To Be Alive

Last week, I was shocked to hear that a childhood hero of mine – or, more specifically, the actor who portrayed him – had died. He was only 49 and in great health, as far as the rest of the world knows. The cause of death was not natural; it was suicide.

Jason David Frank became famous nearly 30 years ago for playing Tommy Oliver on the long-running (dare I say, never-ending) television show Power Rangers. I grew up in the 90’s, so I was naturally obsessed with the show. (Unlike most of my peers, however, I never really outgrew it.) I was there at the beginning, when the franchise was at its most phenomenally popular, and a big part of that surprise success was Tommy, the Green Ranger who joined the team and gradually took over the show. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone under the age of 40 who doesn’t remember him.

Let the record show that my obsession with Tommy was based on more than just stereotypical arguments about how cool he was and how much I loved his giant robotic Dragonzord. No, he was my favorite from the start, because my childish mind appreciated that someone was finally wearing my favorite color. (And green was my favorite color, don’t ya know, because of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Very sophisticated stuff.)

Anyway, I followed the franchise for most of its long life, even into adulthood (because I’m a geek). And as any fan can tell you, Tommy spent more time on the show than any other Power Ranger and made more return appearances than any other actor. Much of the show’s original audience outgrew it before his character was written off. That’s why, for better or worse – and despite the fact that he only stuck around for four or five of the show’s near-thirty years – many people still associate the series with Jason David Frank’s character – not to be confused with the Red Ranger, whose name on the show was also Jason (played by Austin St. John, which is actually just a stage name for Jason Geiger – and if you’re not confused yet, there was a third Jason in the cast and at least three others in the many years since).

But when Tommy first joined the show, none of us could foresee what kind of impact he would have. He was just the exciting new guy who never seemed to get enough focus. In fact, he was written off (the first time) after a short stint of about 18 episodes, which caused public outrage among parents of little boys like me, who went to their rooms and cried in bed. (I’m speaking from experience.) The show brought him back and gradually made him the focal point, to my delight.

Well, a lot has happened in the years since. I became an adult, for one thing, and I no longer idolize fallible human beings – especially the ones who play fictional characters on television. But you never totally lose the admiration you have for those childhood heroes, even if it comes from a place of nostalgia. Without going into a lot of behind-the-scenes gossip, I can at least say that Jason David Frank never committed any crimes that I’m aware of, and his real-life persona has very little impact on my sentimental feelings for the character.

But there have been plenty of times that my feelings about an actor have changed, even if I still love their onscreen portrayal. My favorite character on Smallville was played by Allison Mack – who’s now serving prison time for helping run an abusive sex cult. That came as a shock. And while the Red Ranger I mentioned earlier went on to surpass Tommy as my favorite character, the actor who played him – who spent years doing the work of a real hero as a military paramedic – is currently facing legal charges from the federal government. “Innocent until proven guilty,” but there’s a good chance he got mixed up in something he shouldn’t have. (Never mind another Red Ranger who actually killed someone with a samurai sword.)

And now, Jason David Frank has taken his own life, which is not only a tragedy for him and his family, but a sad blow to the thousands or millions of us who grew up watching him play their hero. No, I’m not suggesting we’ve suffered any kind of loss comparable to those who knew him. But it still hit me in a way few deaths have – at least with regards to celebrities or public figures. My family has known suicide victims before, but I’ve never personally been close to any of them. And I have to admit, I’ve never spent so much time thinking about it as I am right now.

Recently, a coworker told me that one of her issues with Christianity was that she didn’t believe suicide would send anyone to hell. (This naturally grew out of her own opinions, not from any theological or evidential source.) I told her such a belief was mostly a misunderstanding – that no single sin will send anyone to hell, as I’ve said before. Those of us who face punishment will be paying for all of our sins, not the worst one or the last one. And the only way to escape payment for any of them is to escape payment for all of them – through the full payment made for our sins by Christ on the cross.

But this all assumes that suicide is a sin, as Christians have always believed. And while I recognize that Christians still sin, it doesn’t change the sinfulness of the thing. Maybe the sinner is no worse than anyone else, but the sin has to be addressed. Our society isn’t very good at that anymore, because the only relationship we want with sin is acceptance. But sin isn’t merely something to be sad about. It’s something to reject, to repent of, to rise above.

I know this isn’t a popular point. And for those of you who ever lost a loved one to suicide, I recognize how painful this topic may be. (In fact, if you’re still grieving, I realize none of this will be of any comfort or help to you right now. Please, don’t feel it’s directed at anyone in your situation. People usually need time to heal before wrestling with things like this.) But we can’t avoid talking about difficult things forever, especially if they’re true. This may not be easy to hear (or say), but it still needs to be said: suicide is a terrible sin. It is – as it used to be known – self-murder, the taking of an innocent life which in this case happens to be our own.

The only reason we fail to recognize this now is because our culture has grown accustomed to thinking we have the right to do as we please with that which belongs to us. But just because we have the legal, natural right to do something doesn’t mean it’s morally right. Our actions impact others as well. And it is morally wrong – sinful, in fact – to hurt others, especially with intent.

