Killed by a Robber

A friend of mine killed himself yesterday. He was far from being a close friend.. […]

Stampdawg / 4.29.10

A friend of mine killed himself yesterday.

He was far from being a close friend.. But I did know him. And since hearing about his death I’ve found myself thinking and feeling my way through a lot.

One thing that has been a help is a brief comment by Martin Luther. He lived of course at a time where to kill yourself marked you as untouchable by the church, certain of damnation, and unable to be buried in consecrated ground. He wrote:

“I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil. They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber.”

How you deal with suicide theologically is a study in microcosm of whether you see the human will as free or bound; and how that leads directly to either cruelty or compassion. If you see the will as free, or mostly free, or kinda free, then the suicide can and must be judged as freely and wickedly choosing to end his life. You (the Church) decide you’ve got to speak the Truth here; and all you have to give those who survive him is Law, Judgment, and the pronouncement that the man for whom they grieve is eternally damned.

If on the other hand you see the will as bound, then the suicide becomes a victim, a man murdered in the woods by a robber; and just as in the case of a murdered man, you have just the opposite to give as the Free Willer does: pity, compassion, and the promise that NOTHING can separate him from Christ Jesus — in brief you have grace, tenderness, and Gospel.

The doctrine of the bound will also, it seems to me, necessarily leads to a view of life as cosmic theater, where we are afflicted not chiefly by flesh and blood, but by principalities, by powers, by the rulers of the darkness of this world, by spiritual wickedness in high places. Free will by way of contrast places us in the driver’s seat, with the Devil at best offering us a menu of options from which we can freely choose. (In practice, though, it seems like Free Will folks gently erase the Devil from their thinking, and end up with a conservative or liberal Ethical Culture society.)

A question that a lot of people ask when someone they know kills himself is “Why did he do it? I heard that a lot yesterday. Given the suffering that life brings, a better question to my mind is “Why don’t they do it more often?” It’s hard for me to know, since all I have is my own life, and I don’t know how representative that is, but when people act like suicide is totally inexplicable, or clearly the mark of someone utterly crazy, I can’t help but feel there’s some measure of denial going on. “You REALLY don’t know why he did it?” I want to ask. Cause he was f***ing lonely and f***ing miserable, you idiot. Why do you think?

There’s a measure in which that’s just the common condition we are all in.

But at the same time, aside from the common stuff we share, I do think that people are in different places as well. And in pastoral care that is worth thinking about.

My friend Larry was lonely. He was in his mid-50s and still single. I think that there’s a special kind of loneliness that is hard to know fully except when you are well past 40 and living in 21st century America. Everyone else you know has paired off into (apparently) happy romantic life. Most of them are raising kids. You get to SEE these warm self-contained worlds of mutual affection, but it is like being a pinched cold hungry child looking through the plate glass window of a restaurant. You SEE people eating and talking, and it looks so warm and happy, but you can’t get in. This is especially true at church… where everyone says hello and is so friendly; and then the couples all go home to their own worlds and you get to go home to an empty apartment and read your Bible. Great.

I mention 21st century America because it seems like we are in a different place than most cultures have been. The worship of the nuclear family, or the childless “couple”, as such has involved dismantling the older structures, like the extended family, that sustained single people and brought them into supporting loving contact with others. It also helped with the aching loneliness of a loveless marriage.

I am uncertain what the solution is to all this. A resurgence of the extended family (as on Walton’s Mountain) is probably not quivering on the horizon. But I feel like the church, properly construed, and if it truly acted in its counter-cultural role (contra the values of “the nuclear family” in this case) might be able to find a way, even in the midst of Manhattan, to help ease the terrible burden of human loneliness.

At the very least, people in ministry should be thinking about it. Because the Larrys who pull the trigger are just the ones who take the final step. For every one of them, there’s a thousand who don’t and live and die lives of aching loneliness.

PS. One of my favorite collections of short stories is “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson. A revealing story in that collection is one called “Adventure.” (You can read it here.) It has possibly the most poignant closing sentence of any work of fiction in the English language.

