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週五, 03 六月 2011 10:22

Reading Report - Suicide

 

Referee: Dr. Benedict Kwok

Anthor: Wong Yuen Kwan Christa

 

 

INTRODUCTION

Suicide is the theme of this reading report. This reading report is organized into three sections. First, Recent Debate on Suicide will be given. Then we will focus on the Major Controversy about Suicide and then the section on Christian Standpoint will be given. All discussions will be based on the following essays and articles.

 

Dennis P. Hollinger, “A Theology of Death,” In Suicide: A Christian Response, ed. Demy Timothy J & Stewart, Gary P. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998, 257-268.

 

Donal P. O’Mathuna, “But the Bible doesn’t say they were wrong to commit suicide, does it?” Suicide: A Christian Response, ed. Demy Timothy J & Stewart, Gary P. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998, 349-368.

 

Jie Zhang, “Marriage & Suicide among Chinese Rural Young Women”, Social Forces 89(2010)1, 311-326.

 

Paul W.C. Wong, April W.M.Yeung, Wincy S.C.Chan, Paul S.F.Yip, Arthur K.H.Tang, “Suicide Notes in Hong Kong in 2000”, Death Studies 33(2009)4, 372-381.

 

Steven Stack & Augustine J. Kposowa, “The Association of Suicide Rates with Individual-Level Suicide Attitudes: A Cross-National Analysis”, Social Science Quarterly 89(2008)1, 39-59.

 

Terri L. Snyder, “Suicide, Slavery, & Memory in North America”, Journal of American History 97(2010)1, 39-62.

 

To further focus our discussion, debates on assisted-suicide and euthanasia will not be included in this reading report.

 

 

  1. RECENT DEBATE

Suicide is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as ‘the action of killing oneself intentionally’ or someone who ‘intentionally kill oneself’1. Intention is emphasized.

 

Record on suicidal action could be traced back long time ago. Even in the North American slavery history, we could found record of suicide as self destruction and a way to freedom. Ritualistic elements are found in such records of suicide2.

Steven Stack in his article tries to explain why people committed suicide. He argues that based on Social Learning Theory when persons socialized in nations where suicidal role models could be found and there is a positive definition of suicide in the nations, they are more likely to commit suicide than their counterparts whose nations do not show the two characteristics above. He added that approval of suicide is positively related to suicidal thoughts and behavior. Therefore, he suggested some measures to alleviate the social suicide rate, such as control the degree of positive attitudes and subculture towards suicide and the related public policy on assisted suicide and euthanasia3.

 

Common reasons for suicide are psychiatric illness, depression, stressful life events (e.g. divorce) or terminal illness. Based on Control Theory, Stack suggested some approving or disapproving factors towards suicide. For approving factors, he suggested the following based on his study: political affiliation, especially liberalism; control in life (e.g. family relationship, marital status etc); gender (in some countries, men are found to be more approving of suicide than women). For disapproving factors, he suggested the followings: religion, marital relationship, life satisfaction (e.g. in health, work or school), social status and age (the higher the age, the lower the acceptability for suicide)4.

 

Main predictors of suicide acceptability included a measure from social learning theory, religiosity, and a neglected measure of control theory and life satisfaction. Out of these, religiosity is found to be the leading predictor of attitudes toward suicide. Persons who are considered to be less supportive of suicide are often those self-defined religious persons whereas those non-affiliates and atheists are more supportive of suicide. Further, people who are exposed to religion more frequently, like attending religious services, show a lower acceptability toward suicide. Study by Stack also shows that as stated in the Control theory, both marital status and life satisfaction are strongly related to suicide acceptability5. These findings echo the situation found in China by Jie Zhang.

 

Jie Zhang’s study focuses on Chinese rural young women aged 15-35 years old and the relationship between marriage and suicide. Same as Stack, Zhang also found that marital satisfaction as well as marriage-related relationships (e.g. mother-in-law or sister-in-law etc) greatly affect one’s proneness to commit suicide. To his surprise, marriage is found to be NOT a protective factor of suicide and fertility events are NOT related to suicide risk.

