It’s been a somber few days for me in light of our reporting about a Methodist minister in Grand Saline who set himself on fire to protest racism in Grand Saline.
And I keep wondering: How much compassion must a person have to be in such despair about the state of racial injustice that they would do such a thing?
In his suicide note, the Rev. Charles Moore talked about his grief over race relations in Grand Saline. But his friends and family said he always was concerned about more than that racism (although that in itself is enough to make anyone discouraged): poverty, LBGT discrimination, the death penalty, public education, voting rights and corruption in politics.
Moore felt a personal responsibility for these problems, too, his friends and family said. His stepson-in-law, Bill Renfro, wrote in a letter follow his death that “as a young minister, he was kicked out of churches in East Texas for standing up for integration and … 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.”
Still, Moore felt it wasn’t enough and hoped that his final act would bring some attention to the issues.
What a heavy burden to bear.
I like to think of myself as a compassionate person, but how far would I go to make a statement? (Not that I’m in any way advocating self-immolation, suicide, or self-harm of any kind. I believe self-harm always does more harm than good for those who are left behind). I am simply speechless at the idea of such conviction.
Moore’s friend, a fellow Methodist minister named Sid Hall, said something in particular that struck me.
“If nothing else, Methodism is about grace,” he said. “And even though Charles certainly preached that for other people, I’m not sure if he accepted it for himself.”
I don’t think God expects us to solve everything. Of course, He expects us to try our best, but He knows that, if we try to go at it alone, the problems are too big for us. Maybe that’s why Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Rev. Moore chose to protest societal ills in a way that most of us won’t, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the problems that haunted him. They are real issues, and we should consider carefully what he said. His dying in vain would be even more tragic.
As I was reading about the history of self-immolation, I was struck by another case in particular, as reported by a CNN article.
A middle-aged woman named Kathy Change self-immolated at the University of Pennsylvania in front of an outdoor sculpture of the peace symbol.
“‘She was a very tall, willowy woman who would dance, across the campus,’ said Carolyn Marvin, a professor who’s specialized in freedom of expression at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. ‘She left a suicide note. And the saddest part of it was she had this idea that if she burned herself it would stop everyone in their tracks, and everyone would be good to each other.’
“Paul Root Wolpe, the director of Emory University’s Center of Ethics in Atlanta, Georgia, was a sociology professor at Penn at that time.
In a letter he wrote to the student paper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, Wolpe — who would later be asked to speak at Change’s memorial service — challenged students to not simply write her off as ‘deranged.’
“‘She was the ‘Dancing Lady’ who often floated through campus waving a banner, spouting some vague references to love and political change. She was one of those characters who bring color to a college campus — hard to ignore, but easy to dismiss — and her final protest had the same character,’ he wrote.
“‘Let us, for a moment, give her the respect of taking her act seriously. What is it you would sacrifice your time and effort — if not your life — for?’”