case to answer

The only time I have been to the Samaritans, as a displaced and alienated twenty-something, I was furiously angry at the shabbiness of the premises. A first floor room, approached up narrow stairs with peeling wallpaper, reached down a back alley behind a restaurant. And the man himself who looked after me; I was expecting a philosopher or theologian of sufficient calibre to understand my existentialist despair.

Instead, he offered a picture of infuriating ordinariness, perfectly in keeping with the unassuming scruffiness of the surroundings. His first gift, in other words, was to bring me back to level ground, from the glorious, exhilarating and despairing heights, from which it had seemed right to throw myself down. If we were going to talk suicide, and I had to admit, to my embarrassment, this was what I had gone there to do, it would not be on a grand and heroic stage, but in a dirty, back street area of metaphorical as well as physical shabbiness.

His second lesson was that we need to keep all the arguments and emotions against suicide in play. Any single theme can, by the remorseless logic of the depressed, be overthrown, no matter how powerful, but keep jumping back and forth from one to the other, and eventually overwrought and disjointed youths (such as I was then) will throw in the towel and allow themselves to be brought back into the boring enterprise that is called living.

The power of an act

The time from mid-July to mid-September used to be known as the silly season. It is true we had news items on the Atkins diet and asteroids crashing into the earth, but August has now become the time for minute dissection of victim tragedy. Last year, it was Soham and the murder of two young girls; this year it was the poor man David Kelly, who took his own life.

The Hutton Inquiry, or rather the enormous media coverage and commentary that accompanied it, has taught me more about my own suicidal moods than I had ever imagined was there to be learned. This unconscious promotion of a great evil has been a most unwelcome sub-plot to the machinations of Alistair Campbell, Andrew Gilligan, No 10, the BBC, spies and ministers.

We first heard that the Bahai faith does not condemn suicide. We later learned, when evidence was given by one of its religious leaders, that in fact suicide is condemned, sort of; but because Bahais are the world champions in religious niceness, this was clearly not taken too seriously. It is more a case of ‘We rather you didn’t, but we won’t condemn you if you do.’

Forget the implications of an un-elected judge having greater powers to call a government to account than members of the House of Commons, for that has been well covered. Consider instead the affirmation of suicide. One act that set in train the whole inquiry. One act that can apparently threaten a government, and will almost certainly see a ministerial resignation; an act (as a spokesman was forced to admit) that has done more to promote a particular religious group than anything else for years past.

A great evil

Life has been entrusted to us. To take life (one’s own as well as another’s) is a sin against God (against the temple of the Holy Spirit), against oneself (for it makes one’s self a murderer) and against the wider community (our neighbours in the widest sense). The cruelty to those who love us (beyond what we deserve) is always underestimated.

But do we not give a Christian funeral to a suicide? As was done for Dr Kelly himself. We are fortunate that in an age when the status of clergy has fallen so low, we have not been left with this most difficult of judgements. Coroners take weeks, usually months, along with a whole courtroom of support, before they come to a judicial verdict of suicide, often with qualifications concerning the ‘balance of mind’. Strictly speaking, therefore, I have never been in the position to refuse burial to a suicide.

It may come to that, if suicide is to be ‘promoted’ as favourably as it has been this past few weeks. We cannot stand by if it is to become an acceptable part of revisionist, post-Christian culture. There is a danger of being paranoid and melodramatic; but there is a greater danger in simply relying on the positive arguments, along the lines of ‘It’s for your own good. You’ll see later that you were wrong.’ Life (whatever Bahais teach) is not about self-improvement.

What is clear is that any consideration (before the deed) would make the intended act a sin against the Holy Spirit. Clear from the tradition and the body of Scripture, but not immediately manifest from the relevant texts. Saul and his armour bearer (1 Samuel 31.4f) and Zimri (1 Kings 16.18) each responded to total defeat in battle; in a sense they only hastened the end. Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27.5) already stands condemned, so it is hard to see how his suicide alters his moral status. Ahithopel’s position, after his advice was ignored by Absalom, is uncannily close to Dr Kelly’s. He went back home to his own city, set his house in order, and hanged himself (2 Samuel 17.23).

The true self

I may lay my life down, as did Jesus; but I may not take it, for that is murder. My life is not my own to do with it what I will. I believe here is the area in which our church theologians must work hardest for our particular generation. The will, the self, the all important me, victim or ruler of the call to fulfilment, purpose and happiness, it is this that demands the right to take its own life: it is mine and I do not want it.

There is a profound theological and philosophical error here. I have a will (albeit largely bound by sin), but I only have a will because the life of which it is part is not ultimately mine, but loaned to me, if you wish, by God himself. It is a difficult point, and I am certain I do not have the terms to define it sufficiently, but the basic truth is that the self (or the will, or whatever it is that is most obviously and importantly me) must not be allowed to control everything that makes up me as a person; or I will cease to be a person.

Suicide is a demand for control over too much of our self. It must be vehemently opposed, not merely because we do not wish to see unhappy individuals ending their struggles in despair, but because it cuts at the very heart of what it is to be human. The prohibition against suicide is part of what makes us human persons, as opposed to mere conscious robots or animals.

 

Nicholas Turner is the Curate of Thornton-in-Craven.

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