A Modest Defense of Self-Immolation
David R. Weiss – June 3, 2022
Usually when I finish a piece, I am eager to post it for others to read.
I finished this piece 18 days ago. Draw your own conclusions.
I know, it’s a rather alarming title, but I need to begin first with a confession before I get to the real subject. I truly enjoy writing the memoirish pieces I occasionally post on my blog, wrapping the stories of myself and my family in (hopefully) equal measures of honesty and grace. These pieces are a gift, to myself, my family, and often (from the feedback I receive) to others.
But there is, in fact, more than that. My decision to write the truth of my life as fully and faithfully as I can seeks not only to integrate myself but also, and just as importantly, it helps anchor and cultivate relationships that can be real and authentic—some present and some yet to be. Such truth-telling is the ground in which solidarity can grow. And solidarity—the capacity to stand with and for another across difference—is made possible by story. It primes the imagination for empathy. Thus, this writing matters.
But here’s the confession. Sometimes I do this writing because, even when I’m plumbing the anguish of my mom’s dementia or the fraught history I have with my children or the yawning sense of incompleteness I find in my own life arc—even then, this is the least painful writing that calls my name.
I have so many hard words to write in my future. More than you … maybe more than I … can imagine. These familial sketches soothe the restless writhing over what must also be put into words soon enough. In memoir, I mend my past and present. But there are words waiting in the wings that aim to wreak havoc on the future. Although “wreak” gives me too much credit. I am simply to intone the next acts in our planetary apocalypse. It is a task that I dread.
Also, a task to which I feel called.
And it is just possible that these two tasks, truth-telling about oneself and truth-telling about our planet (and our collective place on it) may be twin revolutionary deeds that point the way to a precarious tomorrow … “precarious” being the best of all possible worlds still available to us.
That’s the confession: some of my richest writing serves at least partly as a distraction from my most necessary work.
Today that necessary work involves a modest defense of self-immolation. (Self-immolation is the act of dousing oneself with a flammable liquid and then setting oneself on fire with the intent to sacrifice one’s life to the flames in a fiery gesture of anguish and/or protest.)
I’m thinking most specifically of the April 22, 2022 self-immolation by Wynn Bruce, a 50-year-old Colorado man who set himself on fire on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. He died of his burns the next day. News reports say he left no statement explaining his action, but his years as a climate activist, his regular participation at a Buddhist Ecodharma (eco-teaching) Retreat Center, the timing of his act—on Earth Day, and a handful of social media posts suggest this was an act planned well in advance and seemingly born of concern-grief-empathy for life itself.
This is the self-immolation I have in mind. So, I’ll say this up front (but I’ll repeat it along the way as well): I do not encourage, endorse, or support acts of self-immolation. I DON’T. And yet, I feel the need to offer a modest defense of it because it is easily mischaracterized, especially in the media, and it actually matters that we reckon with it for what it is, rather than dismiss or criticize it for what it isn’t.
Self-immolation is not suicide; at least not as typically conceived. To call it suicide (as has happened in news reports and commentary) misrepresents it at a fundamental level.
I do not wish to negatively “judge” the morality of suicide here. I’m simply arguing the distinction matters. Suicide is an act to end one’s life on account of abject despair, often due to some form of mental-physical-emotional distress or pain, or the perceptive of such. I’m not concerned with deciding whether suicide as such is ever “right” or justified. However you morally assess it, you can describe it as an act of the willful disintegration of oneself, an act undertaken, whether impulsively or after long reflection and planning, in the conviction that life as it is (or is perceived to be) is no longer worth living.
In stark contrast to this, self-immolation is a deeply terrifying act because it is made in the profoundly paradoxical and perhaps near-mystic conviction that life IS worth living—and is nevertheless in this act being surrendered.
Paul Tillich (in Dynamics of Faith, 1957) described faith as the active orientation of the self with reference to one’s “ultimate concern” (which might be a supreme value, but for Tillich was God). In this context, he asserted that faith is the very act of self-integration—the act of becoming a (more) whole person by moving toward deeper alignment with one’s ultimate concern.
Self-immolation is exactly that. Terrifyingly so.
And when it’s named as suicide, the existential-moral-religious terror that is at its core (for both the actor and the rest of us) is erased. If anything, self-immolation might be called an act of prophetic suicide, which is to suggest that the point of reference is not the self—or the self’s pain—but the larger community, the Earth itself … or even God—or God’s pain.
I don’t doubt that there are suicides driven by climate despair, an irrepressible sense of “doomism.” It is unquestionably a moral tragedy—and atrocity—that we live in an era when abject despair is, arguably, a rational response to our current planetary crisis. It is surely not the only rational response, but it is one. Still, self-immolation does not reflect “doomism,” and when it’s reduced to an act of climate despair, we belittle it. Worse, we deaden ourselves to the response it ought to elicit in us.
