Posted by: Dan | October 18, 2007

To be a Christian (is to self-immolate?): Further Reflections on Non/violence

What is to give light must endure burning.
~ Victor Frankl

On November 11, 1983, Sebastian Acevedo, a fifty year old construction worker and father of two, doused himself in gasoline at the foot of the cross in front of the cathedral in Concepcion, Chile. His children had been “disappeared” by Pinochet's torture squads and, despite his desperate pleas, he was unable to gain any information as to their whereabouts. Covered in gasoline, he cried “Give me back my children!” but instead of receiving his kids back, a policeman responded by challenging him to carry through on his threat. Acevedo struck a match, ignited “like a torch” and died later that day — after learning that one of his children had been released. A priest gave him his last rites and captured his final words on a tape recorder:

I want the CNI [Central Nacional de Informaciones] to return my children. Lord, forgive them, and forgive me too for this sacrifice.

And that was the end of Sebastian Acevedo. A father with no record of his children, but with a certainty of what the State did to those it “disappeared,” he burned to death at the foot of a cross. But then something new happened. A movement was launched — The Sebastian Acevedo Movement against Torture was born, and became Chile's first well-orchestrated mass movement of public resistance against torture. They publicly named victims, they revealed clandestine torture centers and the complicity of other sectors of government, and they shattered the veil of silence and invisibility that gave the torturers so much of their power.

Sebastian did not know that his death would launch such a movement. All he knew was that his children had been disappeared and were being tortured, and that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that he could do about that situation. Except, perhaps, take his own life in such a horrible way that his voice might be heard (this, of course, is the same form of protest that was taken by some Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war — I think we all remember the pictures).

A few days ago, I wrote a few theses on non/violence and argued that, if we accept the criteria that some Christians have historically accepted for the justification of violence, then we would be obligated to take up arms against our governments and various multinational corporations.

However, the notion of acting violently against others, does not sit well with a religion founded upon the proclamation of forgiveness and the command to love one's enemies (notice, even as Sebastian dies, he asks God to forgive even the torturers!). But there is another option, one that is much less discussed. This is the option taken by Sebastian Acevedo, and by the Buddhist monks in Vietnam. There is the option of taking that violence onto one's self, and publicly showing the Powers, and the apathetic classes, the extent of what is going on around them. When all our peaceful avenues for change have been exhausted and revealed as impotent, when our voices will not be heard, and when we constantly see our children, and the children of others, disappeared and tortured, then perhaps we must begin to think seriously about this other option.

Of course, the Powers have grown wise and they have learned that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” and so they will not martyr us. They will let us grow old, they will let us “burn-out”, they will let us fade into impotence and anonymity. Perhaps, then, it is our duty to say, “No!” to this form of burn-out, perhaps it is our duty to say, “You have already martyred us by torturing and killing our loved ones, you have created a world that we are incapable of living in, you have already killed us” and then, perhaps, it is our duty to strike a match and burn-out in an entirely different way.

Because sometimes I wonder — sometimes I wonder if I will spend my whole life fighting a battle that I will always lose. And sometimes I wonder if the single act of self-immolation will do more good than a whole life spent losing to the Powers.

Because I too have seen the marks of torture on the bodies of children whom I love. And I too remember children that our society has disappeared and murdered. And all this that I have seen and touched is in our own backyards. When you increase your scope of vision to try and gain a global perspective on these things the degree of violence, torture, disappearances, and murders, is unthinkable.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus explores the topic of suicide. He considers suicide to be the “one true serious philosophical problem” because facing this issue forces us to face the fundamental philosophical issue of whether or not life is worth living. He argues that suicide amounts to a confession, a confession that “life is too much for you or that you do not understand it… that it 'is not worth the trouble'.” Despite his embrace of nihilism, and the total absence of hope, despite his “certainty of a crushing fate”, Camus argues that one still should live without resignation (such living, of course, is well exemplified in the life of Camus' protagonist in La Peste). To commit suicide is, according to Camus, to accept all of these things; to continue to live is to embrace the “absurd” revolt of defiance. This is why Sisyphus becomes the “absurd hero.” He knows the extent of his wretched condition and he scorns it. Thus, even as he carries his burden, he is happy.

In his embrace of nihilism, Camus is able to find that which allows him to keep on living. I wonder: does our embrace of Christianity ever lead us to a place where we are called to die? Perhaps the question is not: “Why should I remain alive?” but rather “Why should I not die?” Can suicide, rather than being an act of total acceptance of things as they are, be a cry of protest against the way things are — perhaps even the only cry that is now left to us? And can it be, as in the case of Sebastian Acevedo, a cry that changes that which used to be unchangeable? If it can be such an efficacious cry, should we embrace it?

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