0

In "Orthodoxy" G.K. Chesterton compares in multiple places the difference in attitude between people who kill themselves and people who let themselves be killed for Jesus' sake.

The Christian attitude to the martyr and the suicide was not what is so often affirmed in modern morals. It was not a matter of degree. It was not that a line must be drawn somewhere, and that the self-slayer in exaltation fell within the line, the self-slayer in sadness just beyond it. The Christian feeling evidently was not merely that the suicide was carrying martyrdom too far. The Christian feeling was furiously for one and furiously against the other: these two things that looked so much alike were at opposite ends of heaven and hell. One man flung away his life; he was so good that his dry bones could heal cities in pestilence. Another man flung away life; he was so bad that his bones would pollute his brethren's. I am not saying this fierceness was right; but why was it so fierce?

I don't believe that Christians will necessarily disallow suicides to be buried with everyone else these days. Has anything in Christian doctrine changed or is has the "fierceness" that Christians once hated suicide disappeared with modern understanding of psychology? Does this affect Chesterton's argument, is it yet another example he uses that's lost on the modern reader?

Expecting answers from a Chestertonian viewpoint if you can muster up one, otherwise something from Anglican / Catholic doctrine

3
  • While he does comment somewhat on how suicides are viewed by Christian, I don't think his main point relates to that view and thus even if we recognize that many are not morally culpable, it wouldn't negate the comparison to martyrs
    – eques
    Oct 13 at 17:07
  • @eques I was thinking in relation to the way certain things from the Bible don't make a ton of sense given our lack of kings and even fatherhood. Just another allusion that might fall on deaf ears or even sound worse than it is. But given the answer about "stakes at the crossroads" it was even worse than I'd thought!
    – Peter Turner
    Oct 13 at 17:21
  • 1
    but the main point he's making is that Christianity is entirely consistent when praising martyrs and discouraging suicides despite an apparently similarity between the acts
    – eques
    Oct 13 at 17:30
2

Attitudes to suicide had already changed well before the time of Chesterton. The Christian attitude described by Chesterton was already in the past. This can be seen by his use of the past tense. The Christian attitude was ... not what is affirmed in modern morals. By modern Chesterton meant, of course, those of his time, the early twentieth century.

In the same chapter Chesterton wrote:

The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe. And then I remembered the stake and the cross-roads, and the queer fact that Christianity had shown this weird harshness to the suicide. For Christianity had shown a wild encouragement of the martyr. Historic Christianity was accused, not entirely without reason, of carrying martyrdom and asceticism to a point, desolate and pessimistic. The early Christian martyrs talked of death with a horrible happiness. They blasphemed the beautiful duties of the body: they smelt the grave afar off like a field of flowers. All this has seemed to many the very poetry of pessimism. Yet there is the stake at the crossroads to show what Christianity thought of the pessimist.

The "stake at the crosroads" refers to the practice, up to 1823, of burying suicides at a crossroads with a stake through the heart. There are incidences of this still happening in early nineteenth century England. However, even a hundred years before that, the vast majority of suicide cases were judged to take place while the person was temporarily insane. If the person was temporarily insane then a normal Christian burial was held.

Whether a person was temporarily insane was not deternmined by a doctor or even a judge. It was left to a jury to determine temporary insanity.

In 1823 the law was changed and from then on even sane suicides were buried in consecrated ground, but only at night. The funeral service was still not read. In 1880 the general requirement to use the Church of England service at burials in Church of England churchyards was removed. From then on Nonconformists, Roman Catholics and others could have their own service, even though the burial was in a CofE churchyard. In 1883 this was extended to all suicides, and burial could be at any time of day. It was only that the official CofE service could not be used, which remained officially the case into the twenty-first century.

So when Chesterton refers to a stake in the heart he is talking of something that ceased almost a hundred years before he wrote. He does not seem to want it restored, and constantly refers to what he calls the Christian attitude in the past tense. They were not the attitudes of most Christians of his day.

Attitudes have changed further in the twentieth and twenty-first century but if anything this makes Chesterton's comments even more relevant. He was a great observer of paradox and is exploring the difference in attitude to suicides and martyrs, albeit not of his own day.

A further extract from the chapter goes:

An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three, but not suitable to half-past four

Chesterton's contrast between "modern" attitudes and those of earlier times is all the more relevant now, to the extent that modern attitudes have softened further. Whether Chesterton would have written as he did if he had lived now, we can only speculate. But the paradox that he was exploring is perhaps even starker now than then when we think that the long ago Christian attitude was even more different from our own day.

Deliberate suicide is still officially regarded as a sin, but Anglican and Roman Catholic alike are even readier now to assume temporary insanity, and/or make the charitable assumption of a last moment repentance.

10
  • Holy smokes, I had no idea that's what "stake at the crossroads" meant, I really need an annotated edition of Orthodoxy, I've read or listened to the original one a few times and am reading the "American Translation" now, which is pretty illuminating.
    – Peter Turner
    Oct 13 at 14:00
  • "now to assume temporary insanity, and/or make the charitable assumption of a last moment repentance" Do you have a source for a claim that Catholics "assume temporary insanity" or that a "charitable assumption of last minute repentance" amounts to allowing regular ecclesiastical funerals?
    – eques
    Oct 13 at 17:04
  • @eques temporary insanity is actually a term used in English law. Article 2282 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says "Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear ...can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide". Article 2283, also about suicide, includes "By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance".
    – davidlol
    Oct 13 at 18:17
  • I'm familiar with the concept of temporary insanity. My point was about "assume". It's one thing to say temporary insanity/psychological disturbance may influence one towards suicide and another thing to assume it underlies all suicides
    – eques
    Oct 13 at 18:19
  • @eques I see. Thank you. I don't think the Church assumes it underlies all suicides. Rather, in each individual case she assumes it, in the sense that she proceeds on that basis. This is not different from how she proceeds in any other Christian funeral. The assumption of the Church, on which any Christian funeral is based, does not imply certainty, for the true state of things is is known only to God.
    – davidlol
    Oct 13 at 18:42
1

The General Synod of the Church of England announced that suicides could receive Anglican funerals as far back as 2015.

Comments made in the linked article seem to reflect the general shift in attitude and increased understanding that the majority of suicides are no longer viewed as "self-murder", but a sad consequence of extreme mental anguish or mental illness.

However, I'm not sure this shift changes the Chestertonian view that you refer to. Chesterton was not simply talking about the suicides of depressed people. Your quoted text highlights a difference between, for example, Christians who died at the hands of persecutors, and those that chose to 'fall upon their own sword' instead.

Indeed, the article contains statements from various individuals within the Church of England that show that they were keen to make it clear this shift in attitude did not "endorse" suicide. The final quotation from one Bishop is particularly revealing:

"If we really believe that Samson did not commit suicide but died in battle, what on earth do we make of suicide bombers?"

The shift in attitude is one of compassion and understanding for those who give in to suicide as a result of extreme mental anguish or mental illness, but there is still a clear distinction between that kind of suicide and other forms of 'self-slaying' connected with martyrdom, as described by Chesterton.

2
  • Samson killed invaders and oppressors; suicide bombers kill innocent civilians, who invade and oppress no one.
    – Lucian
    Oct 12 at 18:27
  • 1
    @lucian I agree. Samson was already about to die at the hands of the Philistines. What he did was God to deliver justice on them, not changing his own outcome. I think those were poorly chosen words by the synod, but I think the point they were trying to make was that this is another area of debate which they were not getting into. The focus of their change was just those who take their life as a result of extreme mental anguish or mental illness overshadowing their rational thought process. Oct 13 at 8:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.