Heroism, Martyrdom, and Suicide: Thoughts on Self-Immolation

Polycarp, the martyred bishop of Smyrna. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The suicide by self-immolation of Rev. Charles Moore, a retired UMC pastor from Texas, has inspired a host of responses by those troubled by his startling death.  Unfortunately, his suicide has been turned into a call to arms by many, and even an instance of hero worship or martyrological fascination by others.  With due respect for his lifetime of ministry and his family, I believe some clarification is in order.

Martyrdom is Not Sought Out

Many commenters have hinted at Rev. Moore’s status as a martyr, and at least one blogger was bold enough to outright assert it.  The problem is that martyrdom is never something that, according to Scripture and our earliest witnesses, is ever supposed to be sought out.  Take, for instance, the comment about Quintus, a Christian who handed himself over to the authorities, seeking the glory of a martyr’s death from The Martyrdom of Polycarp:

“But a certain man named Quintus…when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was he who constrained himself and others to come in of their own accord. This man, the proconsul, with much importunity, persuaded to swear and to sacrifice. On this account, brethren, we praise not them that give themselves up, since the gospel doth not so teach.”

This is contrasted with the approach of Polycarp, who did all in his power to avoid martyrdom, and who blessed his persecutors even as they came to arrest him.  Martyrdom is not to be sought intentionally, and nor is it something that is self-inflicted.

Heroism is a Communal Achievement

‘Heroism’ is one of those words that has become flattened through overuse.  We apply it too easily, and thus have cheapened the ambitious call to excellence that the heroic label entails.  Many who commented on Rev. Moore’s suicide implied he was a hero, if not for the way he died, for the causes which drove him to self-immolate.  A Reconciling Ministries Network article likened him to Jesus but quickly tried to distance from that analogy:

“Even Jesus, who led a parade from the east of Jerusalem on a colt the same day that Pilate led his Roman legion on a white stallion from the west, knew that such an act would lead to his arrest and likely execution as an insurrectionist against Rome. However, placing yourself in harm’s way out of conviction is still very different from taking one’s own life. If we had had the opportunity to talk to Charles before he took this drastic step, we most certainly would have tried to talk him out of it.”

In their marvelous book Heroism and the Christian Life, Brian Hook and R.R. Reno  seek to reclaim a particularly Christian vision of heroism by examining the gospel narratives, the ancient views of heroism, and the critiques of Christianity’s greatest critic, Nietzsche.  Part of their argument is that heroism entails both recognition (by a community) and imitation (it is worthy of repetition):

“Starved for ‘real heroes’, we latch onto the extraordinary and elevate the agent to the stage of hero.  The problem is that heroes are people who possess remarkable virtues and abilities, and are not unique acts.  Since true heroism entails recognition and emulation, the incidental hero fails. ” (12)

The hero is formed, recognized, and imitated over the course of a lifetime; in short, one incident does not a hero make, let alone an act neither condoned nor imitated by one’s community.

Naming the Silence

Many, myself included, were and are disturbed by Rev. Moore’s death.  I would posit that the best name for the resulting silence is tragedy.  Note the first two definitions listed by Merriam-Webster:

: a very bad event that causes great sadness and often involves someone’s death

: a very sad, unfortunate, or upsetting situation : something that causes strong feelings of sadness or regret

We can, and should, respect that Rev. Moore lived out his convictions with such boldness – regardless of whether we share them.  An encounter with the living Lord should call us to solidarity with the widow, alien, and orphan – and all who are forgotten, abused, and oppressed.  For the dedication to that Kingdom work I give thanks.  How then, might we best remember Rev. Moore?

I’m reminded of a movie scene.  At the end of The Last Samurai, the young emperor asks Captain Algren how his mentor and friend died.  In the closing line of the film, Algren replies, “I would tell you how he lived.”

I would suggest we honor Rev. Moore’s memory by remembering how he lived, and for what he lived.  From what I have gleaned, he had a lasting impact on the church in Texas and the communities he served.  That he felt his work inadequate or unsuccessful, such that self-immolation was a necessary or desirable end to fulfill his vocation, is a tragedy.

My prayers are with Rev. Moore, his family, and his loved ones.  May we all turn our dreams, our desires, and our hopes over to the one in whom no work is wasted, and no life or ministry, however great or small, is worthless.  I rejoice that Rev. Moore is at peace. Let us who remain tarry on, in hope that “the one who began a good work among [us] will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:16, NRSV)

7 thoughts on “Heroism, Martyrdom, and Suicide: Thoughts on Self-Immolation”

  1. I have no desire to argue whether or not Moore is a martyr. I do however think your rush to judge Moore’s actions misses the mark. Like Augustine, I have taken the path of “dare not passing judgment lightly.”

