Theologian urges greater sensitivity to suicide - Word&Way

Theologian urges greater sensitivity to suicide

By Greg Garrison
Religion News Service

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Churches can be a major factor in preventing suicide if they are willing to learn about the problem and reach out with compassion, said a theologian who specializes in pastoral care related to suicide.

“People who attend church have a lower suicide rate than people who don’t,” said Loren Townsend, a professor of pastoral ministry at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and author of “Pastoral Care in Suicide.” “Churches provide caring relationships that can help protect people from suicide.”

About 32,000 suicides occur each year in the country, a rate of about 11 per 100,000 people, according to the Suicide Prevention Action Network.“Oftentimes, it’s a relational breakdown,” Townsend said. “They’re isolated in the world. Church relationships can provide a buffer for that.”

In the early Christian church, some ardent believers threw themselves off cliffs to demonstrate their devotion, Townsend said. The problem became so acute Augustine addressed the issue, equating self-killing and murder.

Later, theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that since suicide victims could not ask for forgiveness, it was an unforgivable sin, Townsend said. “In our cultural thinking, there’s still an idea that it’s an unforgivable sin,” he said.

While churches have turned to a more compassionate view as more has become known about mental illness, there remain wrong stereotypes about suicide, Townsend said.“

There’s an idea Christians don’t do that,” Townsend said. “Christians are as vulnerable to mental health problems as anybody. Suicide almost always is a result of intense pain that doesn’t go away.”