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Fifty Years Ago, a Quaker Lit Himself on Fire to Protest War. How Can I Understand It?

As he poured the gallon jug of kerosene over his head, onlookers reacted with disbelief. Before anyone knew what to do, he lit a match. In one terrible instant, 31-year-old Quaker Norman Morrison set himself ablaze in front of the Pentagon, just 40 feet below the 3rd floor window of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Moments before ignition, Morrison passed his 11-month-old daughter, Emily, to a bystander. His wife and two other children were in Baltimore that day, unaware of what this young husband and father had planned.

Through his terrifying act of self-destruction, Morrison brought the Vietnam War home to a country that was still largely unaware of the widespread atrocities taking place in Southeast Asia. It was hard for most Americans to comprehend the true human cost of U.S. carpet bombing, and the incineration of whole families in the name of peace and security. Even the U.S. military officials leading the war effort did not understand on a visceral level what it meant to burn human beings alive in Vietnam.
Norman Morrison provided a live demonstration.

Morrison’s action had a profound effect on those who witnessed it. It left an indelible imprint on Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who observed the inferno from his office window. He would later write, “Morrison’s death was a tragedy not only for his family but also for me and the country. It was an outcry against the killing that was destroying the lives of so many Vietnamese and American youth.”

It is still not clear what long term impact Morrison’s protest — or the similar act of self-immolation by Catholic social worker Roger Allen LaPorte in New York City one week later — had on the conscience of our nation or on the war in Vietnam. Throughout the 1960s, successive U.S. administrations escalated the carnage in Southeast Asia. The Pentagon directed a sustained bombing campaign on the people of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. U.S. forces kept up the assault for another 10 years after that awful morning in 1965.

“What can we do that we haven’t done?” This was the pressing question that seems to have led Morrison to emulate Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức‘s self-immolation. From Morrison’s perspective, resistance to the war machine seemed so overwhelming a challenge that burning himself alive in front of his infant daughter seemed like a necessary alternative.

Morrison’s choice does not seem reasonable to me. Being a 30-something Quaker myself, also with an infant child, I have a tough time understanding how he ever imagined that burning himself alive was the best way to serve the cause of peace and justice. How could the loving God that Quakers — and all Christians — seek to worship inspire such a self-destructive act? I just can’t fathom it.

But I can appreciate that Morrison was clearly committed to living out the full implications of his faith, no matter how terrifying and painful they might be. Hero or madman, Morrison was a person who sought to live a radical faith. He was willing to incinerate himself rather than be complicit in the continued fire-bombing of men, women, and children in Vietnam.

And it makes me wonder: What would happen if the Christian community today were endowed with that level of commitment to gospel nonviolence? What if the followers of Jesus were willing to lay down our comfort, rather than continue to accept a world where billions live in poverty? What if we took the health and well-being of the planet as seriously as where we send our children to school?

We live in a time of such great suffering and confusion. The poor are trampled by the 1%. Our precious earth is groaning under the abuse that we’ve heaped on it. When Morrison struck that match, the world stood up and took notice. If the followers of Jesus led lives completely given over to the practical work of love in the world, no one could miss that either. We would feed the hungry, heal the sick, and clothe the naked. We would speak the truth about climate change and challenge economic inequality. Our lives would shine.

We are desperate for change. And to become part of this movement, we’ll have to engage in a surrender akin to the shocking sacrifice of Norman Morrison.

Yet Jesus is inviting us into a kind of spiritual self-immolation — one that heals, rather than annihilates. He redeems our lives rather than destroying them.

What fear and self-doubt is preventing you from living a life transformed by truth and grace? What joyful sacrifice are you being called to make, so that your life speaks to the heart of a world eager to hear good news? How will you let your life shine?

The Spirit is ready to lead us. She wants to gather us into a movement that can expand our lives, bless the poor, and heal our broken planet.

It takes a courage to light yourself on fire. But it takes more courage to live the rest of your life having already surrendered everything to God. That’s the kind of soul force we’ll need to catch a glimpse of Jesus’ radical kingdom of joy and peace.

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