Suicide: The Ambiguities
After a recent newspaper headline stated that in the first half of this year 254 people in Wichita attempted suicide, an increase of 23% over the same period last year, some of you thought it might be time to review how people have felt about that topic through the centuries and what the Bible has to say about it. I can dispose of the second part quickly. Despite a persistent myth to the contrary, the Bible has absolutely nothing to say about the moral issues of suicide. In what we call the Old Testament, four different men involved with the many wars described in that book, take their own lives rather than wait for death or disgrace at the hands of a triumphant enemy. Not a word is said on any of those four occasions about whether their decision was moral or immoral; that question had simply not yet arisen. Nor does it appear in Christian Scripture, where only a single suicide, that of Judas, is recorded, and where —while his betrayal of Christ is seen as the crime of the ages — there is not even a hint that he has piled sin upon sin by killing himself.
That idea would come centuries later when Augustine, whom I consider the most influential theologian of all time, convinced the church that suicide is a truly unforgiveable sin since one has no chance to repent afterwards and ask forgiveness. He even went so far as to argue that the suicide of Judas was worse than his betrayal of Christ, so that from the 4th century on the church painted suicide in ever darker colors until for hundreds of years those who died by their own hand could not be buried in cemeteries consecrated by Catholic priests. They were often buried in shame at crossroads because in ancient times criminals had been sacrificed at pagan altars built where two roads met. So it is no surprise to find in the Italian Catholic Dante’s places suicides deep down on the 7th level of his fictional Hell — lower, even, than murderers.
Much of that general condemnation of self-inflicted death remains, especially among people who are mistakenly convinced that the Bible itself says somewhere that suicide is the surest way to eternal damnation. A dear friend said to me in her final days, “My husband is gone. I suffer all the time. I can’t go anywhere, I can’t do anything. I’m of no use to myself or anybody else. I would like to end it, myself, except that I am afraid of Hell.” I’m asking you to decide this morning how you would have judged her if she had done what she wished to do, and since the Bible offers no direct help I will invite you in a moment to consider some case histories and decide whether you feel the same about every instance of suicide or whether you make distinctions among them.
I do not intend, for two reasons, to talk about suicides among young people. First, because I feel sure we all agree that almost without exception those are tragically wrong, and second, because the causes and cures of suicidal thoughts among adolescents are far too important and complex to be dealt with in a single short sermon. I would hope, however, that some of you might wish to study this general topic in the adult class which meets on Sunday mornings, and especially since Bill Moyers has recently completed a four-part series for PBS which could be used as a springboard for discussions. I want you to know that I think everything humanly possible should be done to talk young people out of suicidal thoughts when so much of life lies ahead of them, and I would hope that every parent would have some training in how and why those thoughts arise, and how they can be most successfully handled.
I also do not intend to talk about asking someone else to help you die, what we now call “assisted suicide.” Two of those men I mentioned from Old Testament times asked their military aides to do the job for them, including King Saul, whose aide refused so that Saul had to do it himself. In view of all the talk about assisted suicide and Jack Kevorkian and the Oregon experiment, I should think you might also want to make that an adult class discussion topic sometime. I have my own strong convictions about assisted suicide, and no reluctance to share them, except that I want to restrict myself this morning to a particular age group and their decisions about departing this life by their own hands.
My focus is so narrow that it not only leaves out the young and those of any age who ask for assisted suicide, but also — for the most part — leaves out the rarer instances of suicide which take place among people of middle age. I do that even though I have more than once been puzzled by some good friend who seemed to have everything to live for and chose suddenly to take his own life. You probably all know a classic example in American fiction, either from Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem poem entitled Richard Cory , or because Simon and Garfunkel sang about him in Sounds of Silence . Here’s how the poem expresses the puzzle of mid-life suicide by a man who seemed to have it all together:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town, We people on the pavement looked at him: He was a gentleman from sole to crown, Clean favored, and imperially slim….And he was always quietly arrayed, And he was always human when he talked; But still he fluttered pulses when he said “Good morning,” and he glittered when he walked…. And he was rich — yes, richer than a king — And admirably schooled in every grace; In fine, we thought that he was everything To make us wish that we were in his place….So on we worked, and waited for the light, And went without the meat, and cursed the bread; And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, Went home and put a bullet through his head.
No explanation, because as the poet knew, we so often never have one in such cases. I met Richard Cory in this poem long before I met him in the events of my own life. But inevitably, I met him there, too. The first time, his name was Paul Kaufman, and he was everybody’s favorite merchant in the Oklahoma town where at the time I was editing the daily newspaper. I bought at his clothing store because I liked him, and I never passed his place of business without a warm greeting. One night I played cards with a group of men, and Paul was one of them. His great jokes and his infectious laughter made the evening pleasant for all of us. Sometime after midnight he left, like the rest of us, to go home. But some secret and unshared sorrow caused him to stop on the way. He was found the next morning hanging from the ceiling of his shop with one of his ties knotted around his neck. We wondered why. We never knew.
