Jul 7, 2014

A minister's suicide for social justice

Charles Robert Moore, a 79-year-old Methodist minister, left a note on his car in the parking lot of a Dollar General in Grand Saline, Texas:

He then set himself on fire.

According to the Tyler Morning Telegraph, there was also a longer letter in the car, titled, "O GRAND SALINE, REPENT OF YOUR SINS." Moore, who is white, wrote that "America, and Grand Saline … have never really repented for the atrocities of slavery and its aftermath. What my hometown needs to do is open its heart and its doors to black people as a sign of the rejection of past sins."

The minister had a long history of advocating for social justice causes. He worked to desegregate churches in Texas in the 1950s, went on a hunger strike to protest the Methodist church's position on homosexuality in 1995, and helped to organize the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The fire was put out by people from a nearby hair salon. Moore died later that same day, June 23.

A woman from the hair salon said they saw Moore but at first didn't realize what he was doing.

"He had been walking around the parking lot for a while, but he didn't seem like anything was wrong," she told the Tyler Morning News. "After awhile we saw him grab something square and knelt down. Then we saw him grab a gas can and begin pouring something all over him. We were like, 'Is that gas?'"

Charles Roger Moore
Moore had originally planned the self-immolation for Southern Methodist University on June 19, the
day news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached the slaves in Texas during the Civil War, according to the United Methodist News Service.

He wrote in his private notes that after a life of advocating for social justice, including gay rights, racial equality and the abolition of the death penalty, that he felt paralyzed to effect change. He was a "paralyzed soul."

In the suicide note he left on the car, Moore writes that he did it because he was haunted by the violence of the past, and hoped to move others to oppose injustice in the future.

Moore had been struggling with the idea of killing himself for several years, according to the United Methodist News Service. He was influenced strongly by the model of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor killed during World War II for participating in an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer is considered a martyr by many American Christians, and a model for how to resist injustice.

In his notes, 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.
The family decided to release the diaries and the letters he wrote explaining his actions in the hopes that Moore's last act would be seen for what it was, an extension of his life's work.

Speaking for the family, Methodist minister Bill Renfro told the United Methodist News Service that it "would have been nice to have had some sort of counseling, somebody to point out that his life had mattered, that he hadn't failed . . . He had done plenty."

Jeff Hood, a Southern Baptist minister who works for the anti-death penalty organization that Moore helped to start, has urged people not to call Moore insane. That, he writes on his blog, is to turn away from Moore's last call to social justice:
When I first shared Moore's story with a table full of people at a Dallas restaurant, everyone immediately declared him insane. I know different.

While a graduate student in history at the University of Alabama, I spent six months studying self-immolations that took place in both the United States and in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. With stark consistency, the persons who self-immolated that I studied were remarkably sane and unquestionably persons of deep conviction. The temptation of the hour will be to turn our heads and call The Rev. Charles Moore insane. If we do . . . we should also turn our heads from Jesus and call him insane too. For we must not forget, Jesus sat in the Garden of Gethsemane and made a conscious clear decision to step out into death . . . just like Moore.
Hood considers Moore a martyr.

The United Methodist Church official position on suicide is 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."

A memorial service is being held in Austin, Texas on July 12.