This post is also available in: Portuguese
The evening of Monday, June 23, 2014, Charles Moore — a 79-year-old retired Methodist Reverend — drove to a Dollar General parking lot in his rural hometown of Grand Saline, Texas, doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. For hours afterwards, neither Moore’s witnesses nor his family had any idea why.
Moore had grown up in Grand Saline — a sleepy, livestock and farming town of just 3,136 people — but he left in 1954 to attend university. Outside of a brief stay following his first divorce in ‘78, he hadn’t spent much time there. For the last seven years, he had been living with his third wife Barbara in Allen, a suburb just outside of Dallas, where he would play with his grandchildren at the local park, watch Cowboys games with his stepson-in-law, gripe about Tea Party politics and write alone in his study.
But unbeknownst to them, he’d fallen into a depression after his retirement in 2000. After decades of preaching in churches across Texas, rebuilding impoverished communities around the world and doing activist work for death row inmates, poor people and LGBT outcasts, he wrote in his journal, “I am not proud of the timidity [those years of work] represent or their avoidance of physical danger.” He felt ashamed for being “completely inactive” since his retirement and for living in an “arch-conservative” Dallas suburb, adding that he’d “been nothing but a cringing coward” ever since.
“My life has been, and is, a great misery over these issues,” Moore lamented, “and I have done absolutely nothing about any of them for a long time.”
Moore believed that true disciples of Jesus had an ethical responsibility to tackle the world’s social, political and economic injustices. He also lived by the credo of John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, who said that one should always do good, even if it involves taking unpopular stands or being rejected by loved ones and the community. But after a lifetime working as a progressive within the Church’s conservative hierarchy, Moore had grown tired and no longer knew how to fulfill his purpose without a church and congregation to lead.
He considered standing up and shouting about social issues during church services “like the prophets of old.” He also thought about protesting in public just to get arrested, but worried that either would embarrass his wife and family.
“I am a paralyzed soul… every avenue of effort seems closed to me,” he wrote. “Yet,” he continued, “there is one thing I have absolute control over: that is, the manner of my death.”
He’d read a July 2013 New Yorker article entitled “Aflame: A wave of self-immolation sweeps Tibet” about hundreds of contemporary Tibetan Buddhists who had immolated themselves to protest Chinese rule. The thought ignited his imagination, though he had considered the social power of fire long before then: The Methodist Church’s official insignia has two flames, each representing the incarnations of God through fire. In the Old Testament, God speaks to Moses as a burning bush and in the New Testament, God grants universal speech to the apostles during Pentecost while appearing as tongues of flame above their heads. In both cases, flames express God’s will.
Moore also had an admiration for William Tyndale, a 16th century Protestant scholar who got strangled to death and burned at the stake for translating the Bible into common English. In one 2013 note, Moore wrote, “His last words were, ‘O Lord, change the heart of the King of England.’ Less than a year later there was a Bible in the vernacular in every church in the nation.” By Moore’s calculation, the pain of self-immolation would last only a few moments and possibly draw worldwide attention to any cause he chose.
But killing himself in such a dramatic fashion would undoubtedly leave consequences for his loved ones. What if the police discovered his plan beforehand and hauled him off to jail or a mental hospital? What if he told a family member and the police later arrested them for not stopping his grisly act? What if he survived the horrific burning?
The idea haunted Moore, and he wrote that the next few years felt like “a long Gethsemane” of excruciating loneliness — a reference to the garden where Jesus prayed in solitude the night before his crucifixion. In his prayer, Jesus professed he would willingly die if it served God’s will; Moore felt the same.
He set a date for his fiery end, and as it crept near he became more distant and irritable with family and friends, blaming his dark moods on news stories and his sore foot. But he’d made up his mind. Immolation was the only form of death that would allow him to command public attention while expressing a greater intolerance for injustice — it was the only way he could demonstrably die for a purpose. And if he was lucky, it’d also be the last thing he’d ever do.
– – – – –
Self-immolation isn’t like other forms of suicide. It accounts for less than one percent all U.S. suicides and happens far more often as a form of political protest in developing Asian countries than here. For example, when 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, his protest of harassment by corrupt government officials helped ignite the Arab Spring. In contrast, when Moore set himself aflame four years later, only about 45 websites carried the story; the Tyler Morning Telegraph diminutively asked whether he was a “Madman or Martyr?” Apart from a new Charles Moore Wikipedia page, little else seemingly changed as a result.
Immolation is also much more painful than other kinds of suicide. The 1,650 to 2,280 degree flames quickly fry the skin, burning hotter and deeper upon clothing. As the skin’s sub-dermal layer quickly shrinks, it tears open, exposing the body’s fat and feeding the flames even more. The blaze consumes all oxygen, causing the lungs to seize as they fight for breath. Most people usually pass out or die within 45 seconds due to the carbon monoxide fumes.
Survivors must endure months (or even years) of hospitalization and skin graft surgeries to properly heal. Throughout that period, burn-unit nurses will regularly scrub off a patient’s rotted flesh, peel off any dead tissue and then smear antibiotics onto the survivor’s raw muscle and newly forming skin — the pain is agonizing and regularly scheduled. Survivors also have to deal with psychological trauma, extensive scarring and lifelong deformation, making death seem almost preferable.