“[G]iving my body to be burned, with love in my heart”

In one note, hand dated June 16, 2014, Moore wrote: “This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family.”

In another note, Moore said his mental and physical health was good, that he was enjoying life and adored his wife, but that he also felt he was a “paralyzed soul,” unable to bring to fruition the social change he felt was urgent. He declared it his “destiny” to give his life for a cause.

The late Rev. Charles Moore, who set himself on fire as a protest against injustice.

The late Rev. Charles Moore, who set himself on fire as a protest against injustice.

When my wife read the story from the United Methodist News Service this morning, I wasn’t sure what to think.  There are many Christian traditions we United Methodists uphold; martyrdom, however, isn’t one of them.  As a sidebar to this story notes, the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church does not support suicide, while providing spiritual comfort to survivors and encouraging education and help for those suffering from severe depression that could lead to suicide, as well as removing the stigma that too often follows upon it:

We believe that suicide is not the way a human life should end. Often suicide is the result of untreated depression, or untreated pain and suffering. The church has an obligation to see that all persons have access to needed pastoral and medical care and therapy in those circumstances that lead to loss of self-worth, suicidal despair, and/or the desire to seek physician-assisted suicide. We encourage the church to provide education to address the biblical, theological, social, and ethical issues related to death and dying, including suicide. United Methodist theological seminary courses should also focus on issues of death and dying, including suicide.

A Christian perspective on suicide begins with an affirmation of faith that nothing, including suicide, separates us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). Therefore, we deplore the condemnation of people who complete suicide, and we consider unjust the stigma that so often falls on surviving family and friends.

We encourage pastors and faith communities to address this issue through preaching and teaching. We urge pastors and faith communities to provide pastoral care to those at risk, survivors, and their families, and to those families who have lost loved ones to suicide, seeking always to remove the oppressive stigma around suicide. The Church opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Yet, the story makes clear that Rev. Moore was happy in his life.  He loved his family.  He would have preferred to live.  All the same, his faith pushed him toward a dramatic statement about on-going injustice in his native Texas and in the United States.  This was no ordinary “suicide”, at least as Moore understood it.  It was, rather, an act of faith, a statement of protest against pervasive injustice, sacrificing himself so that others would understand the systemic violence of the death penalty, of racism, and the persecution of sexual minorities.

The story, however, indeed indicates that Moore was frustrated that during his life he had not done more to end injustice.  This frustration, clearly, was a factor in his decision to end his life as a symbolic gesture about suffering with those who suffer.  All the same, those who survive him, his wife, children, and grandchildren, his many friends and admirers are left wondering if it would have been possible to communicate more clearly with him that this was not the way.  Self-martyrdom like this is shocking to all, from family members and friends to those who witness it without understanding its source.

His statement, from which the title is drawn, is clearly a reference to 1 Corinthians 13:1-3:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (italics added)

Yet, he did not “hand over his body”.  No one took charge of this action.  No state or other entity demanded his death.  His reliance upon Bonhoeffer’s famous dictum, “When God calls a man [sic], He bid him come and die,” was not an invitation to mass martrydom, or even self-martyrdom.  It was, rather, a way to orient our hearts and minds to understand that the Christian life is one lived out with our eyes and lives turned outward.  It is obvious that Moore’s ministry was one that was always turned outward.  That he could not alter social and legal practices, either in his state, in our nation, or our church is no fault of his own.  His death, regardless of intent or apologia from himself or others, is a tragedy.  We United Methodists are called to serve the world, to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  I am saddened that the Rev. Moore believed that his death by his own hand in this dramatic fashion would serve the cause of justice.  I have only sympathy and prayers for all those involved, from his family to the witnesses.  I only wish he had been able to share his feelings, his sense of need for a dramatic gesture like this, so that he could have come to see and understand what a difference his life had already made, that he had, as the second half of our mission statement says, a transformed world for those he had touched through his ministry and mission work.

I hope he has found peace.  I hope that from the ashes God might lift up something life-giving.  I only wish Rev. Moore could be here to see all that his life – rather than his death – had accomplished in service to the risen Christ.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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