Jürgen Moltmann on Responding to Suicide

Robin Williams
Robin Williams. Image By Eva Rinaldi, via Wikimedia Commons

The internet has seen no shortage of opinions on the subject of suicide in the wake of Robin Williams’ recent passing – some more helpful than others.  A few years ago I attended the funeral of an old church youth group friend, who had committed suicide in his late twenties. It was the first of such funerals I’ve attended (and so far, the only one). After the service, I ran into my old Sunday School teacher, who years earlier had taught both myself and the deceased how to memorize Bible verses (he actually made it fun, and I count him as an early major influence on me becoming the Bible and theology geek that I am today!). It didn’t take long for me to discover that he had a strong opinion about this death: Scripture clearly teaches that suicide is self-murder. And despite what others might have said in the service, self-murder is the type of final act which certainly has a bearing on your eternal destiny.

I think most of us would consider this view a bit on the extreme side of things – even if we agree with the assessment that suicide constitutes self-murder, we are uncomfortable saying outright that this means that a person who dies this way is certainly enduring eternal torment. Towards the other end of the spectrum is the view that the act of suicide brings some level of freedom, as is implied at least by this popular tweet:

Both of these views – (1) suicide as self-murder and (2) suicide as an act in which the soul is freed from the tormented body – have ancient roots. The former is a traditional Christian approach to the subject, and the latter can be found in Platonism. But are either of them adequate? Below is a reading from Ethics of Hope where Moltmann explores why these approaches are problematic, and offers us a helpful alternative.

The purpose of the biblical prohibition of killing is to protect life. Does the prohibition also serve to protect one’s own life from one’s own intervention? From the beginning, Christianity has viewed suicide as contravening reverence for the life which no one has given himself and which therefore no one is allowed to take away. But exceptions have always been respected, for example in persecution and in martyrdom. The Christian churches condemned suicide as ‘self-murder’; suicides were buried without the rites of the church, and their graves were at the edge of the graveyard. In the case of ‘self-murder’ the murderer escapes punishment because of his own death, but his reputation can nevertheless be damaged by the the word ‘suicide’. In the meantime, however, the Catholic Church too has moved away from the rigorous description of suicide as ‘murder’. We do not call the Protestant writer Jochen Klepper a murderer although he committed suicide in 1942 together with his Jewish wife and her Jewish daughter because the daughter was threatened with deportation to a death camp. We do not call Hannelore Kohl, the wife of the German chancellor Helmut Kohl, a murderer when she took her own life because of incurable photosensitivity. When I was a young student pastor in Bremen, I had to take the funeral of two students who had taken their own lives. I did not bury them as ‘murderers’ or ‘self-murderers’, but I did not penetrate their motives either. Such a decision often brings us up against an insoluble riddle, and we must respect the mystery these people take with them into the grave, probably intentionally. But we must be all the more attentive to warning signs, which are often unconscious cries for help.
When we dispense with the term ‘self-murder’, as we must do, that does not mean that we have to view suicide as normal. Like all killing, it is directed against life, and life is in all circumstances deserving of protection. As Kant said, suicide is also directed against the dignity of a human being. We do not kill anyone because in his person we respect the image of God, in our own person too. So the description ‘voluntary death’ is not correct either. No one kills himself as a supreme act of freedom. Suicide is generally the outcome of a lack of freedom which sees no way out. The notion that it is the supreme act if freedom of an independent person comes from the ancient world. The Platonists saw death as the separation of the divine soul from the wearisome body, and celebrated it as ‘the feast of freedom’. In the post-Christian world, this description of self-killing as ‘freely chosen death’ emerged again, and was considered to be the supreme act of a person’s self-determination. But in the modern world as well the autonomous individual does not live solely in relation to himself, but in many social relationships too; so he does not belong merely to himself either. There are parents, wives and husbands, children and friends who are plunged into deep grief by a suicide.
How then do we experience death? ‘One’s own death one only dies. / With the death of others one has to live’, wrote Mascha Kaléko in a poem, and it is true. We shall experience dying but not our death, for we shall not survive in order to experience it. But we do experience death in the people we love. Their death leaves us behind, as those who have to come to terms with he loss. Life is good, but to be a survivor is hard. We receive our life out of love, and die into the mourning. Is suicide a ‘voluntary death’ if we view death in the real social relationships of a human being? Is ‘voluntary death’ the acquisition of freedom, if I lose that freedom immediately in the act of self-destruction?
If we cannot interpret suicide as either ‘self-murder’ or ‘voluntary death’ we can perhaps understand it in many cases as a matter of self-defense. In order to avert a calamity inflicted on his family, General Henning von Tresckow took his own life after the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. Persons with depression take their own lives in order to avert unendurable psychological pressure from within, but in most cases we have to reckon with the ‘impenetrable character of the final decision’ and must respect the person’s decision to take his or her own life without reproaches and accusations.
Ethics of Hope, p. 95-97

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