A discussion of faith with Prof. John Stackhouse – In a culture and age that is witnessing a rise in suicides, anxiety, and depression
“Without [a] vision of meaning and love in a world of significant connections, it is so much easier for suicide to rise…as it is rising.” –John Stackhouse, PhD, Theologian
This past week has brought suicide once again into our collective consciousness.
Three days ago, Kate Valentine (Spade), creator of the clothing brand Kate Spade, was discovered by her housekeeper, hanging from a scarf in her Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan.
Today, Anthony Bourdain of CNN’s Parts Unknown was found dead in his hotel room in France by his friend and frequent Parts Unknown guest, Eric Rupert.
A Globe and Mail feature article reported on a couple, married for nearly 73 years, who both chose a Medically Assisted Death (MAD), so they could die together.
These heartbreaking stories raise more questions than answers on this perplexing issue facing our world today, but Context asked John Stackhouse Jr., his thoughts.
Here is Susan Ponting’s Q and A with Prof. John Stackhouse.
Susan Ponting: What is the Christian view on suicide?
John Stackhouse: Different Christian traditions have different views of suicide. But, like everything else in a Christian worldview, it is seen in the light of the Biblical story.
God is the sovereign creator, and our lives are given to us as gifts to be used according to God’s good purposes. To end one’s own life is to declare sovereignty over it, and that’s just not the case. “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.” Suicide is the greatest act of despair, of giving up on one’s life, on the world, and thus on God. So the Church traditionally has warned against it as a grave sin.
It also affects others, and we do not know how many others God is influencing through our lives. So to decide to end our lives is to decide we know that God has nothing more to accomplish through them—and that, too, is an act of arrogance, of taking to ourselves what is not, according to a Christian view, ours to take. Our lives are not, in fact, our own to deal with as we like and to decide upon as we see fit.
This language is very strong, of course, and needs to come clothed in the good news of the gospel. God loves each person. Each person matters to God. God has a role for each person to play in the world that is worth each person staying alive for until God calls us away from life. And God will extend no one’s suffering pointlessly.
So the strong warning not to take our own lives out of God’s hands must be coupled with the sweet message that God’s hands are always accomplishing good for, and through, each one of us—terrible as our lives may seem to us at times.
SP: Do you believe it is a demonic act? Is there ever a case for it?
JS: Demons can, indeed, give people a push, can prompt people to sin more than they would on their own. That’s their raison d’être: to make things worse. The term “Satan” means “Adversary,” the one who is Against. And demons likewise do all they can to make our lives worse—ideally, of course, to end them and in tragedy and harm to others. Suicide fits that bill. Those who have lost faith in God open themselves, alas, to the influence of other spirits and demons gladly rush in to oppress those who lack God’s shielding from their pernicious influence.
Is there ever a case for it? It’s hard to see that there is, given what I’ve said on behalf of the Christian view of things—short of self-sacrifice on behalf of others, which is not normally what we mean by suicide. But we must, of course, be compassionate on those who have come to such a bleak conclusion that suicide is all they can see ahead of them.
SP: How do you see our culture interfere with our true identities and who we are ‘in God?’ And in God’s love? And has this always been the case since time immemorial?
JS: Our modern culture is especially emphatic that each individual person is sovereign over his or her life—short of interfering with other people’s sovereignty over their lives. We continue to acknowledge obligations to others: to spouses, other family members, friends, teammates, neighbours, and so on. But as novel after movie after song after legislation makes clear, the individual matters most, and one is right to seek one’s own benefit in everything.
We thus have lost a sense that we are made by God, that God thereby gives us purpose and responsibility within a web of relationships (with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation), and that God oversees us in a kind and productive manner to guide us to effective and beautiful living, even in a broken and harmful world. Without that vision of meaning and love in a world of significant connections, it is so much easier for suicide to rise…as it is rising.
SP: About 11 people complete suicides and about 210 others will attempt suicides in Canada every day. Is it safe to say this a health crisis – specifically a mental health crisis?
JS: I lack the expertise to declare whether this counts as a “crisis.” But the word “crisis” is an interesting word, derived from the Greek word “krisis” which means “decision, turning point” and not just “a really bad situation.” We do have to decide whether we are going to provide adequate mental health care for everyone: our streets filled with homeless people and our police officers doing social work instead of policing testify to the lack of mental health care our society provides. And we do have to decide whether we need to reassess our supreme value of individuality: of choosing the best job and the best home and the best this or that and constantly “moving up” while leaving behind or far away the family and friends who can best help us stay connected and thus less vulnerable to despair.
We also have to decide, as suicide is a temptation for the very successful as well as for the very poor, that we will redefine The Good Life such that successful people don’t feel they have to not just match but exceed their own records in order to count as valuable. We are valuable because God loves us and gives us good things to do, not because we build steadily more glowing CVs and earn steadily more money. We really need the gospel here, or we will, in one way or another, perish.
