On the Paradox of Self-Immolation

Life and death. Violence and sacrifice. Love and pain. The act of self-immolation encompasses all these dichotomies—and is becoming more frequent.

On Friday, April 22, Wynn Bruce self-immolated outside of the Supreme Court to protest climate change. This scene reminded me immediately of Reverend Charles Moore, an elderly white preacher who self-immolated in his hometown in Texas to object to the town’s racism in 2014. I made this connection because I produced a documentary, titled Man on Fire, about Moore’s life and death and recently published a book about his story. I have contemplated his self-immolation for years.

Yet, these are just two of the most recent self-immolations that have occurred around the globe.

Prominent civil rights attorney, David Buckle, lit himself on fire in New York City’s Prospect Park in April 2018 also to protest climate change. He hoped his death would lead toward a greener revolution not based on fossil fuels. Two people self-immolated to demonstrate against Donald Trump’s inauguration, one outside of the Trump Hotel in DC the day before he was sworn in as president. 

Between 2009-2016 in Tibet, self-immolations occurred every 17 days. When you factor in the rest of the world during that period, they occurred more than once every two weeks. Yet this isn’t a recent phenomenon; it has a long historical linage. Many remember the famous image of Thích Quảng Đức immolating in a Saigon street corner to challenge the government’s oppression of Buddhists in 1964. At the time, JFK referred to the image as the most significant photograph of the 20th century. It eventually became the cover of a Rage Against the Machine album. Many experts even argue that the 2011 Arab Spring began with Mohamed Bouazizi’s fiery death in Tunisia, which led to waves of revolution across Northern Africa.

 While self-immolation has historical precedent, for many Americans it’s still perplexing.

“Why would someone feel the need to give up their live for a cause?”

“Sounds like a ‘crazy’ person.”

These were the two most common concerns people raised when I interviewed them for the documentary and book.

The answers are simple yet complex: Self-immolation, by nature, is paradoxical.

“Sacrificing your life for the benefit of others is not a contradiction, because your life is precious in saving others,” Buddhist monk Lhakdor once wrote. 

As with most extreme protest acts, self-immolation attempts to make the ineffable tangible, an attempt to embody transcendence. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, bodhisattvas are people who can reach otherworldliness by helping those who suffer. For some Buddhists, self-immolation has been a means to reach this transcendence by sacrificing oneself for others. In this tradition, the paradox of self-immolation—giving up life to help the suffering—is accepted as just. 

Sacrificing the body to save people is a common trope in religious texts, literature, and film: The protagonist willingly gives up their own life to save a spouse or child. This has played out time and time again. But in all these stories, the choice isn’t whether to live or die. The choice is whether to save yourself or save others. 

For most recent self-immolations, the choice doesn’t appear so dire. No one forced Wynn or Buckle or Moore to save themselves or loved ones. Though the effects of climate change are ever-present, it is not an immediate danger to most Americans. Racism in Grand Saline hasn’t led to any deaths in nearly a century. Logically, their lives didn’t seem on the line.

Yet, doesn’t that make the sacrifice more powerful? 

No one called for these people to die, yet they chose willingly to do so, in hopes that they might help enact a climate revolution, change governmental policy on climate change, or alter values and ideologies of race and racism. The history of protest demonstrates that we never know what one act might tip the scales. Maybe Wynn’s death could cause the Arab Spring version of climate change. Maybe Buckle’s sacrifice could have become as significant to the 21st century as Đức’s was to the 20th. There is always a chance. These self-immolations stem not from despair in the face of impending doom but rather from looking at the bigger picture. They had faith their deaths could save lives in the long run. What a powerful, compassionate risk—that your life might save others if people collectively choose to act. 

We must accept the self-immolation paradox for what it is because as the gravity of climate change and climate denial becomes more apparent over the next few years, acts of extremism—as with all times of uncertainty—will increase. 

But the paradox doesn’t ask us for full comprehension. That’s impossible.

Rather, it begs us to see the attempt to save others as righteous. 

We owe them that much.

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