Denying Suicide the Last Word Through Agape Love

The force which would cause us to put the rope around our own neck, I assume, is not distinct from the nihilistic darkness which assails everyone from without. The darkness within and without, that is, is presumably of a piece – the dysfunctional family, the real-world loneliness and alienation, vexing cruelty, or the seeming pointlessness of everything, converge with our inward bent. Or are depression and despair an untreatable and untraceable interior experience? The suicide of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both of whom had reached the heights of success in their respective fields, might seem to mystify suicide – to contradict the notion that suicidal despair is traceable or circumstantial. Bourdain’s mother, Gladys Bourdain, told The New York Times: “He is absolutely the last person in the world I would have ever dreamed would do something like this.” But Bourdain and Spade belonged to a world – food and fashion – which not only does not lend itself to giving voice to despair, neither provides an inherent counter voice.  Food and fashion, the world of the aesthete in Kierkegaardian terms, may not have provided the impetus to continue to get up in the morning. The despair of the human condition is neither articulated nor addressed but is accommodated in aesthetic pursuits. It is not that Bourdain or Spade did not have reason to kill themselves. The futile desire which grips us all is unquenchable, but chefs and fashion designers depend upon this desire for their livelihood, and perhaps, in this instance, for their life?  

The suicide of a Kurt Cobain, Sylvia Plath, or Yukio Mishima, is no less disturbing but it comes with a warning. Philosophical nihilism, grunge music, poetic alienation, articulates the experience of suicidal hopelessness. There may be even more shock attached, though, in that those who give voice to despair have seemingly been able to step back from the abyss. The objective articulation arises from the subjective experience but the two come from a very different place. The nihilist articulating the experience has not finally or completely succumbed to death dealing despair.  The voice that would articulate despair is a counter voice to the final silence, in that the drive toward death is a force of silence preceding the final silence.  Nihilism is then, the final articulation which precedes a final act of despair. It is the philosophical equivalent of a final call to the suicide hotline – “I see no reason to go on but the fact that I have called you means I am open to counterarguments.”  One might find a certain camaraderie, comfort, or fulfillment in having made the call.

Mishima describes his own battle as a novelist and as a militant right winger as the staging of his interior struggle between words and silence. The world of writing, articulation, celebrity culture, and the world of politics, and manly action, pitted the world of his mother against that of his father. His father detested the feminine world of writing (a sensibility lost in the West but which endured in Japan) so that he destroyed his sons writing when he found it. The voice of his father would come to dominate, as Mishima turned to weight lifting, militarism, and eventually suicide. The voice of the father, the voice of the law in Pauline terms, would silence his capacity to articulate and would cut him off (literally, with his decapitation by a second) from what Mishima called the “white ants of words” eating at his flesh.

The inherent conflict giving rise to despair – taking into account (as with Cobain, Plath, and Mishima) the circumstance of a lost parent, an isolated childhood – is the isolated, alienated ego. Plath describes a loss of belief in tenderness and motherly love: “How I would like to believe in tenderness —-” she opines. Cobain, as indicated in his journals, seems not to have survived his parents’ divorce.  Mishima, removed from his parents and confined with his demanding grandmother, would spend his life searching for love. Disemboweling followed by decapitation, creating a private gas chamber, blowing out his brains, was the final act – the last word aimed at resolving loveless despair.

Love lost is, perhaps, not the cause but the aggravation of the isolation into which we all seem to be weaned. Where there is no intervention, no counter current of love, the proclivities of despair are allowed to run their course. Futile desire, the death drive, the masochistic orientation, seem not to be stymied by our achievements. The striving, the resistance itself, allows death to take hold and suicide is, perhaps, the “natural” result.

Isn’t Judas following the course of least resistance which is carrying along all of the apostles in their various betrayals and denials? Judas’ gain at the expense of Jesus (30 pieces of silver) is different from Peter’s salvaging his life through denial, only by degree. Even prior to his denial, Peter’s taking of Malchus’ ear is a suicidal act (suicide by Temple Police). The general abandonment and hiding of the group describes a situation in which, given an uninterrupted course of events, would have driven all of the disciples to a Judas/Peter like desperation.

The difference the teaching of Jesus makes is that at some point – perhaps with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, the high priestly prayer, the resurrection appearances and final discourse – Jesus message of agape love comes to constitute the alternative to murder/suicide. At least this is the portrayal of John – Peter will be cleansed of his denial in the final scene of the Gospel by coming to understand and embrace Jesus’ notion of self-sacrificial love. This is not simply an addition to salvation or a goal of salvation – agape is salvation. It is precisely salvation in the face of the murderous and suicidal orientation infecting everyone around Christ, including the apostles.

While it may be (in Greek literature and the Septuagint) that there is no clear semantic distinction between agape (αγαπάω) and phileo (φιλέω), this simply adds to Jesus’ distinctive point in John 13-17. Jesus is developing a distinctive notion of love that exceeds contemporary notions and an Old Testament understanding. The initial agape command (a “New Command”) is addressed to all the disciples but Jesus’ primary point, that agape lays down its life, emerges only in conjunction with Peter’s multiple misunderstandings. Four scenes make it clear that agape lays down its life in sacrificial service (as in the foot washing) and does not resist death (as in the denial prediction) nor does it sacrifice the other (as with Peter’s cutting off Malchus’ ear). Jesus’ command to “love one another” (αγαπάτε αλλήλους), specifically, “as I loved” (καθώς ήγάπησα; 13:34; 15:12), and to do so by laying down one’s life (13:37-38; 15:13) builds upon his initial discussion of αγάπη and self-sacrificial discipleship in conjunction with the foot washing (in 13:31-38). The consummation of this discussion, around a charcoal fire, undoes denial and the cowardice, failure of friendship, fear of death, and murderous and suicidal violence denial entails. Whether or not the play of the vocabulary is significant,[1] the point that disciples are only made and sustained through sacrificial love is clearly significant. This is what John must mean when he pictures salvation as belief in Jesus: “that believing you may have life in His name” (Jn 20:31).

The new commandment of agape love is life giving, in Jesus’ picture, as it eradicates alienation and isolation. Keep this commandment and “you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love” (Jn 15:10). Jesus’ agape intervenes where the lost father, broken family, and obscene authority, have aggravated alienation. Salvation is being adopted into a new family, it is being joined in a marriage like relationship, it is finding brothers and sisters. In its most simple and explicit form, salvation is to have found enduring friendship: “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you” (Jn 15:12–14). Here is the Word that intervenes and controverts the silent orientation to self-destruction.

[1] Jesus asks two times if Peter has agape love for him, and each time Peter replies that he has phileo love for him. Jesus then switches to phileo love for his third question.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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