Suicide, mercy and redemption
• This column was first published on March 22, 2010.
Whatever the circumstances of our birth, there are no “bastards” in the Kingdom of God. This is a human conceit. It is a form of false pride and moral apartheid to separate God’s children into legitimate and illegitimate.
Yet, years ago, in a church on a southern Family Island, the pastor converted his community of faith into a jury to expel a vile sinner from the Body of Christ. In this incarnation, the woman at the well was single, young – and pregnant. In expelling her, they were also punishing her unborn child.
In their self-righteousness, these disciples of Christ judged that her iniquity stained their community like communion wine seeping from a broken chalice might bleed through an altar cloth. Purging the defiler was necessary for their salvation and purification. There was no room in the inn for this unmarried mother-to-be.
That Family Island church did not use stones to assault this teenager or her unborn child. Instead, they stoned her with a torrent of loathing intended to break her spirit and sever her umbilical cord from the worshipping community in which she had been nourished since infancy.
This jury of fellow sinners and Christians refused to see that her expulsion was akin to ripping the embryo in her womb, birth cord and all, from her body. Rather than throwing their stones and hypocrisy, the church could have recalled the words of Jesus addressed to the mob condemning the woman caught in adultery.
But that day, when the word became flesh, that girl’s flesh was too much for the narrow interpretation of the words that rejected her from that community of faith.
The congregation turned pious mob painted a scarlet letter on the outcast-to-be. Then they expelled her from their gated-church-community. Instead of their tongues wagging with mercy, many of the congregants gossiped about this mere girl for the same behavior in which they often religiously indulged.
More morally reprehensible was the identity of the Grand Inquisitor presiding over her trial and expulsion. It was her pastor, the man for whom she was actually pregnant.
Yet, she alone bore the burden of the church’s wrath. The married older man, the father of her baby, escaped a public trial. Then as now, this young girl was cast as the temptress and the seductress.
The church community knew that she was pregnant for their pastor. Still, most blamed her for seducing their beloved pastor who, “in a moment of weakness”, succumbed to the temptations of this “bad” girl.
The pastor received a free get-out-of-responsibility pass. But, there was no public mercy for this young girl. Instead, her expulsion served the narrow interests of the church and the narrower interests of its pastor.
Rather than a plenitude of mercy, the congregation chose to scapegoat and save face. When he looked at the girl whose physical and emotional virginity he exploited, the pastor saw his own moral failings.
But to maintain his reputation and position, and to keep his pastoral garments pristine, he abandoned her and his moral responsibility. He dutifully led his congregation by hurling the heaviest and the first stone.
Mercy is a gift from God. It shatters our human pretensions, presumptions and posturing. It is a reciprocal gift that we bestow on one another. It is also a gift we owe ourselves when we fall short of the glory of our moral best.
The quality of our Christian witness mirrors the quality of our mercy. Mercy, it has been said, is the willingness to enter with compassion into the chaos and struggles of another’s life.
Mercy takes on tough cases, like betrayal. It is an indispensable Christian and human virtue needed in the midst of one of our more tragic human experiences. Suicide is a moral tragedy, with complex dimensions. Mercy helps to salve and repair the brokenness of spirit, mind and body left in suicide’s ruinous wake.
There are some who mistakenly and uncharitably believe that those who commit suicide are automatically cut off from God’s mercy and eternal embrace. This is a presumption of limited human judgement over the power of divine mercy.
The moral agency of many who commit suicide is often diminished by psychological disturbances and severe emotional anguish. Those who all too easily consign suicide victims to their version of eternal damnation know not the essence of another’s heart and mental state.
Nor do they know the mind of God, the bounty of his love, the quality of his mercy. It still amazes how many Christians, who believe that God became flesh in Jesus Christ, are unable to imagine that this same God can redeem us beyond our fears, beyond our favorite deadly sins, and beyond suicide.
The God who gifted us with life, who sustains this gift, and who has conquered death, extends his mercy to every aspect of our spiritual existence. He extends his majesty and mercy through and beyond the circumstances of birth, life and death.
To cavalierly conclude that those who commit suicide are condemned, says more about those doing the condemning, than it does about the God whom some of these same judges have blasphemously recreated in their own flawed image and likeness.
It has been said that, “Those who are not willing to give pardon and mercy are those who appear not to need it.” Fortunately, our capacity for mercy allows us to experience more fully the heart of God and the redeeming power of mercy.
It is one of those paradoxes of the Christian life that by entering with compassion into the chaos of another’s life, that much of the inner chaos bred by our own narcissism and self-centeredness is redeemed beyond our wildest imaginings and longings.
Where there was once cowardice, there is now courage. Where there was once cynicism, there is now hope. Where there was once sloth, there is now rebirth. Where there was once judgmentalism, there is now understanding.
Rather than moral growth, the congregants of that Family Island church years ago stunted their hearts and spirits by refusing an invitation to mercy.
Those today, who all too easily condemn suicide victims, are equally in need of God’s mercy and redeeming power as of those who take their own lives.
Thankfully, the consensus of many Christian churches on the moral dimensions of suicide has evolved. One prominent denomination, the Catholic Church, observes: “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.”
Final despair is a human limitation, whether by those who commit suicide or those who believe that others, who take their own lives, are beyond God’s mercy. Judgement and redemption are God’s provenance. Not ours.
Rather than gossiping about and condemning suicide victims and their families, the demands and quality of mercy invite us to pray for the dead and support the survivors, as if they are of our own flesh and blood.
Such mercy and love may help to heal the bereaved. It may also redeem the rest of us, who but for the grace of God…
Next Week: Urban Development of New Providence.