by Bruce Gerencser cross posted from his blog The Way Forward written on Tuesday August 12, 2014
“I don’t understand the whole fundamentalist thing; you see, I’m an Episcopal; that’s Catholic Light. Same religion, half the guilt!”
Why is it that Evangelicals think they need to pontificate any time someone of note dies? It seems, when it comes to people who have some sort of notoriety, that Evangelicals KNOW whether the dead person’s name is in the Book of Life.
They seemingly have a gift from God that enables them to know who is and isn’t a Christian. Over the years, I have had to deal with countless Evangelicals that felt called by God to weigh in on whether I was ever a Christian and where I will go when I die. I can only imagine what will be said and written about me when I finally do go to Happy Hunting Ground in the sky.
Robin Williams committed suicide yesterday. A wonderful actor, who struggled with depression and substance abuse most of his life. Todd Bridges, an Evangelical friend of Williams, had this to say:
You don’t think that my life has been hell and I’ve had so many ups and downs now? If I did that [commit suicide], what am I showing my children [is] that when it gets tough, that’s the way out. You gotta buckle down, ask God to help you. That’s when prayer really comes into effect. Rest in peace Robin Williams, I hope you found what you were looking for.”
Bridges later apologized for his cold, callused remark, but I am of the opinion that social media forced apologies are rarely sincere. (you can read about Bridges’s religious views here)
I suspect Williams cried out to God many times in his life. He likely learned, as many of us have, that no one was listening. I am not going to use this as an opportunity to riff on the God who isn’t there. But, I will say this, it is beyond cruel to suggest to a person struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts that they need to pray more and stop thinking about taking the coward’s way out.
In a post titled What Would Jesus Say to Robin Williams, Jim Denison, a Southern Baptist preacher turned social commentator, took the opportunity to turn the suicide of Williams into a gospel message. That’s the Evangelical MO. Death and funerals are never about the person who died, it’s all about putting in a word for Jesus. Fuck the dead person, Jesus is all that matters. Denison wrote:
…What would Jesus say to Robin Williams, given the opportunity?
The actor was clearly a man who struggled for self-worth. He was significantly overweight as a child, with few friends, and was voted “least likely to succeed” in school. When accepting his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (for Good Will Hunting in 1997) he said, “Most of all, I want to thank my father, up there, the man who when I said I wanted to be an actor, he said, ‘Wonderful. Just have a back-up profession like welding.’”
Jesus would want Williams to know that his heavenly Father knitted him together in his mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13) and gave him the amazing intellect and comedic gifts which made him famous. The comedian was right: “You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Jesus would want him to know the source of that spark.
And he would want Williams to know that his significance could be based not on his performance or popularity but on his Father’s unconditional love. The comedian once explained, “I started doing comedy because that was the only stage that I could find.” In truth, we are each given a stage before an Audience of one. He cheers for us and accepts us no matter what the critics say.
Most of all, Jesus would want Robin Williams to find hope in his Father’s love and grace. Williams once called comedy “acting out optimism.” But optimism doesn’t have to be an act—in Christ we can find “strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:18).
I don’t know if Robin Williams ever received the significance, unconditional acceptance and hope offered to him by Jesus. But I do know that our Lord offers these gifts today, to you.
My oldest son wrote me earlier today and told me that Evangelicals were taking to Facebook to show their ignorance about Robin Williams and suicide. He said that one genius stated that Robin Williams didn’t struggle with a mental illness. He had a spiritual problem and he just needed to seek God. Several other Evangelicals let it be known that Williams was in hell. As my son wryly said, God knows they loved his movies, though!
We can always count on Matt Walsh to weigh in on anything that demands a blowhard’s opinion. Speaking of Williams’s suicide, Walsh wrote:
A terrible, monstrous atrocity. It disturbs me in a deep, visceral, indescribable way. Of course it disturbs most people, I would assume. Indeed, we should fear the day when we wake up and decide we aren’t disturbed by it anymore.