 

Zhang showed that among Chinese aged 15-34, the situation of suicide is characterized as below:

  1. Suicide among female is higher than male

  2. Suicide in the rural area is 3 times higher than that in the urban area

  3. Usually no diagnosable mental illness among the suicides

  4. Use of highly lethal pesticides is commonly found among suicides

 

To focus on the Chinese rural young women, Zhang found that the phenomenon shown in rural Chinese is greatly different from that in the Western world. While the Western data generally supports Emile Durkheim’s social integration theory of suicide, the Chinese data shows a completely different picture. So Zhang based on another theory, the Strain Theory to analyze the phenomenon he found among those Chinese rural young women.

 

Zhang found that marriage is not a protective factor of suicide. Marital relationship does not strengthen family bonds or social networks. Social support for married rural women is found to be weaker than that for the unmarried rural women. This may due to the traditional perception of wife having a lower status in a rural social setting and they are usually expected to stay at home to look after familial issues rather than connecting with other persons in the society. Another related reason may be the amount of regulations exerted by their mother-in-law. The One Child policy in China found NOT to be a significant factor affecting suicide no matter women gave birth to boy or girl. Rather, the poor relationships with her husband, the in-laws, their parents as well as the low social status are found to be significant factors in increasing one’s suicidal risk.

 

Another interesting factor Zhang found among the Chinese rural women is that religion or superstition is not a protective factor to those who may commit suicide. Instead, belief in the Communist Party’s leadership IS a protective factor. Zhang explained that it may due to the fact that being a party member, which associated with a higher social status, is still a major civil value. He also listed some predictors of suicide like family suicide history, family deviance like gambling or alcoholism, believing in superstition, low level of education and lack of social support.

 

The Strain Theory postulates that strain resulting from conflicting and competing pressures in an individual’s life usually precedes suicidal behaviour. Strain is made up of at least two different types of pressure which the victim may or may not be aware of. There are four types of strain classified, namely value strain, aspiration strain, deprivation strain and coping strain. Zhang suggested that young women in rural China may have experienced value strain which resulting from confined to Confucian ideology (women are being less valued at home) and the value promoted by the Communist Party (men and women are equal in the society)6.

Suicidal phenomenon in Hong Kong is shown by the study on suicide notes (遺書) done by Paul Wong and his colleagues and some other scholars7. Wong et al. compared the suicide note-leavers’ figures of 1992 with the figures of 2000 and concluded that the proportion of people who left suicide notes increased from 20% to 35%. Note-leavers in 2000 were mostly persons aged 25-59 years old with no physical illness, no psychiatric illness, employed, and died as a result of charcoal-burning.

 

They noticed a drastic increase of suicide rate in Hong Kong after the first highly publicized charcoal-burning suicide case in 1998. From 1981 to 1997, the suicide rate in Hong Kong changed very little and fluctuated around 11-13 per 100,000 and increased significantly to 18.6 per 100,000 in 2003. At the same time, charcoal-burning suicide became the second most common suicide method in 2002. This finding may alarm us on the effect of media coverage on actual suicide rate in the society. Charcoal-burning is described by the media and known as a ‘less painful and less violent’ among a group of suicidal women. Wong et al. reported that

 

An ethnographic study on persons who had survived a suicide attempt by charcoal-burning indicated that the popularization of charcoal-burning in Hong Kong was largely due to the inappropriate and excessive media portrayal on charcoal-burning suicides8.

 

Widespread news coverage promotes imitation and increases the acceptability of suicide in the society. This finding reaffirms the observation by Stack that acceptability of suicide is positively related to the suicide rate in the society.

 

  1. MAJOR CONTROVERSY

We now turn to the second section of this reading report which deals with the major controversy of suicide.

