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