SP: The most recent of “celebrity” suicides is a designer, Kate Spade, and CNN’s Anthony Bourdain – Both leaving children behind – all the money, “success,” in the world – How do you see these celebrity suicides and the great impact they leave on “fans”
JS: These suicides show us that the glamorous life is not necessarily happy, or fulfilled, or “good” life. They warn us that we each must attend to the basics of healthy living: broken marriages and distance from family members cannot be compensated for by high-flying and happy careers.
Suicides of famous people also show us, however, that we sometimes need to mind our own business and not follow the media into private zones where we don’t belong. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were once “ordinary people” and they died as ordinary people. There is nothing different about the sadness and confusion and despair of the famous, and we must be careful not to indulge prurient curiosity into other people’s pain…
SP: Moving on to Medically assisted death – and the recent Globe and Mail article on George and Shirly Brickenden, who, after 73 years of marriage decided to commit medically assisted suicide. The law states, it is for, “people who were suffering intolerably from a grievous and irremediable condition and whose deaths were reasonably foreseeable…” Can you comment on the many couples and individuals who are increasingly choosing this way to die?
JS: We have started down the slippery slope, alas. The language of the law is hopelessly vague. To call something a “grievous” condition is medically meaningless. What, clinically, counts as “grievous”? And everyone’s death is “reasonably foreseeable”! It will not, because it cannot, be long before anyone can ask for medically assisted suicide because they are so grievously unhappy that they…want to commit suicide.
I don’t want to appear unsympathetic to such people. Their situation is awful. But I think the intent of the law needs to be our general intent: to do everything we can to help people not take their own lives, and particularly through mental health provisions for everyone and hospice at the end of life. It is just too easy, and cheap, for our society, and the state, to fund suicides instead. What a “solution” that generally isn’t!
Susan Ponting: In the same Globe and Mail article it was said that a “religious” doctor performed the assisted death – at the end of the couples’ lives – but wanted to remain anonymous. Is the medical community conflicted about this and the conscience rights of doctors on both sides of the issue?
John Stackhouse: Conscience rights also must be protected, particularly since good and capable people can, and do, disagree on these issues. We cannot want our medical professionals to turn into mere tools of the state, subservient to whoever happens to be governing at the moment. Surely the horror stories of Nazi Germany forever remind us of that truth.
Yes, we will have to spend some more money to make sure that everyone has access to the care to which they are legally entitled. That’s what we do all the time. But we must not cut corners financially or ethically to insist that all medical professionals surrender their consciences and just do what they’re told.
SP: Can you put into “modern terms” – or for someone who may not know the love of Jesus and He’s alive today in our world… What he meant when he said…“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
JS: Jesus warns us that we will have trouble in the world. The world is a good place full of beauty and delight and comfort and kindness, but it is also deeply corrupted by horror and ugliness and pain and sin. Jesus came to show us a better way to live AND to make it possible for us to live it. His life, death, and resurrection, mysterious as they are even to theologians, offer us life that is not lived alone, but in the company of the Greatest Friend we could ever have, a lifelong Brother, in fact, who will never forsake us and instead will roll up his sleeves and work alongside us.
And his Church is full of people who will live with us and work alongside us as well—at least, the healthy churches are like that.
When our particular bit of work is done, he’ll bring us home to the next life in a new world.
That’s all very good news, isn’t it!
SP: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Is there anything else you would like to say?
JS: I would say that there is great good news for you, as for all of us. There is a God who made you, and made us and sees each of us as important, playing a role only we can play. It is easy to think of oneself as small and useless, of no importance, but that is a dangerous illusion fostered by the promotion by Hollywood and Madison Avenue of a certain kind of “success”—which, as the celebrity deaths show us, does not automatically result in happiness and fulfillment after all.
What study after study shows, and what ancient wisdom tells us long before, is that what makes life worth living is good relationships with other people: contributing to their lives and having them contribute to ours…what the Bible means by “love your neighbour.” And if you’re lonely and sad, you can bet there are lots of other people who are, too. So find them! Go to a shelter, a nursing home, a prison, a veterans club, a community centre, a soup kitchen, a food bank. Help others, and join a team of helpful people who can become your friends. Large-scale help is usually accomplished the way most big things are accomplished: one person at a time. Be that one person.
And, as a Christian, I want to say that the greatest good news is that God and the Church will help you. So contact a nearby church. Volunteer to help—you don’t have to believe to be useful in good work. Then listen to what they say, and sing, and see if it makes sense to you. There is light and hope to be had. Don’t give up!
Crossroads 24/7 Prayer Lines: 1-866-273-4444
CANADIAN SUICIDE HELP LINE 1-800-273-8255
With files from Anson Liski