Suicide by Religious or Political Authorities

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I think about suicide a lot. I have to, because I write a lot about it. Normally I reflect on suicide within the context of transgender studies, but a cascade of thoughts led me to reflect on it from a faith perspective. The reflections began with the two 2014 suicides of young queer people who had connections to Christian churches. Lizzie Lowe took her own life as a 14-year-old with family connections to St James and Emmanuel Church in Didsbury, Manchester. The inquest heard reports that prior to her September 2014 death she was struggling with an awareness of possibly being lesbian and either struggling to relate that to her own faith or to coming out to her conservative Christian parents. It is important to note, however, that there was no clear link made by Lowe between her suicide and faith (hers or her parents). It was conjecture based on the testimony of her friends, but it led to a social media storm and subsequent reflection in the Evangelical sector of English churches. The second church connected teen who took her life was the 17-year-old trans woman Leelah Alcorn, who took her life in Ohio in late December 2014. Alcorn left an extensive suicide note on Tumblr that was angry about her conservative parents sending her to Christian therapists to try to change her gender identity. Her reason for taking her life was not, however, that faith rejection of her identity, but a more typical trans teen issue of worrying that she would never make a success of life as a female.

The cases of Lowe and Alcorn do bring important lessons for church communities, and especially for conservative Christian parents, but the key message from their deaths is that there is seldom one simple reason why someone chooses to end their life. I am critical of The Samaritans organisation that dominates the suicide debate in the UK, but they are crystal clear on this point that it is dangerous to presume one reason and one only for any suicide. My main criticism of The Samaritans is that they are too wedded to their Christian origins and consequently hold all suicide in a negative light. That might prevent some from taking the ultimate step, but it adds an extra burden to troubled minds and leaves a stigma for surviving family and friends.

There are more nuanced attitudes to suicide in many parts of Asia, including Palestine 2,000 years ago when Jesus of Nazareth could be considered to have chosen a politicised form of suicide. In recent decades in the United States the concept has arisen of suicide by cop, in which someone wants to die and forces a situation where a police officer will shot them dead. It is not a very certain way of ending your life as there is little guarantee that death will result from a gunshot. On the other hand, cruxifixion or stoning is a fairly certain way of dying. So if Jesus willingly provoked the temple or secular authorities in Jerusalem to bring about his death sentence, was he guilty of suicide by religious authorities. Maybe not, but it should give pause to The Samaritans to think that the Christian culture they are standing up for is possibly contradicted by the actions of the founder of the Christian faith.

If you are tempted to presume to know why an individual took their own life take a pause for thought. In that pause reflect that not only could the crucifixion be interpreted as suicide, but also that even with a clear suicide note we never know the totality of the reason someone chose to end their own life.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved