by Charity Hamilton.
“My whole world and future was swept from under my feet and all the walls that I had taken so long to build around me collapsed” wrote Caroline Flack a few weeks before the 40 year old presenter found herself in a ‘night-time place’ and died by suicide.[i] For any who haven’t found themselves in ‘night-time places’ Flack’s description of her world and future being swept from under her feet is an accurate one. In such places we lack the familiarity and security of our known environment, everything is in flux, outside our control. So destructive is that lack of security and control that the very ground on which we stand is swept away; the instability of our selves becomes evident. Norman Sartorius writes, ‘Suicide is a fundamental breakdown of trust between individual and social environment’[ii]; it is exactly as Flack suggests. With no firm ground on which to plant ourselves, with no light we fail to thrive and the best option soon appears to be death.
Christianity has historically condemned suicide as homicide of the self, a willingness to take a life – even one’s own – has been seen as a significant sin. For centuries Christian burial was denied to those who died by suicide, and many were taught that those who die by suicide will be barred from heaven. Suicide in England and Wales was ‘committed’ as a criminal act, based upon the Church’s moral stance that suicide was ‘self-murder’. This view persisted until the 1961 Suicide Act decriminalised suicide. The idea of suicide as a significant sin comes primarily from Augustine who taught that if we do not love our own lives then we cannot love the lives of others, or God. This Christian theological approach to suicide is further developed in the reformation and by Luther, emphasizing our calling: that we each have a calling from God and so to die by suicide is to refuse God’s call to us.
In 1996 Rowan Williams developed an argument that sees all human life as vocation, writing that ‘it is hard to see how the resignation of life because of its intolerable burden can express the nature and activity of God.’[iii] He explores how our lives are intricately bound up in the lives of others and so the decision to end one’s life is also a decision about the lives of others.
When confronted with difficulties, the question I find myself asking is ‘where is God in this?’ I agree with Williams, that all human life is bound up in God’s calling and that on each of our lives there is a specific vocation. However, I believe that in the resignation of life there is much that can be expressed about the nature and activity of God; a story to be told about suffering, night-time, wrestling and being overwhelmed – in which God is an ever present speck of light within the darkest of nights. Suicide is not failure to live up to God’s calling, it is simply a catastrophic severing or disconnection between an individual and their context in which God’s calling becomes obscured by distress, trauma and a seeming never-ending night-time. God is still there though.
Within suicide it isn’t enough for us to ask the question ‘Where is God in this?’ because for those of us who are not feeling our ‘world and future swept from under our feet’ our calling is to be the community which enacts God. In 2018 Middlesbrough was recorded as having the highest suicide rates out of 152 local authorities with twice the number of people dying to suicide than the national average. In a bid to reduce the number of deaths by suicide a Tees wide taskforce has been established to lower suicide rates. We are trying to create hope-filled communities in which suicide becomes less of an option but in which we recognise that for some, suicide will seem their only option. And that makes them no less called by God.
[ii] Sartorius N (2003) Old age and suicide in Eastern Europe International Psychogeriatric Association Biannual Conference: Chicago
[iii] Rowan Williams, Theological perspectives, British Medical Bulletin, Volume 52, Issue 2, April 1996, Pages 362–368, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.bmb.a011551