So I’m just like you, then, because I can’t stomach the thought of it. I’ve seen it in the neighborhoods where I’ve lived and the schools that I’ve attended. I’ve seen it in my family. I’ve known adults and kids who’ve done it. I’ve seen it on the news and read about it in books, but I can’t comprehend it. The complete, total, absolute rejection of life. The final refusal to see the worth in anything, or the beauty, or the reason, or the point, or the hope. The willingness to saddle your family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives.
It’s a tragic choice, truly, but it is a choice, and we have to remember that. Your suicide doesn’t happen to you; it doesn’t attack you like cancer or descend upon you like a tornado. It is a decision made by an individual. A bad decision. Always a bad decision.
And that’s why I felt compelled to say something here. There are important truths we can take from the suicide of a rich and powerful man, yet I’m worried that we are too afraid to tackle the subject, or too blind to tackle it with any depth, so we only perpetuate the problem. But worse than the glossing over of suicide is the fact that we seem to approach it with an attitude that nearly resembles admiration…
…Free? I’ve seen a lot of this kind of rhetoric. Robin Williams is “in a better place,” he is “free,” he is “at peace,” he is “smiling down upon us,” he’s “happy.”
This all might seem pleasant enough, but have we stopped to think how it looks and sounds to those who may be contemplating this heinous deed themselves? Can we tell our friend to step away from the ledge after we just spoke so glowingly of Robin Williams’ newfound “peace” and “freedom”? This is too important a subject to be careless about. We want to say nice things, I realize, but it isn’t nice to lie about suicide.
It is not freeing. In suicide you obliterate yourself and shackle your loved ones with guilt and grief. There is no freedom in it. There is no peace. How can I free myself by attempting to annihilate myself? How can I free something by destroying it? Chesterton said, “The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.” Where is the freedom in that?
I understand the inclination to be positive, but there is nothing positive to say about it. The cloud is infinitely dark, and there is no silver lining around it. That’s another tragic element to the evil of suicide — it robs your family of the solaces they naturally seek when a loved one passes away.
Do you want to be uplifted? Then concentrate on this:
Happiness and contentment are not found in our talents, our money, our luxuries, or our reputations. If wealthy, brilliant, beloved people tell us anything when they murder themselves, it must be that.
We are all meant to lead joyful lives, and the key to unlocking our joy isn’t hidden under a pile of money and accolades.
Also, incidents like this give us an opportunity to talk about depression, and we certainly should. Only we shouldn’t turn the subject into a purely cold, clinical matter. “Chemical imbalances,” people say. “A man is depressed because of his brain chemicals, and for no other reason.”
No, we are more than our brains and bigger than our bodies. Depression is a mental affliction, yes, but also spiritual. That isn’t to say that a depressed person is evil or weak, just that his depression is deeper and more profound than a simple matter of disproportioned brain chemicals. And before I’m accused of being someone who “doesn’t understand,” let me assure you that I have struggled with this my entire life…
Walsh rightly caught a lot of flak for his thoughtlessness. Instead of walking back his comments, he continued to play a medical doctor in a Holiday Inn commercial. Here’s Walsh’s sound medical opinion:
….First, suicide does not claim anyone against their will. No matter how depressed you are, you never have to make that choice. That choice. Whether you call depression a disease or not, please don’t make the mistake of saying that someone who commits suicide “died from depression.” No, he died from his choice. He died by his own hand. Depression will not appear on the autopsy report, because it can’t kill you on its own. It needs you to pull the trigger, take the pills, or hang the rope. To act like death by suicide is exactly analogous to death by malaria or heart failure is to steal hope from the suicidal person. We think we are comforting him, but in fact we are convincing him that he is powerless. We are giving him a way out, an excuse. Sometimes that’s all he needs — the last straw.
Second, we can debate medication dosages and psychotherapy treatments, but, in the end, joy is the only thing that defeats depression. No depressed person in the history of the world has ever been in the depths of despair and at the heights of joy at the same time. The two cannot coexist. Joy is light, depression is darkness. When we are depressed, we have trouble seeing joy, or feeling it, or feeling worthy of it. I know that in my worst times, at my lowest points, it’s not that I don’t see the joy in creation, it’s just that I think myself too awful and sinful a man to share in it.
So this, for me, is always the most essential moral at the end of these kinds of sad, terrible stories: we are all meant for joy. We are all meant for love. We are all meant for life. And as long as we can still draw breath, there is joy and love to be found here. I believe that. If I didn’t, I would have left a long time ago.
