Saint Augustine believed this in the fifth century and, as a consequence, this became the Church’s position regarding suicide for centuries. But Saint Augustine was wrong about this, just as he has been wrong about many other things, including “original sin.”
For most of my life, I have let the Church do much of my thinking for me. Which, if you do not know by now, I regard as the ultimate form of spiritual laziness. There’s lots of laziness many places. When, however, I set out to discover for myself what I really believed, I made many wonderful and liberating discoveries.
One of the most important discoveries, for example, is how frequently the Church has changed its theology over the centuries to accommodate new ideas and understandings. More times than you can count, in fact. If you are a student of Christian history, or any religious history, you know this to be true. True among all religions, I might add. But, not too far behind this accommodation phenomenon is just how frequently, and sometimes violently, the Church has sought to suppress any idea it deemed heretical or contrary to its teachings.
It took the Catholic Church, for example, nearly four hundred years to finally admit that Galileo was right and the Vatican was wrong when it came to the question of whether the earth revolved around the sun or the sun around the earth. For centuries, the Church had insisted it was the latter.
Galileo, on the other hand, building on the work of Copernicus, said it was the former.
You know who won that debate.
We have come to accept – those of us who haven’t given up on the Church entirely – just how slow the Church is in admitting it’s own wrongs.
The Church was wrong about the Kingdom of God.
The Church was wrong about slavery.
The Church was wrong about women.
The Church was wrong, and many still are, about homosexuality.
The Church was wrong, and most still are, about same sex marriage.
The Church was wrong, and creationists still are, about evolution.
I could go on. But you get the point.
In time, the Church seems to come around and get on the right side of history. But not without first inflicting unimaginable damage on people in the process of adjusting its erroneous theology to accommodate the times.
Which brings me to the subject of suicide.
The Church and Suicide
The Church was wrong about it, too. But, typical to its contrary style, it took centuries of abuse before the Church slowly changed its theology to accommodate new understandings.
In the case of Galileo, not until 1992, did Pope John Paul II finally confess the Church had been wrong all along. Few, however, paid much attention to the Vatican’s confession of evil and sin against Galileo.
Given the Church’s sordid history of denial and wrongdoing, why would anyone care the Pope apologized?
Pope John Paul II
They didn’t. Which is why, although reported in the news, the Pope’s confession went largely unnoticed.
An apology nearly four hundred years in the making is rather meaningless, wouldn’t you say?
The history isn’t much better.
An article in the Salt Lake Tribune, for example, briefly surveys the Church’s poor record of understanding toward those who had completed suicide throughout the centuries. Here’s one of the points made…
“Those who took their lives lost their property, their burial rites and their place in heaven. They were posthumously excommunicated from the church, their corpses were often defiled, their memories erased, their families humiliated, shunned and disinherited.”
It’s the Christian way far too often, isn’t it?
The Church has been so wrong about so many things and for so long, I am sometimes amazed anyone pays any attention any more to anything it says.
A Call to Compassion
Which brings me to the recent suicide of Robin Williams.
Like you, the whole damn thing saddens me.
I thought of Robin as a friend and I’ve never met him. But he felt like my friend…like my childhood playmate. That guy or girl with whom you could be completely and totally your crazy childlike self.
I needed Robin. Our world needed Robin.
And, like you, I have cried for our world…for myself…for him…for his family. I will miss him.
And, yes, I’m hoping the Church gets this one right. That the Church will be on the right side of history this time and respond with compassion and understanding.
What is not needed is the pontification on suicide or whether, for example, those who complete suicide go to heaven.
Oh yes, fundamentalist Christians are already ranting about this and doing so in their typical arrogant way. Who among them, or who among us, has the foggiest idea about heaven or eternity? I sure don’t. I’m pretty sure no one else does either.
Fundamentalists say, “We believe in heaven.” But the real truth is you and I only ever “believe” in the things we don’t know. And, what we don’t know is frightening. Which explains why, among other things, suicide is frightening. We know so little about it.
Furthermore, this explains why religious people spend their time writing about and/or reading books on heaven and eternity. It is because, contrary to what they want you to think, death still scares the hell out of them. Additionally, they are secretly worried sick that heaven might actually NOT exist.
It’s a kind of mental delusion. We dupe ourselves into “believing” things and mistakenly confuse our delusions for “faith.” A clever mental trick.
And, of course, it’s the same thing religious people do who want to debate the existence of God. The only reason people try to prove God exists is because they’re secretly afraid she doesn’t.
So, with Robin Williams, and others like him and their families, it is my sincere hope the Church will respond to this with compassion, understanding, and with openness. We need many informed and humane conversations around the issue of suicide.
I hope the Church’s best minds – not those with “made up” minds…rigid know-it-all-minds…not “we’re right and everyone else is wrong” minds…but those with the best open minds to gather and grapple with suicide and help the world better understand it.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
What our culture needs is a compassionate, informed Church. A Church that explores this issue, as well as the other related issues and concerns like euthanasia, assisted suicide, etc., and mental health. Instead of the Church’s typical response to science and medicine…to be suspicious and hostile toward both…but this time join ranks and enter into intelligent conversation and exploration.
I want to know more about suicide myself and I want the same for you, the Church, and those outside the Church but within our human family. And, to those of you reading this who might have had thoughts of suicide, do not conclude from this that, because the Church has been wrong about so many things, it might not be any help to you now. There are many churches and church leaders and followers of Christ who get it. Seek one out. Or, at the least, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call this number 800-273-8255.
Isn’t this the opportunity to broaden our consciousness, inform our understanding, and deepen our compassion?
Whether you are a Christian or Buddhist or Hindu or Jew or Muslim or atheist or just another human being…
Isn’t this the humane thing to do?