Up in flames: Self-immolation dates to political, religious figures inworld history

Published on Wednesday, 2 July 2014 22:31 - Written by Rebecca Hoeffner, rhoeffner@tylerpaper.com

On June 23, a retired minister drove to his hometown of Grand Saline, parked his car in a Dollar General lot, doused himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze.

The note he left behind explained that he committed the act as a protest of what he saw as Grand Saline’s long-standing unrepentant racist culture.

The Rev. Charles Moore died later that day from his injuries.

“A light in the fight for justice has expired,” wrote Kathy Renfro, Moore’s stepdaughter, on his online obituary page.

According to a letter written to friends and family by Kathy’s husband, Bill Renfro, Moore was concerned about more than racism.

“Charles sacrificed his life in this manner as a statement that he was dying on behalf of others to call attention to the plight of the powerless people struggling to live who are being denied justice, equality, constitutional rights, health and quality education,” reads the letter. “He gave his life on behalf of the hungry, the poor, the imprisoned, and the jobless as well.

“As written in the notes that were left behind, Charles Moore determined that he had not done enough in his life to alleviate these problems. He had not gone to Mississippi to register black voters 50 years ago; he had not participated in the Selma march; he had not fought enough for justice nor had he acted enough to erase the specter of segregation because he feared for his life or for the possibility of removal from a church or from the ministry. (His inaction is debatable since, as a young minister, he was kicked out of churches in East Texas for standing up for integration, and since he went on a hunger strike to bring attention to the polity of the United Methodist Church that would not allow gays or lesbians to hold any office within the annual conference or in local churches. These rules were relaxed some later. These are only a few of his many acts for justice during his life.) He decided that his final act would be the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of others in an attempt to fulfill in death where he had failed in life.”

Self-immolation has a long religious and political history, and usually has been used to protest injustice. The practice dates back in Chinese Buddhist tradition to the late fourth century, according to a CNN article. People of other faiths have embraced the practice, although most faiths forbid suicide. Though self-immolation has the longest history in the Buddhist tradition, it is still controversial within the faith; some see it as the ultimate self-sacrifice, while others condemn the practice.

Other religious have different roots to the practice.

“Though outlawed in India for nearly two centuries, some Hindu communities practiced the ritual of sati — in which a widowed Hindu woman would throw herself, or be thrown, on her husband’s funeral pyre,” reads the CNN article, named after a Hindu goddess of the same name.

In the mid-1800s, a Russian sect of Christians known as the Soshigateli, or the “self-burners,” burned an estimated 1,700 or more of themselves. They believed it was the only way to be purified of their sins, according to the book “The Secret Societies of All Ages & Countries” by Charles Heckethorn.

Other acts of self-immolation have been in protest of political actions. Several Vietnam protesters in the United States in 1965 and 1966 — of several different faiths, including Christian and Jewish denominations — used the practice. And, “Malachi Ritscher, 52, lit himself on fire near a downtown Chicago, Illinois, expressway in 2006,” according to the CNN article. “The musician and activist was said to be protesting the war in Iraq, but he was also reportedly a recovering alcoholic who battled depression.”

The uprising that crumbled the Tunisia government began in December 2010 with Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself ablaze. Others followed suit shortly after in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania.

But friends and family say that Moore’s actions may have been motivated by his own misplaced guilt as much as they were a protest against the culture.

The Rev. Sid Hall, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Austin, became friends with Moore when he was pastor of Grace United Methodist in Austin. Hall recalled when Moore went on a hunger strike in protest of the exclusion of the LBGTQ community from the church.

“He walked the talk of social justice in his life,” Hall said. “He understood that his privilege as a straight, white male created obligations. He didn’t feel like he ever lived up to that obligation. That’s where we disagreed. No one can live up to that. ... He did nothing without serious reflection. He had a brilliant mind, and I think he was in that mindset a lot. There will be those who want to paint him as a nutcase, but Charles was someone who really stewed about issues of conscience. ... If I’d known he was planning something like this, I would have tried to talk to him. If nothing else, Methodism is about grace. And even though Charles certainly preached that for other people, I’m not sure if he accepted it for himself.”