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12 responses to “Killed by a Robber”

  1. Michael Cooper says:

    Stampdog, This is such a deeply thoughtful and heartfelt and loving and gut level post. It seems that many times the "church" is "used" by little insular nuclear families to help support THEIR family life. On the other hand, I have seen people who are rightly frustrated with this trend, try to urge or "guilt trip" church people into a more "faith community" model. (I know that this is NOT what you are saying!) This never really happens except on the surface and for a short time. I think any "reaching out" beyond the bounds of the "self" (which includes "my family") comes only from real love for other people. Not to romanticize the past, which was equal in sin to the present, but in earlier times, as you pointed out, people were in daily contact with other people who were not exactly like them much more than today, and saw their needs up close. Because of our systemic isolation from people, many Christians today I think don't even realize the grave problem for single people that you point out. I blame children's team sports for much of this isolating evil. Many folks spend their whole lives outside of work at some d–n soccer or baseball or softball game with their children and other families just like them.

  2. Jeff Hual says:

    This is one of the best posts I have ever read on Mockingbird. It takes an aching question of the heart and seeks to give an answer from the heart, and with such love and compassion for the sufferer, because it was so clearly borne out of the author's own suffering. Thank you so much for this, John.

  3. Jeff Hual says:

    Scratch that first line from my previous comment…I think this is the best MB post ever! I can hear Wilder's angel saying, "It is your very remorse that causes your low voice to tremble into the hearts of men". That's what John has done with this post, at least for me, anyway.

  4. Margaret E says:

    Lovely post, John. Thank you.

    We do live in a very different society than even the one our grandparents grew up in. I think it's not just a result of "worshipping" the nuclear family and "couples" (though 'romantic love' is certainly one of our worst false idols), but of an overall pervading sense of restlessness, which results in rootlessness. I'm thinking of the review of "Our Town" I posted yesterday, which dealt with the way in which we've institutionalized discontent. I think we've done this, partly, by making individual choice our #1 value… with personal "fulfillment" being a close second. Children now grow up and leave their hometowns in search of broader horizons, greater opportunity, more excitement. With little thought for the natural, organic communities they left behind, they create their own "intentional" communities of like-minded, like-interested people. These people are only worth keeping around as long as the "likeness" lingers. They may or may not commit to marriage – and even if they do, it's just one more "choice" that can – and often is – easily undone. At age 45, I can't begin to tell you how many people I know who have been divorced over the past few years, many of them with young children at home. The reasons? For the most part, they tell me, "I just wasn't happy." Either that, or someone in the marriage has cheated. (And adulterers now feel perfectly entitled, because, hey… they "weren't happy.")

    We are chasing "happiness" so hard in this culture, and when we don't find it immediately, and perfectly, and EVERY DAY, we move on. The story of your lonely, middle-aged friend who took his own life is absolutely heartbreaking. But there are so many other people out here setting themselves up for a different kind of heartbreak. Actually, it's not THAT different, because loneliness is still at its core.

    I realize that I have just gone WAY off topic. I did love this post, though. Forgive my rambling.

  5. Michael Cooper says:

    That is a powerful little story that Stampdog links to, sort of like a Midwestern Kafka πŸ™‚ The sense of being "trapped" in an isolated existence is palpable in the story. Longing, longing for love and fear, fear of being alone…Jesus knew it on the cross– and knows it still.

  6. Charles says:

    Shamelessly purloined and posted on !!!

  7. StampDawg says:

    Thanks to everyone, including those who sent me email comments but didn't post. All were such an encouragement.

    The questions Margaret raises made me think of a brief essay by C.S. Lewis:

    We Have No 'Right To Happiness'

    A number of folks wrote in to say that the Sherwood Anderson story was especially touching and truthful, which was good to hear as well. Hope to do some more of that.

    And Charles, you can shamelessly steal any time you want: makes us way happy here when you do!

  8. StampDawg says:

    I tried to embed the link to the C.S. Lewis essay without success. Here is the URL:

  9. Kate Norris says:

    Thank you, John, for sharing so richly with us all. To me you have born evidence of the Gospel assurance by not beating around the bush but speaking the truth about pain. It would be too much to face if we didn't have One who overcame the world holding onto us. Glad you posted it!

  10. K+ says:

    Thank you for this post. If you don't mind I think I will probably use it for teaching/discussion at church.

    Also, reading a little of Sherwood Anderson, I was interested to read "Adventure" and then see there was a separate story entitled "Loneliness." Fascinating.

  11. StampDawg says:

    Hey Kris. Pleased to hear that it might be a help to you in your parish.

    Yeah, there are many more stories in WINESBURG worth looking at. You might want to try:

    * GODLINESS, A Tale in Four Parts

    * "QUEER," concerning Elmer Cowley

    * THE STRENGTH OF GOD, concerning the Reverend Curtis Hartman

    and there are many others. "A Man of Ideas" is an especially funny and touching one.

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