Listen, we are in full blown ecological crisis. Now. We are in real danger of “total societal collapse”—which, by the way, is the term employed in a paper published by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction as part of the 2022 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR2022). The report uses a planetary boundaries model that tracks how human activity is disrupting nine different Earth systems that jointly maintain the “safe operating space” in which human society has developed.
Unfortunately—which is a planet-sized understatement—we have exceeded the “safety zone” on four of nine boundaries: we’ve severely disrupted (perhaps altogether ruptured) their ability to help preserve the planet’s ability to sustain us … and other species. Four of nine. And (pending data analysis) we’re likely to have crossed two more safety thresholds as of last summer. SIX OF NINE. And, because these boundaries interact with each other, supporting or destabilizing the other boundaries, we might cross all nine of them within the decade. We are coming unmoored. At the planetary level.
The UN paper puts it this way [editorial asides are mine]: “In the absence of ambitious [read: politically imprudent] policy and near global adoption and successful implementation [read: a snowball’s chance in hell], the world tends toward the global collapse scenario.” As Earth systems buckle, human social systems—from food supply to national political discourse to global cooperation, to civil unrest and violence—in turn strain and tear. And these stresses reinforce each other in cross-systems’ feedback that threatens to escalate all the way to “total societal collapse.” Oof.
Of course, there is always a thin ray of hope we can cling to. The GAR2022, like every other UN report, assures us (however dire its initial warnings) that there are steps we can take to avert the worst of this. Yet that very hope stalls our response. We think, “If it’s still possible, then I have a little more time to maintain my life as it is.”
But, about this recent GAR2022 (released in May), one senior advisor and contributor to the report asserted (anonymously to a British news source) that the GAR2022 was “watered-down before public release.” That the world has, in fact, “passed a point of no return.” That “the [final] GAR 2022 is an eviscerated skeleton of what was included in earlier drafts.” OOF.
This is our world—our entire lifescape. Right now. And it will be our children’s inheritance.
yes, there are absolutely steps we can take to lessen the severity of a worst-case scenario. Quit building pipelines. Practice gratitude—daily. Imagine radical sharing (then practice it). Drive less. Learn to garden. Make friends (across differences!). Stop flying (I’m serious). Study nonviolence. Stop eating meat. Treasure nonmaterial abundance. Create deep community in your neighborhood or church. And there are more. Concrete steps that can lessen the enormous suffering (which is headed our way no matter what) and anchor our humanity amid the coming tumult. I’ll say it again, because we don’t seem to understand this, so long as we hold out hope that somehow our politicians or some new technology is going to turn this thing around, we will find ourselves waiting a little bit longer to get truly serious.
And if we’re honest, our response thus far, over the fifty years we’ve known about the threat of global warming, from global agreements to national policies to community models to consumer choices—given that our entire lifescape is at risk—has been purely pathetic. It’s inaccurate even to say that we’re living on borrowed time. We’re on stolen time. Time stolen from other species, from entire ecosystems, from whole generations—including the very next one, that is, the little ones we cradle in our arms and tuck into bed at night right now. Their time. Stolen as we speak.
It is against this backdrop that I need to offer a modest defense of self-immolation.
I do not encourage, endorse, or support it. But I understand it. When you look without blinking at the damage we have done to the biosphere, when you hold open your heart to the wounds of all living things on account of human choices … on account of human systems that operate with inertia even beyond our individual choices, when you attend to the compassionate (pain-bearing) presence of God in the midst of the world that God loves—and when you grasp the radical indifference of the industrial human world to all this—of course your soul might choose to bear witness by becoming a searing fireball of grief-agony-compassion-truth.
To be very clear, self-immolation is NOT celebrated or encouraged within the Buddhist tradition. It is a very complicated topic. Wynn Bruce’s own circle of Buddhist friends have voiced both their respect and their grief for his actions—and they have been honest about not knowing the state of his mind or his full intention. Still, I do not believe such an act is properly called suicide. Or that it is an act of doomist despair. It is, rather, an attempt to bear searing witness to the agonizing truth of this moment. We are out of time. Earth is out of time. God is out of time.
It is absolutely possible to face a harrowing future by choosing to be fully human and fully alive. So, if I wish to respond to Wynn Bruce’s self-immolation in a way attends to its heart-wrenching witness while simultaneously seeking to prevent others from feeling called to such acts, I will redouble my own efforts to recognize and embrace the Earth-suffering truth he knew while also pursuing as many of the steps named above as vigorously as I can.
A modest defense. What I can say immodestly is that the time to embrace life in all its fragile urgency is now, now, now. With nothing held back. Because ALL of our tomorrows hinge on this one singular today.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.