June 21 of this year marked the 50th anniversary of the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three college students committed to registering black voters in the south during “Freedom Summer.” This tragedy was the inaugural event of what became known as Mississippi Burning.
On June 23 of this year, a retired United Methodist minister, Rev. Charles Moore, drove to his home town of Grand Saline in northeast Texas, parked his car in a Dollar General parking lot, soaked himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. Some have argued that he must have been insane to take such an action, but a letter found by family and friends reveals a story much more challenging.
Charles Moore believed he had not done enough to work for civil rights, even though his son-in-law Rev. Bill Renfro notes that “as a young minister, he was kicked out of churches in East Texas for standing up for integration.” He wrote in notes he left that he had originally planned to self-immolate on the campus of his alma mater, Perkins School of Theology at SMU, on Juneteenth (June 19), the day when news of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln got to Texas a year and a half after it was signed. Charles wrote that at the last minute he lost his nerve, but obviously found courage four days later to follow through with his plan.
In a note found in Charles Moore’s car, we get a glimpse of what was weighing on his heart on this anniversary of those young Civil Rights workers’ deaths. Bill Renfro states that: “he was concerned that the programs that were developed for those who don’t have enough for food and adequate nutrition are being cut; that health care for millions is being denied with no reason except spite toward the President; that racism is rampant; that the performance of a same-sex union by The United Methodist Church is considered to be on par with crimes such as rape, pedophilia, extortion, etc.; that LGBTQ persons still suffer from discriminatory practices; that the death penalty is still used as a supreme punishment without deterrent effect; that cuts are being made in quality public education for all children; that voting rights are being taken away by discriminatory laws; that justice is unbalanced for the minorities and the poor; that tax cuts are proposed for the wealthy; that leaders and lawmakers enjoy social injustice. He considered his act to be a supreme sacrifice for the sake of others, for all, including the powerful and the powerless. He believed that the memory of his act would allow healing to evolve.”
What strikes us about these words is that everything Charles writes is heartbreakingly true. Charles Moore understood that his world–our world–is on fire! For this reason, we do not want the horrific circumstances of his death to become just a fleeting news flash or an excuse to discount a man who dedicated his life to social justice. We must be careful that we do not seduce ourselves into believing that a silent response to his self-immolation is an act of respect for him and for his family. Silence disrespects him, his family, and discounts his concern for justice. We also must be careful that we do not romanticize the manner in which he died. For Charles, his action was a symbol of solidarity with people on the margins, people with whom he felt compelled by his Christian faith to be in unity, and his action was meant to call us to respond.
Charles’s self-immolation has stirred us deeply, and we feel compelled to share some of our personal response. Charles understood that racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and nationalism are different forms of oppression, have different histories, and often different outcomes, but that they are bound together in a shared web of oppression. Charles Moore’s justice concerns and commitments were inclusive rather than exclusive. He saw and challenged prejudice, bias, hatred, and dehumanization that are present within injustice no matter who its victims are. Like Charles, we believe that our compelling charge as Christians requires us to own up to our responsibility in oppression and then to work toward liberation for all! Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Charles Moore lived by that decree.
While Gil and Sid respond to this tragedy through different life experiences, we are, like our brother Charles, activists who understand the intersectionality between all forms or systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination. Charles was not a one issue person. The weight on his heart at the time of his death came from multiple cries of pain.
What lessons can we learn from Charles Moore’s death?
First, we have to say that his act of self-immolation is something beyond anything we can personally imagine. It is not uncommon for activists who are passionate about a cause to put themselves in harm’s way. Gandhi must have known that standing up against the British Empire was a dangerous venture. On the night before he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. …I may not get there with you.” The danger was imminent and he knew it. Even Jesus, who led a parade from the east of Jerusalem on a colt the same day that Pilate led his Roman legion on a white stallion from the west, knew that such an act would lead to his arrest and likely execution as an insurrectionist against Rome. However, placing yourself in harm’s way out of conviction is still very different from taking one’s own life.If we had had the opportunity to talk to Charles before he took this drastic step, we most certainly would have tried to talk him out of it. As horrific and unconventional as self-immolation for the sake of justice or peace feels to Christians of the modern era, there is historical precedence for it. Just last year, a Tibetan Buddhist monk set himself on fire inside a western Chinese monastery criticized by Chinese authorities. He was the 108th Tibetan to self-immolate in series of protests against Chinese rule since February 2009.