And coming at this from a Christian perspective, it must be said that when we leave God out of the picture, we always come away with an incomplete view of right and wrong. Just as it’s wrong to hurt others – for example, by ending your own life and thus causing them grief – it’s wrong to commit any act that defies God. In fact, this is the principle by which all other sins are determined. When we claim authority and even ownership of our lives from God, we are always in sin.

To put it simply, we answer to God for what we do with our lives because they ultimately belong to Him. This is why it’s wrong to kill another human being – not just because we have no right to what is theirs, but because we have no right to what is God’s. It’s the thing that separates us from animals: every human life has inherent value because we were created in the image of God. He has made us like Him in our capacity for love and wisdom and morality, which makes every human life precious as a result.

Unfortunately, we live in a godless society. And in our efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness, we’ve overcorrected (as we always do) to the point of only sympathizing with suicide victims and even glamorizing them as social martyrs. We’re afraid to recognize what they’ve done as a moral wrong, which means others will approach the same decision with no thought of shame – much less judgment. In fact, they may hope to be remembered with the same fondness and remorse they’ve seen for others.

And I believe that’s one of the reasons suicide continues to be such a problem (as with all sin): because nobody has any fear of answering to God for their actions.

Let me be honest: I’ve struggled in the past with the kinds of thoughts that often lead to suicide. Many times, I’ve thought people would only appreciate me if I were suddenly gone. And what better way to teach them that lesson than to make it happen and show them firsthand?

But notice where this kind of thinking comes from. I confess, such thoughts are purely self-centered. If not for a keen self-awareness of that fact (given the weakness of my faith at those times), I’m not sure I would’ve survived the temptation. And this is the ugly truth about suicide: those who succumb to the temptation are doing it for themselves. For all the talk of self-love as a solution to despair, suicide is a selfish act – one meant to release us from our present sufferings, regardless of the consequences or morality of doing so. Sure, some do it in a state of mental breakdown… but the same can be said for any sin or crime. It doesn’t change the immorality of the act itself.

One of Jason David Frank’s costars, Johnny Yong Bosch, gave the most honest response to the news of any that I heard: he admitted to feeling grief, anger, and regret. The grief is obvious; the regret is natural. But the anger is important too. When someone we love commits suicide, we have good reason to be angry. Even if we sadly contributed to their emotional turmoil, we didn’t force them to pull the trigger (so to speak). That’s not to say we bear no responsibility for how we treat people; we absolutely do. But we shouldn’t ultimately blame ourselves for not doing enough. Jason David Frank made his own decision, as does anyone who takes a life.

It’s perfectly right to be angry with someone for killing our loved ones (or even total strangers). Why should we not then be angry with someone for taking their own life? Just because they’re not killing someone else doesn’t mean they didn’t still take a life and rob someone of a father, mother, sibling, spouse, or child. To do so is a terrible sin, no matter whose life we take. And that’s why suicide is so hard to cope with: because the party involved is both the victim and the killer. That sounds harsh, but it’s precisely the case. The offending party just happens to be committing the crime against himself.

When Jason David Frank killed himself, he left behind four children – one still a teenager – to deal with the loss. At best, he chose to end his current pain at the cost of theirs. At worst, he chose the ultimate guilt trip to teach someone a lesson. Assuming he was of sound mind, this was a cruel and cowardly thing to do. And regardless of how little he may have thought anyone cared about him – which they did – he still had a duty and responsibility to his children, even if they were adults. He neglected that for his own sake and saddled them with the emotional trauma of not only losing their father, but knowing he intentionally deprived them of his presence.

Certainly, I’m grieved at the thought of anyone feeling so low as to commit such an act. And I’m heartbroken to hear this about someone I looked up to – however superficial that may have been. We shouldn’t harden our hearts; we should do what we can to prevent such a tragedy. Nevertheless, there is shame in this for the victim. We should all recognize that – Christian or not – as we used to. But in a society that increasingly supports “assisted suicide” by the very same doctors sworn to treat us, it’s little wonder people think we have a right to kill ourselves. As a Christian, I know my life is not just my own – it belongs to God. And if I end it, I’m just as accountable as if it were someone else. The sin may not be equal in degree, but it is still sin.

I suppose it’s possible for a Christian to take his own life. Christians sin all the time; and it’s worth noting here that Jason David Frank apparently identified as a Christian. I hope for his sake that he was. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that makes it acceptable. If we expect God to forgive us for flagrant or habitual sin – for sins we’re still practicing or about to commit – we should re-examine our faith. If our faith doesn’t produce good works, it’s a dangerous sign that we may not truly have accepted Christ’s forgiveness.

My heart breaks now when I think of Tommy Oliver – not just because he’s gone, but because he left the world through sin. That doesn’t fill me with confidence for his soul, nor should it. To be sure, I would much rather believe that he – or anyone, for that matter – trusted in Christ before making such a terrible mistake. But taking someone’s life – even your own – isn’t merely a mistake.

If someone asks God to forgive them for a murder they’re about to commit, the sincerity of their faith should naturally be called into question. We shouldn’t ask if a Christian can commit suicide, but if they would. And short of a mental breakdown (which I dare say, I hope for in cases like this), it’s hard to answer yes. For the sake of our loved ones, our souls, and those we may influence, we need to realize that.

My old hero died just before Thanksgiving – a fine time to inflict such a loss on his family. I wish he had been here to give thanks for his life instead of throwing it away. It truly is a gift.

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