The promise is 70 years. Our allotted time on earth. At least that is what the Psalmist (90:10) tells us. Any day over 70 is extra and a bonus. But for most people, after about age twenty-nine, the mirage of invincibility gives way to life’s accretive vicissitudes of pain, disease and heartbreak. Then they intuitively, though grudgingly, may come to the Psalmist’s position that 70 is about right. Ultimately, the Christian’s longing – and promised reward – is time, and more of it. It is the only essential commodity in this barter: to relinquish the transience of life as we know it for promised infinity. Which is why our tendency to hold on to this “lesser” life, sometimes at unimaginable personal and societal cost, is hard to understand.
This, in spite of the other promise – eternity. A perceived timeless forever where none of the scourges that scar our earthly experiences intrude. Juxtaposed against 70 years one would presume the choice is clear, but one would be wrong. It is even more surprising that the majority of Christians who believe that when they die they are instantaneously translated into the bliss of Jesus’ presence also seem in no hurry to go. Several reasons could be adduced for why Christians are reluctant, or not too eager to die, so they could escape this life’s grind.
We may espouse belief in the hereafter out of habit, and rarely examine its implications. Or more plausibly, we begin our Christian journey believing, or wanting to believe in heaven. But with time our “youthful”, often unexamined glorious conceptions of the hereafter, are buffeted by the weight of accumulated wisdom and life experiences. This can make us too weary to flex our deep unnerving suspicions that when we die it is the actual end.
Then there are those “brave” few, swimming almost completely against received orthodoxy, who view heaven as metaphor. They see this symbol as stripped of its empowering dynamic and caricatured into an idyllic place where we soil the purity of life’s remembered anguish – pain, want, death – with glee, plenty, and foreverness. Eschewing a heaven beyond the grave as escapism, these contrarians take a cue from Jesus’ intimation that “the kingdom of God is among [us].” (Luke 17-21) They imagine that “heaven” is achievable in this life, in this world, in the ways we help each other,and work to make of this life the heaven of our aspirations.
Whatever camp we find ourselves in there’s no denying that over time, life here on earth, in spite of its manifest difficulties, grows on us and causes us to settle in for as long as possible. We “enjoy” as much as we can, all the while holding the heaven of our scriptures at bay. In reality therefore, most plant their feet firmer on the ground they know, in a world that is familiar. Eyeing the heaven of promise but wagering that a “bird in hand is better than two in the bush.” Could this fondness and preference for the present world as we age explain why adults provide such tepid engagement concerning the question of suicide?
Which brings me to the focus of this essay: suicide and its toll on the young. It seems to me that our messaging regarding suicide bears reexamination. We continue to promote heaven, a place “accessible” only after death, but reproach those who chose self-death when this life becomes unbearable. Globally, each year roughly one million people kill themselves. To put it in perspective, this translates into one suicide every 40 seconds somewhere in the world. In the US someone takes his/her life every 12 minutes. It is like permanently wiping the combined populations of Wyoming and Vermont off the face of the earth, each year. What is worse within these sobering numbers is the realization that the majority of these deaths are young adults between 10-24 years. Our future.
How does the Bible address suicide? There is only a smattering account of suicides recorded in the entire Old Testament (OT). Six, to be precise: Abimelech (Jud. 9:54), Samson (Jud. 16:25-31), King Saul (I Sam. 31:3-4; I Chr. 10:3-4), Saul’s armor bearer (I Sam. 31:5; I Chr. 10:5), Ahithophel (II Sam 17:23) and Zimri (I Kg. 16:18-19). Judas Iscariot in the New Testament brings the total in the entire Bible to seven. But Judas’s suicide, despite its outsized prominence gained mainly because of his notoriety as Jesus’ betrayer, is an outlier that adds little to the OT suicide mosaic.
On the whole, the characters and circumstances of suicides in the Bible have little representative commonality to post-biblical suicide trends, and largely fail to guide contemporary Christians in addressing the phenomena. Almost all biblical suicide narratives paint the perpetrators – Saul, his aide, Abimelech and Zimri – in untenable physical and emotional circumstances. They mostly made the decisions to kill themselves in the midst of war or in the heat of the moment. Ahithophel, and to some extent Samson, had more time to think and probably were more deliberative about their intentions, though we are left to wonder what Ahithophel’s narrator’s cryptic: “He set his affairs in order,” entailed. Five of the six came from privilege; three kings, a judge, and a diplomat. The only commoner among them, Saul’s nameless armor bearer, likely saw no point in continuing to live with his benefactor dead. On suicide therefore, the biblical sampling is thin and not very instructive.
Which still begs the question. Why are representative accounts of suicides so rare in the OT? One reason could be that for most of their history the Hebrew people did not contemplate or anticipate a hereafter, so they focused their attention on lived experience. Or could it be that the cultural worldview of the OT writers was perhaps not terribly introspective and given the limitations of the material they wished to convey, suicide as a phenomenon was ignored. Whatever the constraints, there is hardly any OT reference to heaven as one’s destination after this life. On the two occasions in the Bible where humans – Enoch (Gen 5:24) and Elijah (2Kings 2:11) – were “taken” to heaven, the texts attach no significance to the events or what happened after they got there. The OT provides no context of a heaven which is humanity’s ultimate desirable destination after death. Hebraic Wisdom literature, on the other hand, provides a rationale for why humans should embrace mirth, the preeminent symbol of the here and now: “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” is the combined counsel from Qoheleth (8:15) and Isaiah (22:13).
