The Honourable Te Ururoa Flavell, Māori Party MP for Waiariki, has generated heated debate about the way Māori should treat suicide. I’ll leave you to read a little about it here and here.
Te Ururoa’s views are not new. I’ve heard many stories from older generations about how suicide victims and their families were treated at the time of tangi (funerals). In some instances, the families of suicide victims were forced to suffer great humiliation and shame. The bodies of the deceased were often interred ignominiously, denied the “honour” of burial in community cemeteries alongside ancestors and loved ones.
Something about these stories grated against my sense of faith. These stories seemed to me to be the thoughts and practices of a fearful and ignorant people.
There is no doubt that suicide among Māori, and especially young Māori, occurs at far too high a level. As a Māori Anglican Priest, I’ve buried more than a dozen victims of suicide. Each and every time I have been heartbroken to see the pain, guilt, and shame that families have to bear because of suicide. And each time, I’ve been asked the same questions:
What happens to someone who commits suicide? Do they go to heaven? Can God ever forgive them?
I answer by telling them exactly what I believe.
You see, I believe in a God of unconditional love. Absolute, life-changing, transcendant and eternal love. I believe in a God who exists beyond our limitations, and is able to forgive and heal beyond even our imaginations. Yes, even when it comes to suicide.
Suicide can only be viewed as a dreadful mistake. It’s the action of someone who is not thinking straight, who is overcome by dark thoughts and feelings, and who has somehow lost sight of the incredible value of life and living.
We all make mistakes. Most of us get to hide our mistakes, and even pretend like they never occurred at all. Suicide is not like that. It is a public, permanent and irreversible mistake. One that is so easy for us to single out and condemn.
Romans 3:23 says that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. None of us are innocent.
And yet, God forgives.
We might think that suicide somehow denies God the opportunity to forgive. It’s too late, isn’t it?
I don’t believe so. The book of Jeremiah speaks of a God who knew us before we were born:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5)
We think everything begins and ends with us. The truth is, God exists outside of our sense of time. He knew us before we were born, and you can be sure God is able to know us even after we pass away from this earth. And if that’s possible, than God can forgive us still. God can save us still.
I have absolute faith in God’s love and forgiveness: As Paul says in Romans, nothing can separate us from the love of God:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
None of this condones suicide. Suicides are an absolute tragedy and a terrible waste of life. Yes, I believe in a God who loves and forgives, whether we make mistakes or not. But we need to do all that we can to prevent suicides by cultivating care, compassion, and a reverence for life within our homes and communities.
No one should be left so alone and in despair that they contemplate taking their own lives. Beyond the loss of these precious ones, those who are truly the most traumitised are the families and loved ones left behind to mourn, grieve, and question.
Ultimately, that is the point that Te Ururoa Flavell may have missed: Funerals are not for the dead, they are for the living.
Funerals must not be taken as opportunities to project guilt and shame. Instead, they should always be a time where we reaffirm to each other that life is not nearly long enough, in fact it is far too short. We should therefore value life, value each other, and do all that we can to live good and full lives, and strive to make the lives of others better.