You may have missed it in the mainstream press.
Last week a retired United Methodist pastor in Texas set himself on fire in a shopping center parking lot.
Rev. Charles Moore intended his self-immolation as an act of social protest against the death penalty, homophobia and racism of both his denomination and his home-state.
Not only did Moore see his suicide as his destiny, he saw it as an unavoidable act of faithfulness- the place where his Gethsemane led.
Methodists, I think it’s fair to say, aren’t known being particularly exciting or taking up extraordinary means to make their point. Moore’s immolation, however, reminds Christians that the line between mysticism and mental anguish has always been a fine one.
While I certainly don’t want to make hay of another’s struggles of the soul, I do think it worthwhile pondering whether Moore’s self-immolation can be construed as faithful according to Christian grammar.
In letter he wrote in June, Rev. Moore drew an analogy between himself and the Protestant saint of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“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.”
Of course, any student of history could point out the obvious distinction that renders such an analogy erroneous: Bonhoeffer didn’t commit suicide.
Bonhoeffer didn’t choose death or martyrdom.
Bonhoeffer chose a path of faithfulness he knew might well lead to his death.
The difference could not be greater nor could their appropriation of the cross be more divergent.
Self-immolation is (I hope is clear) an outlier but nonetheless it relies upon a certain logic of the cross that is quite mainstream: the belief that a greater good can come from suffering and death.
Such a belief consequently baptizes suffering and death as means towards greater aims for it reads the Cross as what God requires/desires in order for the transaction of redemption to be complete.
The myth of redemptive suffering/violence IS a myth.
To put it more clearly if more crudely only a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement can lead to someone like Rev. Moore construing his own self-inflicted suffering as a divinely sanctioned means to a social justice end.
It’s a broad generalization but this IS a blog after all:
Rev. Moore’s logic of the Cross is no different than the understandings preached from pulpits on most Sundays and sung in nearly every 19th century hymn and contemporary CCM song.
Rev. Moore’s self-immolation reveals how destructive such interpretations of the Cross can prove.
“Jesus teaches us two things.
First, he teaches that in order to be a human being we must love fully and without condition.
Second, he teaches us that if we do love this way, they’ll kill us.”
More ably put perhaps but this is the same point McCabe makes when he writes:
“The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human…And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human.
Thus, Jesus was crucified because he was human not because the Father planned to have him killed for some greater cause.
We must always remember and never shy away from the fact that we crucified Jesus, not the Father.
We have created a world that is characterized by suffering and death—by oppression, torture, and even crucifixion. We must not become confused on this point: God never causes suffering. God is always God for us, always for human flourishing, always for love.
Jesus was killed not because God wanted him to be killed but because we wanted him to be killed.”
McCabe seeing Jesus as the truly human one is a point not altogether different from what Paul means in Romans 1 and 3 when he identifies Jesus as the Faithful One.
Because Jesus shows us what it means to be authentically, fully human, he also accordingly reveals to us what it means to be faithful. And what we see revealed by Jesus is not someone desiring death nor someone who sees violence as the means by which God chooses to redeem.
Rather in Jesus the Faithful One we see a lover of God who accepts- with no small amount of terror and regret- his death rather than resort to violence himself.
Without Easter, the Cross just is what Rome intended it to be: tragic.
And when we remember that the Cross is what we do to Jesus not what God does to Jesus we can see Rev. Moore’s act for what it so sadly is: suicide.