This mindset, coupled with the relative inattention to the suicide incidence outside of the few skewed examples we find in the Bible, may explain why the church’s approach to suicide has been cursory throughout its history. For a long time it used the threat of hell to dissuade people from self-harm and was content with proclaiming by fiat that people who take their own lives would not inherit heaven. What has escaped us is that most young people are neither focused on, nor enamored by that promise, and often pay little heed to a threatened exclusion.
The church’s argument against suicide has always been about the law. Killing oneself is couched as a violation of the broader commandment not to kill. But this argument is unconvincing because the emancipated Hebrews who were first exposed to the “thou shalt not kill” ethic did not interpret the injunction so broadly. The record of their killings, often sanctioned by God and his prophets during their wilderness conquests, clearly demonstrate that they viewed the sixth commandment at best as a suggestion not to kill members of one’s own tribe. They never understood the commandment in sweeping categorical terms. Otherwise why go to war?
It is worth reflecting on the fact that none of the narrators of the six suicide stories cast any aspersions on their subject’s actions, or express disapproval that they took their own lives. More importantly, there is no explicit prohibition against suicide anywhere in the Bible. On the contrary, some accounts hint that the act might be an honorable alternative in improbable circumstances and could even serve God’s overarching redemptive purposes. Samson’s narrative could be read this way. Though Samson’s suicide serves the narrator’s revenge motif, which is ever present throughout his tortuous relationship with the Philistines, he calculates Samson’s dying actions as vindicating his God.
The Philistines credited Samson’s capture and humiliation to their god Dagon’s supremacy over other gods. So it was only fitting that, in his weakest state and nearing his end, Samson’s final prayer sought help from God: “Give me strength just this once, O God.” (16: 28) God answered his prayer, and Samson knew full well that the same hands that would kill his Philistine enemies would also take his own. The narrator nods his approval by returning Sampson to his ancestral home: “Then his brothers and his father's whole family … brought him back and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of Manoah his father.”
Organized Christianity has not engaged the suicide conversation beyond a simplistic proscription to not do it. This might be in large part because the subject is macabre and does not lend itself to easy solutions. But others have waded in and provided a window to understanding why a million mostly young people resort to suicide yearly. One of the more serious engagers was Albert Camus, the 1957 French Algerian Nobel Literature laureate, whose collection of Absurdist essays in The Myth of Sisyphus, is an essential read on the subject.
Camus begins by positing, in the opening sentence of his first essay Absurdity and Suicide, that suicide is the only one “truly philosophical problem” because the act is the perpetrator’s judgment on “whether life is or is not worth living.” One cannot commit suicide in jest or make the commitment lightheartedly, even though neither the assessment nor the subsequent decision to act upon it, are necessarily reflective. To this end therefore, in Camus’ estimation, suicide bears directly on the worthwhileness of life, because it requires the “suicidee” to weigh the pros and cons of “the meaning of life,” before opting out.
In a series of succinct aphoristic statements, he introduces his two central theses. The first conceptualizes suicide as a confessional: “It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it.” That continued living “is not worth the trouble.” In this view, the persons opting to kill themselves, throw in the proverbial towel. In his second thesis Camus moves the suicidal person from generic unhappiness about life to a specific trigger: a dawning that what we call life is merely repetitive habitual behavior. He explains: “Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of the habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.” This is the classic definition of absurdity, the condition that Camus postulates people who choose to kill themselves want to be free from.
But Camus is not satisfied with just diagnosing the problem. He searches for a cure. The question Camus poses is whether suicide solves the problem raised by the absurd. Whether killing oneself truly stops the mindless repetition. Does suicide restore meaning to life and make us “happy?” This is an important question, because it provides us a small opportunity to convince a young person contemplating suicide, that life is not meaningless, that we can glean both meaning and even joy in the midst of life’s apparent messiness.
Camus found meaning by plumbing the Sisyphus myth. The gods had decreed that Sisyphus would push his rock perpetually up the mountain, and that at each completion see his “burden” roll back down, signaling a re-beginning of the mind-numbing senseless process over and over again. But there is a pause in that short period between when the boulder rolls down and Sisyphus has to walk back down the slope to restart his task. This is the blissful unborrowed period when both he and time belong alone to each other; he unfettered and bereft of his burden. It is the period when we can also imagine Sisyphus rising up, shaking off his cares, and even casting a defiant gaze at the gods. They in turn would look on, helpless and defeated, seeing they have no constraining power over him during this fleeting interlude, because the rock – which is synonymous with their punishment – has rolled back down and disconnected him from their influence. We see him head back down again, with liberated steps. He is going for his burden again, at the bottom of the mountain where our burdens always wait. But in this brief unencumbered moment we see him, together with Camus and the myriad others who recognize life’s inherent absurdities, and we too can envision Sisyphus as happy.
If we can get our youth to capture these brief moments amidst the overall dreariness around them, then we might put a small dent in the suicide statisics. For it is here, in this life, that our children and young adults make the decisions to call it quits and kill themselves. So it is here that we have to engage them instead of bludgeoning them with concerns of the hereafter. And they commit suicide, in Camus’ reckoning, because they recognize the meaninglessness and absurdity of it all. The onus is on us to convince the suicidal that this life is “worth the trouble,” and that there is happiness to be had. We have to do the hard work of absorbing them on the subject in ways that correct their misconceptions or mischaracterizations of life, if indeed their impressions are wrong or skewed. Telling our young that their lives are not theirs to take is no solution at all if they are struggling with the frightening feeling that life might be meaningless in the end.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10665