    “But, they say, during the time of persecution certain holy women plunged into the water with the intention of being swept away by the waves and drowned, and thus preserve their threatened chastity. Although they quitted life in this wise, nevertheless they receive high honour as martyrs in the Catholic Church and their feasts are observed with great ceremony. This is a matter on which I dare not pass judgment lightly. For I know not but that the Church was divinely authorized through trustworthy revelations to honour thus the memory of these Christians.” (City of God I.26)

    Also, I think the most important part of Sid and Gil’s piece was their reflection on how this tragic event has affected us:

    “The fact that we recoil in horror over the self-inflicted and horrific circumstances of Charles’s death and yet normalize our direct and indirect participation in acts ranging from systemic oppression based on race, sexual orientation, or income, to grisly bombings of children, women and men….was precisely the very desperate point Charles felt that he had to illuminate with his own body, his own life.”

    1. I don’t recall passing judgment on Rev. Moore, Andy. I did say we should honor his life and ministry and give thanks, and pray for his family. I only wished to clarify that his suicide was neither heroic (at least on one reading) nor martyrdom (for it was not at the hands of or caused by another). I appreciate the Augustine quote but I think running away from danger – much like Polycarp did before he was arrested – is significantly different than choosing suicide. I am in favor, though, with Augustine, of leaving hard decisions to the mind of the whole church. I’m not sure that is a particularly popular opinion, though. Thanks for stopping by.

    2. The actions of Moore–however we want to describe them–fit no better with the logic of holy women seeking to preserve their consecrated virginity against violation than they do with martyrdom on the Ignatian model. They rather fit with the logic of 1960s-era protest statements. This was, ironically enough, affirmed in an explicit way in the blog post that referred to Moore as a martyr. His actions classify him as an activist or a protester with an extreme way of demonstrating a point in emotivist fashion. I find it impossible to defend on any Christian theological basis, given that we are those who are called to treat our own bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. And it is perfectly fine to engage in such discussion or debate on such matters–to suggest otherwise and thus shut down intellectual discourse is to conceive of Moore’s actions as beyond the possibility of proper critique. He was able to determine the terms of his own death, but he does not get to determine the terms by which that death is interpreted.

  2. It seems to me that what is actually going on here has little to do with the man, and more to do with the reasoning of the man. I doubt very strongly that if the man self-immolated himself over an esoteric point in an academic theological debate, people would be clamoring to be the first to call him a martyr. That’s simply because esoteric points aren’t in vogue in today’s media driven narrative; but you get a guy who self-immolates himself over LGBTQ issues or the perception that racism is as prevalent, or more prevalent today, well, that fits the narrative and it gets “clicks”. If there is anything that people who would self-immolate themselves love, it’s attention.

    Which brings up the second point: the actual, underlying cause of Moore’s suicide wasn’t (as people who buy into the narrative are led to believe) a profound sense of justice, it was narcissism.

    “Wow, that’s harsh”. Yes, but look at the reasons he, himself, gave [taken from Hood’s blog]: “HIS frustration with the United Methodist Church’s position on human sexuality, opposition to the death penalty, disdain for racism, HIS deep anger at Southern Methodist University’s decision to house the George W. Bush Presidential Center”.

    The primary subject in that description, from Hood’s blog is “his”. It was Moore’s opinion that, in his view, nothing was being done. He had spent his entire ministry fighting what he perceived to be the good fight and nobody was “listening”. So because he wasn’t being paid attention to, he was “going to make them listen”. This is equivalent to a petulant child child asking for two scoops of ice cream and when the parents give him only one, he throws it on the ground in protest. The act of protest isn’t because of the injustice of one scoop of ice cream, it’s because of the perceived injustice that the parent didn’t take the child as seriously as the child took itself. Again, narcissism.

    I have little doubt that Moore felt he was doing it for the right reasons; but there is a difference between doing it for the right reasons, and rationalizing to oneself that one is doing it for the right reason. The presence of Moore’s outrage over the hosting of the GWB library on SMU’s campus shows the profound lack of rationality, and the presence of a significant political, not moral, bias in Moore’s decision making. One does not simply self-immolate himself over who is renting what from one’s alma mater. “But Bush killed thousands!”. Yes, and Obama has vastly expanded the drone program killing just as many, but you didn’t see that protest in Moore’s letters.

    In the end what you are left with is a man who bought so far into the left’s narrative that the US is a cesspool of racist, bigoted, and hateful people (a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah), that he killed himself over a perception (caused by said narrative) that in HIS opinion, nobody was taking what HE thought was important (and by extension, HIM), seriously – narcissism.

    And the people who hold him up as a martyr are simply using the man to further their – and what is the root cause of this – political agenda. It’s a tragedy, on all fronts.

    1. Yeah, I agree with Davis on this one. This man has been completely brainwashed and overcome with invented white guilt. Daily I question myself to what kind of reality similar to the Matrix that we sheep our way through. If “concerned” sheeple would look into history a little bit, not just watch half truths on the history channel or similar channels. I’m deeply concerned with this paradigm that is in motion, it’s horrifying and nearly impossible for me to wrap my head around this. Just my two little cents.

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