Joy and love. There might not be much else for us on this Earth, but these are the only two things that matter anyway. These are the forces that brought the whole universe into being, and these are the forces that sustain it, and us, and all life…
The blog, What is Matt Walsh Wrong About Today, had an excellent response to Walsh’s comments:
…Yesterday, news of Robin Williams’s death shocked me. I didn’t know him, but the way his work touched me made me feel as if maybe I did, just a little. I relived scenes from Mrs. Doubtfire and Hook, I sang “You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me” in the shower, and I made a mental note to watch Dead Poets Society one more time. I think I can speak for many of us when I say that what hurt the most was reading in the preliminary police report: “suicide due to asphyxia”. His career, which exuded his infectious, manic joy, contrasted sharply with the way he passed — a manifestation of his longtime struggle with drugs, alcohol, and severe depression.
Americans responded with an outpouring of grief and sympathy. Pictures, quotations, anecdotes, and videos from Robin’s life memorialized the way he made us laugh, think, and cry — the way I’m crying as I write this: not with gushing sobs of helplessness, but with a running nose and wet eyes. The same way I think anyone should cry when someone who inspired you, who made you laugh as a child, is suddenly gone forever. The way I thought even Matt Walsh might cry.
Instead, he wrote a callous tweet and a careless article. No words of parting, no fond memories, no wishes for Robin’s family and friends, no sympathy for a man so severely depressed that death seemed more inviting than life. Instead, Walsh hijacked another man’s suffering in order to launch an ignorant and ill-timed diatribe on the evils of suicide, imagining that the whole of America was suddenly romanticizing the idea but only Matt’s words could stop them.
A dear friend said this earlier, and I endorse it wholeheartedly: “Either Matt Walsh’s hit count has been declining, or he is legitimately tone deaf to the social importance of timing and respect. Whatever the reason, his opinion is way off base — grounded neither in scientific facts nor in rationality itself. It’s all just rambling, angry drivel.”
My studies in Chinese and education and Matt Walsh’s squeaking out a high school diploma qualify neither of us to say much on the topics of depression and suicide, but fortunately I’m not the only contributor at WIMWWAT. Come back over the next few days for more scholarly takes on the subjects.
Robin’s life enriched us, and we will miss him dearly. Our hearts go out to his family and friends. And I have no idea what awaits him beyond this veil of tears, but I hope it is, as Peter Pan once quipped, “A grand adventure!”..
The post ended with a superb Mrs. Doubtfire graphic, a graphic that Matt Walsh should take note of:
Here’s another tweet from an unenlightened Evangelical by the name of James Hartline:
Hartline made two other tweets, which I read on Spiritual Sounding Board, that are no longer on his timeline:
When Julie asked Hartline if depression was a sin, Hartline ignored her question and tweeted:
If one takes Hartline’s line of thinking to its logical Biblical® conclusion, then no one who commits suicide is in heaven. The Bible says:
Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him. I John 3:15
But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. Revelation 21:8
We can all agree that mental illness, depression, and suicide are complex issues. I have first hand experience with these issues. I know the pain that is caused when a loved one takes their life. (please read She Would be Seventy-Five Today) As one who has battled with depression and suicidal thoughts my entire adult life, I know the fear these things cause in the heart of those who love me. Three years ago, I sought professional help, help I could never seek out before because I used to think just like Matt Walsh and James Hartline. Once I was free of Jesus, I was then able to get the help I needed. Am I depression free? Nope. Do I still have suicidal thoughts? Yep. But, my family is well aware of my struggles, as is my counselor, and they do their best to keep me from falling down the rabbit hole.
If you have not read The Right to Self Determination: Suicide I encourage you to do so.
Let me conclude this post with a clip from my favorite Robin Williams movie, Good Morning, Vietnam.
Bruce Gerencser spent 25 years pastoring Independent Fundamental Baptist, Southern Baptist, and Christian Union churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. Bruce attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. He is a writer and operates The Way Forward blog. Bruce lives in NW Ohio with his wife of 35 years. They have 6 children, and nine grandchildren.