After the suicide of my son, my concern for the repose of his soul caused me great anxiety. This concern resulted from my religious education in conflict with my understanding of a compassionate, forgiving God. None of the religious caretakers who tended us after his death offered any relief from my pain. Two years following my son's death, long after I had made my own peace with this, my research provided me with knowledge of suicide in religious history.
The following, in brief, is what I learned. These reflections are intended to relieve anxiety and concern other survivors may have about the religious connotations that surround a self-inflicted death. They do not lend acceptance to suicide as an act or solution.
The New Testament hails both Samson and Saul as great servants of God. Samson is noted as a great hero of the faith "of whom the world was not worthy". (Hebrews 11)
The advent of Christianity brought marked changes in attitudes toward suicide. At first there were many suicides by early Christians, especially by martyrs who found the attraction of the promised afterlife in paradise greater than the hardships of their life on earth.
The Church could ill afford to lose so many of its supporters at that time, and a quick halt to the rash of suicides was brought about in the 4th Century A.D. when St. Augustine codified the Church's official disapproval of suicide by placing it in a moral framework and condemning it as a grievous sin. As a result, in the Middle Ages, from about the 4th to the 13th century, when the Catholic Church held great sway in Europe, suicide became practically unknown.
Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, further specified the Church's attitude toward suicide in his great writings about Church and God, Summa Theologica, when he condemns suicide as unnatural and a usurpation of God's power to dispose at His discretion man's life, death and resurrection. Yet even in this writing, which was to become the center of Christian doctrine, Aquinas takes his arguments from Plato and Aristotle, not from the Bible.
During the 14th and 15th centuries (Renaissance) suicide was severely condemned. This period brought rise to the industrial revolution, the incorporation of the Protestant Ethic into Anglo-Saxon culture, and the rise of Puritanism, a religious outlook that also condemned poverty as sin and unworthiness.
In the first century A.D. two accounts are recorded. The first involved a group of Jewish soldiers under the command of Josephus. The second was in 73 A.D. when 953 Jews of Masada completed mass suicide to avoid Roman capture.
The TALMUD, written and codified during the early Christian era, specifically condemns suicide. The TALMUD's condemnation of suicide is based on the interpretation of Gen. 9:5 'For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning'. Only self-inflicted deaths under extreme situations were acceptable, such as in apostasy, ignominy, and disgrace of capture or torture. The victim and his family were punished by denial of regular burial and the customary rituals of mourning. The severity of this punishment caused rabbis of the time to consider a self-inflicted death as only those announced beforehand and carried out in front of eye witnesses. Modern Jewish scholars believe that the harshest Jewish treatment of suicide was partly due to the negative Christian influence on the subject. (Ch.W. Reines, "The Jewish Attitude Toward Suicide", Judaism, Vol. 10, Spring 1966, p.170.
MOHAMMEDANIS always condemned suicide with the utmost severity, for one of the cardinal teachings of Mohammed was that the Divine Will was expressed in different ways and man must submit himself at all times.
BUDDHISM & BRAHMANISM were both sympathetic to suicide for it denied life's craving and passion. Most oriental philosophies had a common objective, to divorce the body from the soul so that the soul might occupy itself only with super sensual realities.
"The idea of suicide as a crime was a late, relatively sophisticated invention of Christianity strengthened by primitive fears, prejudices and superstitions…" (The Savage God, a study of suicide; A. Alvarez.)
John H. Hewett in After Suicide quotes "If there is forgiveness at all…there is surely forgiveness for suicide" (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. III/4, p. 405; tr by A.T. Mackay et all; T & T Clark, 1961).
Legal and social attitudes about suicide throughout history evolved from canonical law. During the Middle Ages the suicide was deemed as low as the lowest criminal and was discouraged by exhibition and desecration of the body, defamation of the memory and confiscation of the estate by the government, leaving the surviving family ostracized and destitute. Attempters were punished by flogging, imprisonment and were stripped of all social and financial assets. Desecration of the corpse and forfeiture of estate were not legally abolished in England until 1823. In 1961 England repealed its law making attempted suicide a crime; Canada repealed a similar law in 1972. As late as 1974 in the United States, attempting suicide was still considered a crime in nine states.
Compiled 1983, excerpts from The Savage God; A. Alvarez and After Suicide; John Hewett
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