As the world reels over the apparent suicide of Robin Williams, the harsh realities of mental health are once again in front of us. And I am, once again, keenly aware of how unprepared some of us in the church are to deal with it.
Historically, the church has had a very muddy relationship with mental illness, addiction, and suicide. To its credit, the church has begun in fairly recent years to start addressing these realities holistically and step away from the antiquated ideas it had once promulgated from its pulpits. Some offer a prayer for the sick in mental and physical capacities these days to do away with this old stigma. But some of those ideas and attitudes linger, and it will take us some time to purge of them completely.
If you grew up in the church hearing that suicide is a sin, here’s why:
In the 4th and 5th centuries, a sect of Christianity called the Donatists (named after bishop Donatus Magnus) flourished in North Africa. They were known for their staunch opposition to any Christian who had formerly renounced the faith in the face of widespread persecution by Diocletian and now wanted to come back to the fold. Notably, they believed that suicide was a form of martyrdom, and that it would be better for a Christian to kill oneself than to be apostate. In his book, City of God, Augustine of Hippo vehemently opposed this view because in his estimation suicide was a violation of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” And since you couldn’t repent of such a sin if you were dead, there could be no salvation for you. It’s Augustine’s influence on this subject that has most heavily informed the church’s approach to suicide for centuries.
While Donatism was indeed heresy, Augustine’s conclusion actually misses the mark. The Hebrew word used in that commandment, ratsakh, refers to unlawful killings such as premeditated murder which produce “blood guilt.” It does not refer to killings made in self defense, but killings that betray the fabric of the community. The commandment addresses righteous interactions with other human beings, not one’s own self. In fact, Talmudic understanding of this commandment is that murder can emcompass public shaming, slander, and personal attacks. Jesus himself even spoke about this. It is not a commandment against suicide.
That is not to say that we should encourage people to kill themselves. But what we have done is emcumbered people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts and the family members of people who have committed suicide in the most heartless of ways — and we’ve used God to do it.
Even as the church strives to become more aware of suicide and mental illness, there is still a tendency to dismiss illnesses such as depression and anxiety as indicative of a lack of faith. Schizophrenia and psychosis are even labeled as “possession” in many communities. As a person of faith, I do not discount the connection between body and spirit. I believe they are inextricable. But when it comes to mental illness, why do we ignore the “body” component? These are physical illnesses with identifiable physiological causes. If a sister or brother in our midst is diagnosed with cancer, we may pray for them, but we also fully expect them to see their oncologist. Too often, we expect people with crippling depression and anxiety to just “pray it away.” But is that just because people don’t know how to define crippling depression? We all know what cancer is, so maybe not enough people know what crippling depression actually is and it’s time that we changed that.
Suicidal people are not selfish. They are sick. And what kind of church would we be if we turned our back on the sick?
When I dealt with crippling clinical depression years ago, I wish I could say the church took me more seriously. But the truth is the only people who cared for me holistically were my psychiatrist and my therapist. I don’t fault the church for this; they simply didn’t know any better. And the fact is society as a whole, both religious and secular, could stand a better education in this matter. But because so many people come to their faith communities when they are struggling with these things (because who else is going to support you and sit with you in your grief like your faith community?) we need to be particularly prepared and armed with life-saving information and understanding.
The sad reality is we won’t be able to save everyone. We won’t be able to stop every single person from completing suicide, even in the church. But we could be agents of healing for those who are struggling. We could be the reason someone seeks help. We could offer a hand to hold on the path to wholeness. We could point someone in the direction of a Christian anxiety treatment facility. We could be that lone point of light for the person who is in their last days before a completed suicide. And we could be the arms that wrap around the family members who try desperately to get their loved ones help to no avail, and are eventually left behind to pick up the pieces. We can at least do that.