Suicide and sin: how God lets victims back into the fold
Major religions have always enforced the stigma around suicide, but it seems their position is now more nuanced
If suicide has a negative stigma for both the victim and their families, it seems that for centuries, religion has been a major cause of this – ignoring the mental illness behind the death and foregrounding the belief that “life is sacred” and thus someone who takes a life (even their own) has committed a sin.
In cases where religion, or other factors, stigmatise a suicide, loved ones and friends who are suicide risks themselves feel even more isolated, according to one study.Dr Alexandra Pitman, at University College London, found that suicide risk among the bereaved shot up by 65% if the loved one was lost to suicide.
“Avoiding the subject can make a bereaved person feel very isolated and stigmatised, and sometimes even blamed for the death. They should not be made to feel in any way responsible, and should be treated with the same compassion as people bereaved by any other cause,” according to Pitman.With a growing awareness of mental health issues, is the world coming to a more empathetic view of suicide, even among those with the most conservative religious views?
In SA, this question has been at the epicentre of a national conversation of late.
First, the suicide of University of Cape Town health sciences dean Professor Bongani Mayosi raised an alarm: do we talk enough about suicide risk factors, and take note when people are suffering from depression?Then, last week, with the focus on the shock that Mayosi had taken his own life, the country was rocked by the news that Rhodes University student Khensani Maseko, who had been raped in May, also committed suicide.
While grief spread across the country, many also applauded the families for being open about the cause of death.
In Christianity, the dominant religion in SA, even among those who also hold traditional African beliefs, suicide was never described as a sin in the scriptures but has often been viewed in a very negative light.According to online resource Christianity Today, which focuses on the religion in the contemporary world, “Christians often assume that suicide is an unforgivable sin and that those who die by suicide automatically go to hell. That’s a misconception that comes from Augustine and medieval theology. Scripture doesn’t actually say that suicide separates us from God for eternity.”
Dr Renier Koegelenberg, the secretariat for the National Religious Association for Social Development, told Times Select this week: “As a society and as families we have to take co-responsibility for the caring and support of people suffering from depression, breaking down the stigma and the taboos to talk about it.”
He said that “religion and suicide (which often links to serious illness or depression) is a complex issue” that not only affects the individual involved, but also their families and communities.
Also, a holistic view of suicide is required since depression is a “serious medical condition that affects the whole person”.He said it “includes issues related to diet, the stress of society or work conditions (including the political and social challenges of societies in rapid transition), and the physical symptoms of a person suffering from depression”.
Koegelenberg said that from a religious perspective, because “life is a gift of God”, it is “extremely difficult for any healthy human to grasp the medical, societal or personal stress factors that lead to a suicide”.
Within Christianity, the harshest view of suicide has always been in Catholicism, but even so, while Catholic suicide victims were routinely denied a Catholic mass and burial, this is no longer always the case.In Judaism too, increasingly, suicide victims are not denied proper mourning rites and are no longer excluded from the Jewish part of a cemetery – although these practices still do happen in some Orthodox communities.
Preserving life is, according to public resource My Jewish Learning, “among the highest duties in Judaism”, and suicide is seen as “counter to this fundamental value.”
But, while “taking one's life is officially a violation of Jewish law, many contemporary rabbis recognise that most suicides result from struggles with mental illness” and “look for any basis on which to disqualify an apparent suicide so as to allow for traditional burial”.Muslim scholars and clerics also forbid suicide based on the Koran.According to Darl al-Ifta, an international institute that represents Islam: “Suicide is prohibited in Islamic law according to evidence from the Qur’an, Sunna, and consensus of Muslim scholars.”
While it is a “major sin” that has been committed, it does not take the person “out of Islam”.
The deceased is still washed, shrouded and prayed over.
“This is because he is a Muslim and is subject to the general rulings that apply to deceased Muslims.”In Hinduism, suicide is “spiritually unacceptable” in the extreme, and is only accepted through nonviolent practice, such as fasting, and then only in the cases of old-age yogis who have no responsibility left in this lifetime.
According to the World Federation for Mental Health, suicide is “shrouded in secrecy and attracts stigma” in many African countries, including SA. Many countries on the continent do not report suicide data to the World Health Organisation and suicides are sometimes listed merely as “death by unnatural causes”, making accurate statistics difficult.
Ostracisation of individuals and families is common, “which explains in part why suicide is often hidden”, according to the federation.