"Toward a Christian Theology of Suicide"

“How might a Christian theology of suicide take into account grace and sin, illness and free will? ”

Team Members/Contributors

Rhonda Mawhood Lee Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina Contact Me

About this pastoral study project

How might a Christian theology of suicide take seriously both grace and sin, illness and free will? Suicide is currently the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, killing almost 45,000 Americans in 2020. Explanations of suicide within the church tend to be simplistic, either condemning the deceased as a mortal sinner or negating their free will by treating suicide as purely the consequence of mental illness. As a survivor of parental suicide and a priest, I will explore what a more complex, and ultimately more helpful and hopeful, theology of suicide might look like.

I will engage with classical Christian sources like Augustine and Aquinas, first-person accounts of suicidality by Christian authors like Kathryn Greene-McCreight and Mary Karr, and contemporary pastoral theologians like Loren Townsend and Rachael A. Keefe. For wider context, I will study secular writers on suicide like Emile Durkheim and Jennifer Michael Hecht. A significant part of my study time will be devoted to my own personal and family history. As a child who grew up under the threat of parental suicide and a young adult bereaved by suicide, I have done considerable research into my family’s history of mental illness. I will devote much of the grant period to conducting what Arthur P. Bochner and Carolyn Ellis call “autoethnography.” My personal experience and family history will be in conversation with Christian ideas about suicide, exploring ways in which a theology of suicide could both consider the complex feelings, needs, and hopes of survivors, and serve as a resource to Christians seeking to prevent these deaths.

I imagine presenting my findings in a book that will blend empirical inquiry, theology, and memoir; in liturgies and retreats for people affected by suicide; and in pastoral care, both directly offered to people affected by suicide and suicidality and in creating circles of support, healing, and hope.