When something must be done and there is nothing good to do

rev-charles-moore-327x388By Alan Bean

When I reflect on the self-immolation of Charles Moore, I can’t help thinking about the Palestinians.

Neither Moore nor the leaders of Hamas have found a way to change circumstances they consider intolerable.

Rev. Moore’s response was to set himself on fire in his home town of Grand Saline, Texas.

Hamas reacts to the seeming omnipotence of the Israeli military by lobbing rockets in the direction of Jewish cities and settlements.

Both actions are deplorable; but I’m not sure I have a viable alternative to offer either Charles Moore or the Palestinians.

Like Jesus and the prophet Jeremiah, Charles Moore experienced the besetting sins of his own people in a horribly visceral way.  Most of us shrug off the racism and homophobia infecting our culture with an air of ironic resignation.  Sure, it’s disturbing that little towns like Grand Saline are still riddled with racial resentment fifty years after the Civil Rights Act passed Congress, but change is always slow and incremental.  And it is truly unfortunate that for centuries our GLBT brothers and sisters were forced into the closet and ridiculed and scorned whenever they dared step out; but we’re making progress, right?

Charles Moore wasn’t wired to think that way.  He dreamed of things that never were and asked “why not?”  And if he couldn’t understand why sin should prevail with only token opposition, it bothered him in a way that few of us can comprehend.

Perhaps you have been too troubled by the specter of self-immolation to think very deeply about Moore’s motivation.  Many have concluded that the United Methodist pastor suffered from depression,but that was clearly not the case.  

Others suggest that he was just a grand-stander for whom posthumous attention was better than no attention at all.  There is probably a bit of truth to this allegation–Rev. Moore was human, after all, and ego plays a role in everything we humans do.  But Moore didn’t want attention that badly.  If a desire for aclaim was part of the mix, it was a minor ingredient.

Charles Moore simply cared far more about our besetting sins than the rest of us do.  Certainly far more than I do.  I desperately wish he had chosen a more creative way to make a stand . . . but when I try to envision what that might have looked like, I draw a blank.

The fact is, Rev. Moore was pretty much shunted aside during his half century of pastoral ministry.  Many of his colleagues point out that he accomplished a great deal of good, and I’m sure they are right.  But (and this is the point) Moore was never taken seriously by his peers in Christian ministry.  Sure, a few friends sympathized with his passion for change, but, like me, they were only willing to go so far.    And it was never nearly far enough. When speaking out messed with career trajectory, silence ensued.

Which brings me back to Hamas.  I must confess, before going further, that my natural sympathies lie with Israel.  I grew up listening to stories about Israel and “the Israelites”, and these haunting tales and traditions continue to shape me.

Moreover, I grew up horrified by the holocaust.  I have read a long list of fat books on the subject, and this deep encounter with suffering bound me even closer to the Jewish people.  How can we not be impressed by the heroism of this tiny nation, surrounded by her enemies, surviving against all odds.

But the events of recent years have made it impossible for me to ignore the plight of the Palestinians.  Jimmy Carter’s courageous truth-telling helped open my eyes, as did the silent testimony of Muslim friends.  And then there’s this:


The rapidly shrinking parcels of land available to the Palestinian people makes inaction untenable.  The Israelis need new land, no question.  Tragically, they must take this new land from their Palestinian neighbors, and they do so without giving careful thought to the consequences.

riots; chaos; smokePalestinian leaders know that non-violence strategies have worked wonders in places like India, the United States and South Africa, but there have been exceptions.  In 1966, for instance, civil rights leaders embarked on a March Against Fear through the heart of Mississippi.  In Grenada, little school children were beaten mercilessly when they tried to register in white schools.  In Canton, local officials unleashed poisonous gas on the civil rights marchers.  In both cases, Dr. Martin Luther King knew that non-violent resistance could have limited effect: the journalists had left the state and taken their cameras with them.  The whole world was no longer watching.

And it is in situations like these, where something must be done but it seems there is nothing to do, that the best of people make the worst mistakes.

Lobbing rockets into occupied sections of Israel is counter-productive, but non-violent tactics are ignored by the international media and punished by the Israelis.

Setting yourself on fire changes horrifies your friends and mortifies your loved ones; but Charles Moore saw it as the only way of getting the world’ attention.

Let’s be honest.  Most of us write off these gestures of despair far too easily because we don’t care, or, more charitably, our caring is limited by our desire for self-preservation.

I regret that this post must end with no flash of insight.  I simply don’t know what good people do when something must be done and there are no good things left to do.  The children fleeing places like Honduras and Guatemala are in that position.  Their plight isn’t entirely hopeless.  Solutions are available.  But if we want to invest in the healing process we must learn to care far more deeply than we presently do.

2 thoughts on “When something must be done and there is nothing good to do

  1. Let’s put the best face possible on this for Israel, and say that it is “just war” for Israel to defend itself against the puny rockets of Hamas. But if my memory is correct ( and sometimes it isn’t) under just war theory, for a war to be just there has to be proportionality. And non-combatants cannot be targeted. There is no proportionality in this war. The non-combatant residents of Gaza are suffering many times the casualties of Israel. And the idea that Israel is exempt from the non-combatant aspect by warning the residents to flee, since bombs are coming, is not laughable. It’s cryable. Where are they to flee, pray tell? Escape routes from the tiny territory of Gaza are all cut off.

  2. Perhaps my memory is not correct, but I cannot remember a single war started by Israel since 1946, but there have been wars and Israel won them. Since December 7, 1941, I have been a steady consumer of news and witnessed many wars. Never have I seen a people as irrational and actuated by hatred, and with as little respect for human life, as radical Islam.

    On another subject, why does ckpk3337 not identify himself or herself?

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