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Self-immolation and the true witness of the martyrs

On February 25, a twenty-five-year-old member of the United States Air Force named Aaron Bushnell set himself on fire in a gruesome public suicide spectacle outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. Proclaiming “Free Palestine” as his body was engulfed in flames, Bushnell live-streamed his self-immolation on Twitch, and the video has now been seen by millions worldwide.

To most who can stomach the devastating display, the natural reaction is a blend of horror and pity. To a segment of the activist class, however, Bushnell’s act has been lauded as a brave act of protest. The progressive public figure Cornel West, who holds the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair at Union Seminary in New York City, posted a tribute on X, praising the “extraordinary courage” of the young airman who “died for truth and justice.”

One wonders if there would be a Bonhoeffer Chair anywhere if the eponymous German Protestant pastor had offed himself instead of letting the Nazis do it. But there does seem to be some confusion about how martyrdom works nowadays. In a recent article in Time magazine about Bushnell’s death, the author falsely asserts that burning oneself to bits was the sort of thing early Christians did. Coincidentally, on the same day I read the Time article, I happened to be re-reading the short account of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, who had a vision of his death and told his associates, “I must be burned alive.” Nonetheless, the document makes clear, “we do not praise those who come forward of their own accord, since the gospel does not teach us to do so.”

Despite the eighty-six-year-old Bishop Polycarp’s premonition, it was, of course, the emperor’s goons who did him in. Likewise, no one would praise Bonhoeffer’s contemporary, Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, if he had lit himself up at the gates of SS Headquarters on Albert Street in Berlin in 1943. Nor indeed would it have been a courageous act–let alone a theologically efficacious one–if Our Lord had hurled himself into Gehenna instead of being obedient unto death on the cross at Pilate’s command.

Correcting the record on the official Christian view of suicide and sacrifice takes two minutes. Much more pressing and difficult, however, is prescribing a way out of the despair that Bushnell’s death obviously signifies to most of us. A video of a guy burning himself alive just seems like end-of-the-world stuff to me. It has hit me as a lightning strike from the cloud of despair that hangs over our heads. The long shadows are getting even longer.

How did we get here?

Read more at Catholic World Report 

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