[Content Note: Discussion of suicide. Victim blaming for mental illness. Discussion of death due to illness]
There are, unfortunately, still some Christians out there who wouldn’t hesitate to call a death due to illness, accident, or any other tragedy “sinful.” Every now and then you’ll run across the person who believes that someone died of cancer because they lacked faith in God’s healing power, or that someone died in a car wreck because God was punishing them for sin.
I think most self-identified progressive Christians would run screaming from such a theology: one where the person who has lost the battle for life (that we all lose one of these days, one way or another) is somehow blamed and considered a sinner because of their own death.
Unless, apparently, we’re talking about mental illness.
Mental illnesses are real, and they can be fatal.
I shouldn’t have to say that in this day and age, especially not to people who call themselves progressive. But I apparently do.
Whether fatality is due to inability to care for one’s self, to addictions to harmful substances that nevertheless relieve the pain of mental illness for awhile, or to suicide, mental illness can kill.
Like cancer. Like a heart attack. Like any other serious illness or health problem.
Yet, we are still seeing progressive Christians calling suicide a sin, as if whether or not one’s mental illness kills them is something one has control over.
John Shore, a fellow Patheos blogger, does this in one of his recent blog posts. In fact, he calls suicide “one of the worst sins a person can commit.” Shore then proceeds to repeat the old guilt-trip that most of those who have survived suicidal thoughts/attempts have heard before, saying, “Imagine being a parent and watching your adored child take his or her own life.”
Granted, John Shore is clear that he does not believe that committing suicide is a sin that damns a person to hell. Shore believes that God will welcome the suicide victim into God’s arms. That’s an improvement on many people’s theology.
But it’s not enough.
You see, John Shore’s guilt trip and his insistence that suicide is not only a “sin,” but “one of the worse sins,” doesn’t do much for me as a suicide survivor.
People seem to think that the first thing you need to remind a suicidal person of is how sinful they are. They seem to think that suicidal people have never stopped to consider the effect their illness might have on others.
Imagine telling this to a dying cancer patient: “Do you even realize how much pain you’re going to bring to your family if you die? You’re breaking your mother’s heart. She’s crying right now, because of you. Don’t you even care?”
Yet these are actual words someone said to me when I revealed to them that I was suicidal and needed treatment for my mental illness.
John Shore’s words don’t do anything to change the stigma that allowed someone to say these words to me.
The thing is, I rarely stop thinking about the effect my illness has on others. That’s part of the nature of many mental illnesses—they cause us to see ourselves as the cause of the suffering of those around us. They cause us to think we are terrible people who are useless and only causing others pain.
When people tell me that I am selfish for considering suicide (which is a harmful argument, by the way, because it means that I exist only for the pleasure of others, and my own well-being is irrelevant), they are not convincing me that my mental illness is lying to me. They are convincing me that my illness is right—that I am everything it tells me I am.
People like John Shore, who hear about another’s suicidal thoughts and use them as an opportunity to accuse them of “sin,” are helping my illness defeat me. They are not helping me win.
John Shore’s definition of sin is also sketchy. Apparently sin is “any act which breaks God’s heart.” This vague definition leaves room open for victim blaming of all sorts.
To call suicide a sin, by this definition, means that God holds responsible for breaking God’s heart the person who is suffering.
Does poverty break God’s heart? Yes. Is the person in poverty really responsible for that?
Does abuse break God’s heart? Of course. Is the abused person the one to blame?
I’m guessing most progressive Christians would say no. If so, why then place the blame for God’s broken heart on an person who has died, or is close to dying, from mental illness?
We can find sin in our systems that abuse and and oppress, and thereby help perpetuate mental illness. We can find sin in stigmas that keep people from getting health. We can find sin in our country’s refusal to take responsibility for the health—especially the mental health—of it’s citizens.
But in the individual who has been broken by mental illness to the point of death?
What purpose does blaming that individual serve?
It may feed them enough guilt scare them out of suicide for a day or two. Of course, it may also push a person over the edge, convincing them that they are a horrible, sinful person that the world would be better off without.
Both have happened, in my own experience.
Even in cases where the accusatory approach works for a brief time, I can’t see it truly leading to long-term healing.
I can’t see it doing anything to break the cycle of self-hatred. I can’t see it convincing the struggling person that it’s okay to get help—that their mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, that it is indeed an illness that can be treated with medical care and not a character flaw.
John Shore, and other progressive Christian bloggers: I don’t need your accusations. I don’t need your judgement. I need my therapist, my psychiatrist, my medication, my community, and my sleep.
My past suicide attempts were symptoms, not sins.
If your concept of sin is one that further injures, rather than liberates, those who are suffering from illness, what is the point? If your concept of sin blames victims, rather than abusive/neglectful people and systems, how does it help us understand and serve the God of liberation?
Stop using the language of sin to talk about those suffering from mental illness, progressive Christians. It’s not helping. It’s not compassionate. We can do better than this.
For another great response to John Shore, read Ephphathoughts: Suicide is Painful and Tragic. But Is It Sinful?