Christ Our Light and the Horror of Self-Immolation

What would cause a man to burn himself alive?

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What would cause a man (and in almost every case it is a man) to burn himself alive? Two men in recent months have publicly done so: one protesting the Israeli assault on Hamas, the other’s motive somewhat unclear but somehow connected to the trial of Donald Trump.

In the Roman Martyrology, we often read of the faithful being burned alive by authorities who feared Christ and His ability to evoke a loyalty higher than any on earth. In the case of St. Joan of Arc, the immolationists were Church authorities who betrayed their Lord. Human immolation appears in many cultures, sometimes as a method of execution or as a form of sacrifice. Pagans had their reasons for doing things. One of the paramount successes of the spread of Christianity was the overthrow of paganism and its attendant despair with the hope of eternal life with Christ.

But the two recent examples of self-immolation seem like (at best) a return to pagan darkness or (at worst) a post-pagan nihilism devoid of any kind of hope. The best-known instance of human self-immolation is that of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who took his own life to protest alleged oppression by the Catholic-led government in 1963. The image of “the burning monk” has become, in our post-modern era, a symbol of…well, something. 

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The socialist rap-rock band Rage Against the Machine used a photo of the incident on an album cover promoting the tearing down of the capitalist system. Arun Starkey, writing about the album’s cover photo by Associated Press reporter Malcolm Browne, asserts that “the photograph was so moving that the widespread international attention it garnered led U.S. President John F. Kennedy to withdraw its support for Diệm’s government.” And just like that, the burning of a human being became a political act against Christianity rather than a lamentable action to kill Christians who nevertheless died with the supernatural, grace-filled hope of Heaven.

The 1960s, being the cesspool of confusion it was, brings us the case of Roger LaPorte, who set himself aflame on November 9, 1965, in front of the U.N. building, and died the next day. What set LaPorte apart from the Buddhist self-immolation was the fact of his being a Catholic. Indeed, he was affiliated with the Catholic Worker (CW). Critics of the CW see its trajectory over the years as starting from a personalist, works-of-compassion organization but, by the 1960s, becoming increasingly political. In short, the CW mimicked American Catholicism, trading the Good News for a mess of politicized pottage. 

In a fascinating exploration of life issues and Catholic doctrine, CW co-founder Dorothy Day reflects on LaPorte’s death. While admitting that his death could be equated with suicide, she makes a defensible (though not unassailable) case that LaPorte was offering himself as a “victim soul,” a tenable action in Catholic teaching. But was he? Or did his action bespeak despair, which is a mortal sin if fully acquiesced to. He did make a confession to a priest before he died, which speaks in his favor. 

None of us who have had a loved one die from apparent suicide want to believe that person is now in Hell. I write this as a man who has had two uncles take their lives with guns. I, myself, suffer from depression. God is just. God is truth. God is merciful. The souls of the departed are in God’s hands.

These acts of self-immolation, unlike the usually hidden act of suicide by gunshot, overdose, or hanging, are public acts, designed for maximum public impact and to draw in an audience. Flames draw the attention of people. That the mysterious gift of fire, which can be so useful to human needs, is used to end one’s life, makes the act all the more incomprehensible.

This is doubly so when a nonbeliever performs the act. Ancient pagans had some sort of belief system; modern post-pagans have not. And so the acts of post-Christians are rooted in despair, indicative of a civilization bereft of its identity, as if fallen prey to amnesia or some form of dementia. Worse yet, it could be a civilization which has renounced its identity, thus dooming itself to decline and disappearance.

Under these circumstances, it is tempting for a Christian to give up. There are a number of counter-arguments to be found in Scripture, history, and the great Western literary tradition, but the example I think of first comes from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In the third book (The Return of the King), Gondor’s proud steward, Lord Denethor, sees only ruin, defeat, and death ahead for the forces of good. He arranges to take his dying son Faramir to the Houses of the Dead and plans to burn him.

Gandalf—in some ways a stand-in for Christ—tells Denethor that rather than commit suicide without a fight, it is right to die fighting even in a lost cause. He rebukes Denethor for making himself like the heathen kings of old who slew “themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.” He snatches away Faramir from his grief-stricken father, but Denethor still manages to immolate himself.

Denethor, Gondor’s steward, cannot bear to humble himself before the lawful king, just as the Roman torturers and executioners fought against their rightful king, the One who informed Pontius Pilate of his lack of power except what was allowed by Heaven.

Flames are not something God wants for His people. In theophanies of the Lord (like the burning bush, or at other visions) flames are a warning for people to respect the Holy and sacred. God protects the three young men from the flames of the Babylonians but allows the enemy to be consumed by the flames. The three young men sing a great song of thanksgiving (“Benedicite”) while in the midst of the flames. Even to those who die with venial sins, God allows fire to purify but not destroy. Only to the willfully disloyal does God allow flame to inflict everlasting pain in Hell.

The question remains: What would cause a man to burn himself alive? It cannot be that Christ and His Church have failed, but it may be that we have.

[Photo: Max Azzarello protests in front of Trump trial the day before he set himself on fire (Credit: Getty Images)]


  • Greg Cook

    Greg Cook is a writer living with his wife in New York’s North Country. He earned two master’s degrees, including one in public administration from The Evergreen State College. He is the author of two poetry collections: Against the Alchemists, and A Verse Companion to Romano Guardini’s ‘Sacred Signs’.

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