by Mark Rodgers

Come join the murder 
Come fly with black
We’ll give you freedom
From the human trap
Come join the murder
Soar on my wings
You’ll touch the hand of God
And He’ll make you king

“Come Join The Murder” by The White Buffalo

In the finale of Sons of Anarchy, the Hamlet-inspired FX-series about a California motorcycle gang, one of the gang’s leaders, Jax Teller, decides to make the ultimate sacrifice.  Riding his motorcycle into an oncoming truck, whose driver shouts “Jesus!”, he take on the sins of his past and his gang, hoping to redeem the future for his children.  Sacrificial images abound in the 3-minute sequence, but the message and the music are mixed: was this suicide or self-sacrifice?

I ran across a young man who shared that one of his best friends just committed suicide.  The opioid epidemic and the 30-year high suicide rate are sister symptoms of the hopelessness that pervades America’s communities of economic hardship, which also include the toxic mix of PTSD, family breakdown and loss of community, including religious attendance.

Social cues, which in a healthy society would encourage people struggling with suicidal thoughts to connect with support systems, are now sending mixed messages, whether soft marketed through the TV series 13 Reasons Why, or modeled by celebrities like actor Robin Williams, Soundgarten’s Chris Cornell, Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, or New England Patriots’  Aaron J. Hernandez.

Even worse, a culture of death lives online through social bullying like the Conrad Roy case  or the sick online/viral Blue Whale challenge making its rounds among teens.

Suicide is the new murder in America. For a new generation raised / weaned on social media, the level of unhappiness and isolation is at an all-time high. And there is no question that this contributes to the conditions that lead to suicide.

How do we replace a spirit of death with a Spirit of Life?  Replace hopelessness with hope?  I believe that it will take reaffirming the role of family, community and faith in greater forces outside of ourselves.

Certainly we need to invest in the systems and support structures necessary to identify, intervene and provide services to people walking on the razor’s edge of hopelessness.  But I was reminded in a recent gathering we hosted that the key to addressing hopelessness is healthy relationships: the event, framed by the Aspen Institute’s 2Gen project, convened policy experts to discuss the role of families on poverty alleviation, with the parent-child relationship at the center.

And as Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Second Generation Study, reminds us in his popular TEDTalk, the key to happiness is authentic, healthy relationship through community, family and marriage.

In closing, I grew up with Mr. Rogers.  Yes, my father was a Mr. Rodgers, but the OTHER Mr. Rogers was a regular in our neighborhood, at least via TV.  I had the privilege of taking Fred Rogers to lunch in the Senate member dining room a year before he passed away.  A few days before the lunch, my wife and I attended a play at the Kennedy Center called Stones in His Pocket, alluding to the stones that weighed down the dashed hopes of an Irish character as he waded into a local lake to take his own life.  As Mr. Rogers and I shared our favorite theologians (he graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I attended Trinity Episcopal Seminary in Pittsburgh), I described the despair of this Irish character, and the eventual disappointment that we all experience when we pin our value, dreams and hopes on temporal things.

In response, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, worn cross.  It was taped and dirty from fingering.  He told me he carried it wherever he went.  It was made by the residents of the L’Arche community of adults with disabilities in Canada using wood fragments remaining from the coffin they built for their pastor, Henri Nouwen, the theologian and friend of Mr. Rogers.  He carried it to remind himself that everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – he saw and encountered was made in God’s image. It shouted the fact: “You are Special.”  It is no surprise that the idea for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood came from his seminary doctoral work.

In a letter penned in 1958, Pope John Paul II wrote:

“The ability to love authentically, not great intellectual capacity, constitutes the deepest part of a personality. It is no accident that the greatest commandment is to love. Authentic love leads us outside ourselves to affirming others: devoting oneself to the cause of man, to people, and, above all, to God. Marriage makes sense…if it gives one the opportunity for such love, if it evokes the ability and necessity of such loving, if it draws one out of the shell of individualism (various kinds) and egocentrism.”

So was Jax’ death suicide or self-sacrfice?  Perhaps it depends on your perspective, but I do know that the answer to hopelessness is not suicide.  The answer is sacrificial love … in community, in family and through a God who said on the cross “you are someone special.”