On Plain Speech On Mortal Issues

I was more than a little hesitant to publish this, but after some gentle prodding from my friend Eoin (who has some fascinating pieces I have to catch up on now that I’m back from my holiday), I offer you this musing. I’d appreciate your thoughts on my basic contention – speech about suicide in the church is an excellent place to see where Christians are allowing structures of taboo to hinder their plain communication.

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Jesus, in what we have come to call the Sermon on the Mount, which is surely the only legal code in all of history (including the codes in the rest of the Bible) that is absolutely captivating to read, says many things that people don’t pay enough attention to. Like this:

All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Plain speech is a Christian virtue.

I was at a church service recently that was sort of a big deal for the little community who were hosting it. It was a night of special celebration and thanksgiving- the kind of thing that in its humble sincerity is much closer to what “religion” looks like in Ireland than the ponderous pontificating that is done by right-wing think-tanks who are rolled out to speak on behalf of Christians. In pretty much every worship service you attend there will at some point be something we can call “the prayers of the faithful”. The lay leader of the church community who was in charge of this prayed for lots of general concerns that I can’t remember but then there was some very peculiar language.

“We pray for the young woman who lost her life this weekend.”

I knew what she meant. You probably know what she meant. But she did not say what she meant.

The next day the newspapers reported that a teenager in the region had died as a result of suicide.

Stanley Hauerwas, the theologian who I have learned the most from, talks about how he spent his life “learning to speak Christian”. He means a lot by that phrase. So much so that he collected a bucketload of essays together and put it into a book under that title. But it seems that in the areas of profound moral crisis in contemporary Ireland, Christians have lost the ability to speak.

I wrote about suicide three years ago because the town I was pastoring in was afflicted by a series of them and I was left thinking about how devoid of good news the Christian response was. And the words of that prayer stuck in my throat because they lacked good news entirely. In their desire to not compound the suffering of those left behind they fundamentally mis-described the situation and thus, rendered us mute in any following discussion. Suicide is a complex and many-sided phenomenon that requires sensitivity and compassion but it is less than true to claim those who make that choice “lose” their life.

Suicide is morally significant because it is the one of those ways of dying that can’t be described in those ways.

Three and a half years ago, cribbing from Zizek, I proposed that life is like a Möbius strip. The two surfaces of life are the body and the spirit. Zizek asks us to disdain any philosophical approach that seeks to separate them, which is gnosticism. As such, the Möbius strip is an excellent illustration since they are continuous but differentiated.

Any effort by Christians to obscure the fact that suicide involves the conscious termination of bodily life is a failing of Sermon on the Mount ethics (and Zizek would say it is a slippage into gnosticism). How we speak about suicide matters. There is much that can’t be said. That doesn’t mean that nothing can be said. Euphemistically dodging the issue is not sufficient.

The modern world recognises that there is a will-to-death, a thanatos that stalks humanity. There is no simple solution to answer the epidemic of young people ending their lives but Christians must speak plainly about it. I am intimidated to even write this here, never mind say it in public in the midst of grief following a tragedy but that grief will never be properly described, never fully engaged with and never healed until we rediscover some part of the old language that decries suicide as sin. We can modulate that language through psychological categories, we must handle that Christian description with empathy and love, but we cannot leave people in doubt about the moral status of suicide.

It is wrong. If we must let our yeses be yes then we must be heard to say no to suicide.

Your Correspondent, Talk about the passion

4 Replies to “On Plain Speech On Mortal Issues”

  1. I read two contentions: a) that we should speak plainly about suicide and b) that Christians have a unique language in which to speak. I agree with both.

    Your previous post and DLM’s resonate. Suicides, it seems to me, are often tremendously aggressive acts; I think it was a comment by my aunt which first made that clear to me. Zizek’s taxonomy seems useful.

  2. Thanks for publishing this post. It was not easy for you, I know that. Given the further suicide of a government TD in the last few days, it has been instructive to hear how the response has been, again, to blame social media. I remarked to another friend yesterday, who works in the Oireachtas, that what is needed now is for thoroughgoing response within the Dail and Seanad to this ‘contagion’. The responses I have heard to McEntee’s death have been measured and pained, unlike those we hear from the same people about two young women in Donegal. Those cases seem to be mostly about tragedy, terrible anguish etc.

    All of which is to reflect back upon your own idea that there is a need to re-moralise the language of suicide and speak plainly about the pain that it causes us. While typing this response it has struck me that your exhortation to Christians “about the moral status of suicide” is a Durkheimian response. It is one that Durkheim would have dubbed a re-socialisation of suicide.Beyond that, I think you ask some serious questions about this mortal issue. I am only afraid that I’ll end up falling back on to a Victorian morality that sees only right and wrong and pick up the Daily Mail and find myself staring back.

  3. Well, this is good stuff. Thank you for putting into words what I have never been able to articulate. I am coming at it from a lay person approach, and I know that this has faults (even when we are involved in each other’s lives, bad things–and horrible choices–still happen). But we need both the theology and the practice, right? We need to say “no”, and we need ti be bringing the kingdom at the same time (the ultimate “yes”). Anyways, I so appreciated your thoughts (love that Hauerwas!) You should check out the movie I referenced in my post on violence–I cribbed a lot from Monsieur Lazhar.

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