Second, did Charles really expect to bring about the changes for which he hoped through this extreme action? Of course, we will never know the complete answer to that question, but we can gain some insight into his thinking by reflecting upon his prior actions. Charles completed a 15-day hunger strike to protest The United Methodist Church’s treatment of LGBTQ persons during the United Methodist Council Bishops’ annual meeting in Austin in the spring of 1995. His goal was to encourage them to make a unified statement condemning the current UMC Discipline’s exclusionary statements. This quote from the Austin Chronicle (October 6, 1995) points to what Charles expected, and is perhaps an indication of the kind of thing he hoped for in his final act:
The Council of Bishops did not renounce its position, but instead issued a statement decrying civil rights violations against gays and lesbians. It was only a crumb, and not the loaf Moore had cried out for, but he took it anyway. He knew at the outset he probably wouldn’t change anything within The UMC establishments, but that wasn’t why he fasted. ‘It was to touch people who are not rigid,’ he says.
Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that if we want “mutual love” it isn’t enough to strive toward mutual love; to achieve mutual love, we must strive for “sacrificial love”. Maybe Charles believed that his act of sacrificial love might create the opportunity for mutual love, especially in the form of justice.
Third, (and we owe this thought to a member of Sid’s congregation, Dr. Annette D’Armata): the fact that we recoil in horror over the self-inflicted and horrific circumstances of Charles’s death and yet normalize our direct and indirect participation in acts ranging from systemic oppression based on race, sexual orientation, or income, to grisly bombings of children, women and men….was precisely the very desperate point Charles felt that he had to illuminate with his own body, his own life. D’Armata writes, “The fact that I/we feel completely unsettled with his choice is powerful, even if we disagree.” Then she recalls words from Bonhoeffer: “(We) must not simply ‘bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself.’”
We believe that the primary lesson we must take from Charles’s life-long convictions, even as we struggle with the way he chose to die, is that we must remain awake to the horrors that surround us and work together interrupt them, in the name of our deepest humanity and in the name of Christ. The horrors of this age demand that our Jesus doesn’t become a docile and domesticated icon, but a living embodiment of transformation and love in the world.
As a postscript, we especially hold the family of Charles Moore in our hearts and prayers. He is survived by a wife, sons, grandchildren, and other close family members. Charles’s step-daughter, Kathy Renfro, states that “what he failed to realize was the emotional turmoil that he would leave behind” for those who loved him. She notes the sadness of the fact that Charles did not know that he still had the potential to bring about change. The testimonies at his memorial service point to the enormous impact his life had on others.
As we reflect on the life and death of Charles Moore, we pray that we will remember that each of us has the potential to bring about change and that we often have more impact than we can realize.
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Sid and Gil first met through mutual involvement in the Reconciling Ministries Network. They were among the 15 original clergy signers of “In All Things Charity” in January of 1997, which advocated for LGBTQ ordination and the freedom for UMC clergy to conduct holy unions. In 2000, they spent time together in a holding cell at the Cleveland jail when they were arrested demonstrating for full LGBTQ inclusion in the UMC during General Conference.
Dr. James R. McCormick is married to Patricia Chunn McCormick. He is the author of five books: "Welcome Home," "Tell It Like It Can Be," "Marriage Is For Adults," “Does It Look and Sound Like Jesus?," and “The Gospel Goes to Broadway."
Rev. Dr. McCormick has served as Adjunct Professor at the School of Theology at Claremont and Fuller Theological Seminary, District Superintendent. Chairman, Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. Delegate to 1992 General and Jurisdictional Conferences. He has served as a United Methodist pastor since 1955 and retired in 1998.