The second time I met Richard Cory, someone seemingly at the top of his game, his name was John Hickman, architect, first designer of the Century 2 complex.. I talked with him one day just after he had spoken to a university audience. He seemed a little more tense than usual, and spoke of how some of his vision for that building had to be sacrificed for the sake of costs, but I left our visit thinking he would still be proud to have his name associated with that centerpiece of downtown Wichita. A few days later he piped carbon monoxide into his car and left behind a wife and four children. Paul and John — just two of the people I have known who chose to exit life when to the rest of us it seemed they had every reason to stay. In each case, some friends expressed sympathetic sorrow at how painful the pressures must have been to make the two of them choose death, while others called them selfish for not thinking of the suffering their choice would cause their families. I had no confidence in any judgment that occurred to me, which is another reason why I choose on this day to talk about a different age group with a different set of problems.
I am not nearly so ambiguous when it comes to those who reach the final days of life in constant pain, hopeless and helpless, agonized at the thought that only machinery will be keeping them technically alive for a few extra days, and hating that their life’s savings are being drained away when they had hoped to leave them to loved ones. As I present a tiny handful of the hundreds of cases I have encountered myself, I ask only that you ponder what you would have said to any one of the following people:
The man is 78, admitted to the hospital withan erratic heart beat, an enlarged prostate, a bowel obstructionand arthritic joints. When surgery is planned, he starts to plead: “Listen, doctor, I don’t want to die with tubes sticking out all over me. I don’t want my children to remember their father that way. I’m old and tired and have seen enough of life, believe me. But still I want to be a man, not a vegetable that someone comes and waters every day. You see, the engine is broken down, it’s time for the engineer to abandon it.” His caregivers smiled sympathetically, but put a tube for feeding down his nose into his stomach, injected him four times a day, hooked him to a respirator to increase his oxygen intake. One night he reached over and switched off his respirator. For several hours the hospital staff did not realize what had happened, until they found his suicide note on the bedside table: “Death is not the enemy, doctdor. Inhumanity is.” The medical caregivers were doing what they were trained to do. The question is, do we really in our heart of hearts blame the patient?
The woman was a widow, 80 and blind, and had lived in the nursing home for years. Having endured uninterrupted pain from her cancer, she saved up morphine tablets to swallow all at once in hope of dying. She sank into a coma, but an attendant found her in time. She was rushed to a hospital, given an antimorphine drug, and revived to be taken back to the nursing home, where she suffered a few months more before she died. Did she have a right to take the deadly dosage and die undisturbed?
Some years ago the world of religion and philosophyt was deeply shocked when Dr. Henry Van Dusen and his wife ended their lives by their own hands. Dr. Van Dusen had been a Presbyterian minister and the president of Union Theological Seminary, one of the most prestigious in the world. For more than a quarter of a century his name had been one of the brightest in Protestant theology. He knew Scripture and he cared about Christian values. So when news of their suicide broke, people who saw suicide as wrong without exception were profoundly disturbed. Dr. Van Dusen knew they would be, so he and his wife joined to leave a letter which quickly assumed historic signifiance in discussions of suicide.
The couple had lived full, rich lives, but in their late years required only constant medical care. With their infirmities worsening they realized they would soon be completely dependent, with others feeding and bathing them and carrying them to the bathroom. They talked over these indignities, these two highly intelligent and sensitive people, and decided that for them it was not right to take up space in a world with too many mouths and too little food, that it was a misuse of medical science to keep them technically alive. Although they did not say so, they were probably also disturbed by the thought of the loneliness that would follow if one survived the other. At the end of their farewell note they affirmed that they were not at all afraid to die, and in words reflecting the deep spiritually they both shared, they closed with this prayer: “O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.”
I remember a response made to such cases by a nurse’s aide in Tucson. “Yesterday, she said, “I woke a sweet old lady for breakfast and asked how she was. This tiny, crippled old lady replied that she was sorry was still here to suffer another day, sorry that she had not died during the night.” Multiply that by a very conservative 10,000 times and you can see why many find it hard to be harshly criticial of people like the Van Dusens. I would be less than honest if I did not say that I sympathize profoundly with the decision they made, even while I respect those whose faith, deeply informed or otherwise, will not permit them to choose the time of their departure.
I share a final note from a man to his wife: “My beloved, it is now confirmed by physicians and nurses, that I can live only a few more months, and that those few extra dazys will be terrible for both of us. My pain can be somewhat lessened by sedatives so potent I will be mostly comatose, but the burden of caring for me and watching my slow descent into darkness will be devastating for you. Your goodness and great joy in living have blessed me far beyond my ability to repay, but there is a gift now within my power to bestow which will spare you much expense and suffering. By the time you read this, I will have used the means provided for me by a dear friend and ended a life which is no longer life at all. I hope you will understand that this is my final way of saying how much I love you.”
I can’t tell you whether she understood or not. The only thing I know for sure is that hardly anyone in this room has not known about a youthful suicide which seemed tragically unnecessary, or a midlife suicide prompted by terrible guilt or failure that might have been avoided by wise and sensitive intervention, or a a death self-chosen by someone at the end of days whose main thought was to spare others the burden of what seemed a useless existence. I leave you to ponder whether an intelligent Christian faith requires that we feel exactly the same about each case.
We may differ among ourselves, gracious Lord, on the thoughts of
this morning, but we are agreed on this: it ios the work of all of us
to see that life remains dignified and worthwhile as long as possible
for those we love. Help us do that, by the will and in the spirit of
Christ our Lord. Amen.