2.1 Should suicide be regarded as a moral act?

Suicide which was largely regarded as an immoral act is now being reconsidered and I would say many start to view it as a moral act. Although in the western world this controversy is largely settled, we can still see debates in Hong Kong. Obviously in a Chinese society like Hong Kong where family reputation is highly treasured, there are still many who do not accept suicide as a moral act especially when it happens in one’s own family. How one would define moral greatly affects his stance in this controversy. Religion belief may play an important role in one’s value system and thus affects his perception on morality.

 

2.2 Should suicide be socially accepted?

As scholars (Stack, Zhang) suggested that social acceptability of suicide greatly affects the actual suicide rate in the society, how the society perceive suicide becomes a critical issue.

 

If a society holds an extremely negative viewpoint on suicide, it would bring much pressure to those around the one who committed suicide, whether deceased or not. On the contrary, an extremely positive viewpoint would probably lead to an increase of suicide rate in the society. The balance is hard to strike.

 

2.3 Is suicide just an act of personal freedom?

In the Western world where individual freedom is highly appreciated (I would say sometimes being over emphasized) suicide is usually taken as an individual choice and the actualization of one’s personal freedom. But is this the case in Hong Kong, a Chinese society which seems to be very westernized on the surface?

 

Is suicide really just an act of personal freedom? Is personal freedom includes the area which we could choose how to terminate our own life? Do we really OWN our life just like we own a thing and we could have the ultimate authority over our life? And are there something more than personal freedom we should consider when we think about the issue of suicide in our society?

 

 

  1. CHRISTIAN STANDPOINT

As a Christian, how should we respond to this ethical dilemma? Condemning suicide is certainly not the way out. Encouraging it is definitely contrary to our belief. Where we should stand and how we should deliver our message mean a lot to the ethically chaotic modern world we are in. In response to the issue of suicide I would like to focus on the following areas, namely the reality of creatures, correct understanding of some theological tensions, and correct interpretation of Narratives in the Bible.

 

3.1 The Reality of Creatures

Do we really own our life? Or are we just creatures? How we see our being determines how we respond to the issue of suicide.

 

I do think that to acknowledge our being as a creature is crucial for a biblical understanding of our lives. When we say that we are creatures, we are acknowledging a higher power, i.e. the creator. For Christians we will refer to God as our creator for sure. When we acknowledge God as our creator, we are saying that we do not have the ultimate authority over our own life as life itself comes from God and is in His control. Thus, as we do not have control over when, where or how we come to this world, why should we think that we have a say over how we end our journey on this world? Are we deviating from the original setting God put us in when He sent us into this world? Are we competing for the authority we are not supposed to have?

 

As creatures we are put into specific settings with certain abilities and authorities given. Life itself is a gift granted to creatures. We are put into this world and we will someday be taken away from it and be sent to our ultimate destination. Thus our duty is to live our life, to enjoy this precious gift from God and to glorify Him in our days.

 

Another important implication of being creatures is that we have a kind and good creator to turn to when we are in trouble, no matter how overwhelming the trouble seems to be. For those who commit suicide, very often is the hopeless situation they faced forces them onto that road with no return. If all we have on earth is really all we have, then all of us will definitely face this hopeless situation one day as none of us could pile up enough resources to deal with all the challenges in life. For Christians, we know the spiritual reality that we have God as our Heavenly Father and we are in His guidance and providence that we are empowered to face our life on earth. This precious truth gives hope in all circumstances, especially to those in difficult times.

 

3.2 Correct Understanding of Some Theological Tensions

There are some theological tensions we have to be aware of in order to handle the issue of suicide correctly9.

 

First, we should regard death both as friend and foe. Death as a foe could be understood easily and we see this belief displayed in our society too. People are trying their best to lengthen lives and avoid death and all death-related things like pain or suffering. In the Bible, we found similar sayings too (1 Cor. 15:26, 56). But there are also bible verses which remind us that death is a natural process comes after we have journeyed through life (Gen 3:19; Eccl 7:2; 2 Tim. 4:6-8). When one commits suicide, he is saying yes to death too early and too easily.

