Monday, July 30, 2018

Suicide in Scripture

1. Christian arguments against suicide typically cite biblical examples of suicide which allegedly cast suicide in a baleful light. Six or seven examples are given:

i) Abimelech (Jdg 9:52-54
ii) Samson (Jdg 16:28-31)
iii) Saul (1 Sam 31:3-5)
iv) Saul's armor-bearer (1 Sam 31:4-6; 1 Chron 10:4)
v) Ahithophel (2 Sam 17:23)
vi) Zimri (1 Kgs 16:18-19)
vii) Judas (Mt 27:3-5)

2. There's disagreement on whether the death of Samson counts as suicide. On the one hand, people who think suicide is wrong, and think Samson did the wrong thing, classify his death as suicide. On the other hand, people who think think suicide is wrong, but think Samson did the right thing, don't classify his death as suicide. So there's some circularity in how they categorize his action. 

3. Strictly speaking, the death of Abimelech is assisted suicide. That's what Saul requested, but his armor-bearer refused. 

In at least four of the seven cases (Saul, Saul's armor-bearer, Ahithophel, Zimri), the man took his own life to avoid falling into enemy hands. And there may be two reasons to avoid that fate:

i) Death by torture

ii) Ignominy 

4. In the case of Abimelech, it was to avoid ignominy–although he may have feared being captured alive. Even if he had a mortal wound, he might linger, and be further humiliated or tortured. 

5. Samson may have had more than one motive:

i) Seize the opportunity to perform a decapitation strike.

ii) Redeem his ignoble condition through a noble death. 

6. Who knows what exactly was going on in the mind of Judas. 

7. One problem with appealing to these examples is the fallacy of transferring the character of the agent to the character of the deed. But the fact that evil men sometimes commit suicide doesn't entail that suicide is evil–anymore than the fact that men sometimes commit murder entails that all homicide is murder. 

8. These passages don't moralize about suicide per se. And there are readers who wouldn't conclude from reviewing these passages that suicide is wrong. There are warrior cultures and honor/shame cultures where, under some circumstances, suicide is regarded as a dutiful deed. For instance: 

The second selection is Josephus’ account of the siege of the fortress of Masada. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the fortress—built in a seemingly impregnable position at the top of a massive rock promontory on the western shore of the Dead Sea—became one of the last outposts for the Jewish nationalists known as the Zealots. On May 2, 73, during a major offensive by the Roman army, 960 Zealot revolutionaries under the command of Eleazar chose to commit mass suicide rather than to yield to the Roman attack. Eleazar’s arguments favoring suicide are counterparts to those Josephus had used against it: voluntary death gives liberty to the soul; it preserves honor and protects the pride of the Jewish nation; it spares one’s family and oneself from slavery and torture if captured. Incited by Eleazar, each husband killed his wife and children and was then killed by the next man in line; the last man willingly killed himself. Only two women and five children, hiding in the underground aqueducts, survived to tell the tale.

A man call Razis, a member of the Jerusalem senate, was denounced to Nicanor.  He was a patriot and very highly spoken of, one who for his loyalty was known as Father of the Jews.  In the early days of the revolt he had stood trial for practicing the Jewish religion, and with no hesitation had risked life and limb for that cause.  Nicanor, wishing to demonstrate his hostility towards the Jews, sent more than five hundred soldiers to arrest Razis; he reckoned that this would be a severe blow to the Jews.  The tower of his house was on the point of being captured by this mob of soldiers, the outer gate was being forced, and there were calls for fire to burn down the inner doors, when Razis, beset on every side, turned his sword on himself; he preferred to die nobly rather than fall into the hands of evil men and be subjected to gross humiliation (II Maccabees 14:37).

Shinju—meaning “sincerity of heart”—refers to double or multiple suicides, whether pairs of lovers, mothers and children, or entire families. It is sometimes called “companionate” or “companionship” suicide. 

Bushido, “the Way of the Warrior,” Japan’s traditional code of military culture and chivalry...the code of Bushido had taken honor as central and had held that to protect it, the samurai warrior was, among other things, to be prepared to commit suicide. Wounded or defeated warriors were expected to kill themselves; to be taken alive as a prisoner was a great dishonor. The late medieval epic Taiheiki recounts 68 separate occasions of warrior suicide involving a total of 2,140 men.

Seppuku is distinct from the other principal form of suicide recognized in traditional Japanese culture, shinju, or “love suicide” [q.v., under Chikamatsu]. Performed as an act of military honor…seppuku has sometimes been compared to the Roman custom in which a defeated general falls on his sword, though apparently more strongly expected and frequently practiced. One modern commentator notes that “the samurai tradition of suicide to save one’s honour may have lost Japan many fine generals who would otherwise have lived to fight another day.” 

The Indians in general are, besides, so sensitive, that, for a little too bitter a reproach, it is not unusual to see them poison themselves with water hemlock and do away with themselves.

The Gaspesians, however, are so sensitive to affronts which are offered them that they sometimes abandon themselves to despair, and even make attempts on their own lives, in the belief that the insult which has been done them tarnishes the honour and the reputation which they have acquired, whether in war or in hunting.

Njal’s Saga, or the “Story of Burnt Njal” (probably written between 1275–1290), the longest and most highly acclaimed of the Norse sagas, is the story of two warring families. In the selection presented here, a complex plot reaches its climax as Njal, a wise and peace-loving father, when he learns that he and his family are surrounded and outmanned by their enemies, allows himself, together with his wife, sons, and a grandson, to die violent deaths by fire rather than suffer a continued existence in shame.

Other examples include Seneca and Mencius. Depending on your cultural background, having irredeemably disgraced himself, Judas did the right thing. Likewise, for a soldier to let himself be captured brings dishonor on himself and those he represents. The way to avoid that shameful fate is to die an honorable death by taking his own life. 

From the standpoint of Christian ethics, killing yourself to preserve your reputation is an illegitimate justification. You may have a Christian duty to endure unjust stigma. Indeed, in Scripture, there's an inversion of values where an undignified death by worldly standards is a dignified death by godly standards. (However, it doesn't follow that there's an obligation to endure vivisection.) 

Yet that underscores my point. Taken by themselves, biblical examples of suicide don't indicate the moral status of suicide in general. Rather, they must be assessed in light of a theological reference frame we bring to those passage. But in that event the appeal is circular if said passages are used to create a theological reference frame which is, in turn, used to evaluate the same passages.  

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