We found out today that an undergraduate student committed suicide. Working here at Marsh Chapel, I am involved to a certain extent in the pastoral care of the campus following events such as these. Even as we go about the business of consoling bereft and grieving friends, relatives, classmates, professors and even those who never knew him but still feel the loss deeply, it is a reminder that we have failed to share the life-giving love of Christ as we ought.
My first move upon hearing the news was to look him up on Facebook. What a wonderful tool for ministry! There are two people who share this name here at Boston University. I should not be surprised; there are some thirty thousand students here. It is relatively easy to discern who it is because one is a graduate student. I hesitate, hovering over the appropriate link before clicking it. What would the profile of someone who commits suicide look like? I would expect it to have few friends, few pictures, few groups, few recent posts on the wall, few if any recent entries on the mini-feed. I would expect that the depression that leads to suicide would be reflected in a spare and bare profile. I click the link. I am surprised to find that, in fact, he had many friends, many photos, many groups, many recent posts on his wall, many recent entries on his mini-feed. The two most recent entries are new friends added. My heart pangs, wondering what it will feel like for that friend, also a BU student to learn of his death and to discover that she was the last friend added to his list. I scroll down and discover that he worked locally part-time. What will it be like for his coworkers to learn that he took his own life? I look at this list of "friends in other networks" and discover that he had two friends at my own alma mater. I click on the links to their profiles. They both arrived after I had already left. I can imagine them seeking out solace in the chapel where I used to worship. I realize that I am relating to this poor soul, and that I am relating to him because he is dead; I feel guilty for having failed to relate to him in life.
Tomorrow will be January 22, two years to the day that my friend Linda died. She did not commit suicide; she was murdered in her Baltimore apartment. I knew Linda through middle and high school, sharing in classes together, lunch, rides home. She was in charge of the flag squad that performed with the marching band at football games during her first two years and I was in the band. We were in the National and Math Honor Societies together. She had gone to Johns Hopkins University to study biomedical engineering and was a semester away from graduating. Her death was the advent of my experience with Facebook; I created an account so that I could see her face after she had died. We had lost touch somewhat after high school and I needed to reconnect, to re-relate. Two years later, I still mourn her death.
Last week I learned that the man who killed Linda plead guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. I am sure that for many this brings some sense of closure, but not for me. Closure is when the violence stops, when the death stops. Life in prison is not the death penalty, but in our society it is still a death. We lock away people who threaten the existence of our society and all too often we throw away the key. There is little attempt, if any, to bring healing to such people. There is certainly an intent to break off relationship. This is not courage, it is cowardice. Facing the villainy in others would mean facing the villainy in ourselves, something none of us is wont to do. It is easier, we think, to lock the problem away in a little drawer, along with all of the other things we would rather not face, and forget about them. We never stop to think that we are locking away a part of ourselves as well. We are all complicit in Linda's death. What would cause someone to do such a thing? What are the social, cultural, political, economic, and yes theological conditions that would drive a person to such a drastic point as killing someone in an attempt to steal from them? These are questions we do not like to ask. Instead, we are merely human and allow our fight or flight instincts to take over. Nevertheless, just as we are complicit in the death of this student at BU by suicide because we failed to reach out and relate until it was too late, we are complicit in Linda's death because we failed to relate to the man who killed her, and we are complicit in the killer's death because we fail, day in and day out, to relate to ourselves.
When will we learn to intentionally relate to the living? And why do we wait to relate until death's sting has already been felt?