 

Second, we should see suffering as a challenge to endure and persevere. Suffering is like an exercise in life to strengthen us and build our character. James 1:3-4 reminds us that enduring suffering results in spiritual growth, depth of character and courage for living. Mark 14:34-36 reminds us that we could overcome difficulties in God’s mercy. When we face suffering, no matter mental, psychological or physical, we have to remind ourselves that termination or escape should not be the only way out. Endure the suffering could bring us to a new horizon in life.

 

Third, we should balance between divine providence and human stewardship. Psalm 31:14-15 reminds us that finite creature cannot usurp the role of an infinite all-knowing God10. At the same time, we should be aware of the teaching in Genesis 1:28 where God appoints us to be the stewards of this earth. In response to suicide, let us bear in mind our responsibilities on earth and at the same time never forget God’s almightiness and providence in our lives.

 

To have a correct balance of the above theological tensions, one should be able to see the way out before they commit suicide.

 

3.3 Correct Interpretation of Narratives in the Bible

Some cited cases in the Bible to support suicide as a biblical approving issue. This is definitely due to a wrong interpretation of the narratives in the Bible. Details of discussion will be given below.

 

Some cited several cases in the Old Testament (Abimelech: Judg. 9:52-54; Samson: Judg. 16:28-31; King Saul: 1 Sam. 31:1-6, 1 Chron. 10:1-6; Ahithophel: 2 Sam. 17:23; King Zimri: 1 Kings 16:18; Judas Iscariot: Matt. 27:3-5) as cases of suicide and concluded that without explicit condemnation would mean that suicide is approved by the Bible. But is this the case?

 

All the above cases are found in the OT with a genre named narratives. To understand the meaning of the stories fully one must pay attention to this special genre. Instruction in the OT is usually given through narratives where abstract terms are used. One must explain ethics in action in a particular character. To interpret the text correctly, one must not overlook the following three: author’s intention, greater context and the central theme of the book11. When we closely study the above cases within their relevant context, we would definitely be able to draw the conclusion that suicide is not an approving action in the bible. The suicidal action simply does not fit into the wider context and the central theme of the relevant books. Suicide is not the teaching. It is just part of the narrative as an event in a particular character in the Bible12.

 

People today still struggle with control and relationships tensions like the characters in the OT. Real and perceived failures in our lives frequently bring us to consider suicide. But the narratives in the Bible show that God could always be an alternative to our difficulties. Hope is something our faith could offer for this world.

 

1 Soanes, Catherine and Angus Stevenson. Concise Oxford English Dictionary. 11th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

2 Terri L. Snyder, “Suicide, Slavery, & Memory in North America”, Journal of American History 97(2010)1, 39, 54.

3 Steven Stack & Augustine J. Kposowa, “The Association of Suicide Rates with Individual-Level Suicide Attitudes: A Cross-National Analysis”, Social Science Quarterly 89(2008)1, 39-40.

4 Ibid, 41-42.

5 Ibid, 55-56.

6 Jie Zhang, “Marriage & Suicide among Chinese Rural Young Women”, Social Forces 89(2010)1, 311-326.

7 Paul W.C.Wong, April W.M.Yeung, Wincy S.C.Chan, Paul S.F.Yip, Arthur K.H.Tang, “Suicide Notes in Hong Kong in 2000”, Death Studies 33(2009)4, 372-381.

8 Ibid, 379.

9 Dennis P. Hollinger, “A Theology of Death,” In Suicide: A Christian Response, ed. Demy Timothy J & Stewart, Gary P. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998, 257-268.

10 Ibid, 264.

11 Donal P. O’Mathuna, “But the Bible doesn’t say they were wrong to commit suicide, does it?” Suicide: A Christian Response, ed. Demy Timothy J & Stewart, Gary P. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998, 349-368.

12 Among the cases, some committed suicide as a tragic ending to their lives. Some are displaying cruel actions in their lives which resulted in suicide finally. All have gone through serious inner turmoil which resulted in troubled relationship with God. This obviously is not an example we should follow though no disapproving words could be found explicitly in the Bible. For details, refer O’Mathuna.

 

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