On November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison, 31-year-old devout Quaker, husband, and father of three, stood outside the Pentagon, poured kerosene over his boOn November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison, 31-year-old devout Quaker, husband, and father of three, stood outside the Pentagon, poured kerosene over his body, and struck a match. He immolated himself to express his deep concern over the escalating war in Vietnam. Before taking his life in a spectacular way, he mailed his wife a farewell letter of explanation, which included a newspaper clipping about an eyewitness account of the bombing of a Vietnamese village by U.S. warplanes and the resulting deaths of innocent civilians. Norman Morrison’s story is told by his widow Anne Morrison Welsh in her 2008 memoir Held in the Light: Norman Morrison's Sacrifice for Peace and His Family's Journey of Healing. Like the act that inspired it, this book is both awful and awesome, haunting and inspiring.
What kind of a death was Morrison’s? Was it a senseless act of a deranged man? A beautiful and noble expression of sacrificial love? There’s a fine line between heroism and suicide. If a man jumps into a raging river to save a child and drowns, he is a hero. But what if he jumps in a river to save a dog? Or a rat? What if he jumps in the river to protest water pollution? Is he still a hero?
Self immolation is incomprehensible to us Westerners, but not to Easterners. The book quotes a letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. written by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn and published a few months before Morrison’s death: “The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist Monks in 1963 is somehow difficult for the Western Christian conscience to understand. The press often spoke of suicide, but in essence, it is not. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the heart of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance” (58). In another passage the book explains, “For the Vietnamese people, Norman had metaphorically put on the saffron robe of the Buddhist monk and spoken their language. They saw his sacrifice for peace as a great act of love for them. He became a folk hero of sorts, his name rendered in Vietnamese as Mo Ri Xon” (108). A North Vietnamese postage stamp bears his image, and a Hanoi street is named after him.
Years after Morrison’s death, many Vietnamese still recall where they were when the heard the news of Morrison’s death. One man had been a buffalo boy in a small, rural village where no one had access to a newspaper and only the headmaster of the school had a radio. The man recounted how “one day, the headmaster called us all together and told us about Morrison. Tears were streaming down his face. Of course, we all cried. I could not believe someone in another country would die for us” (131). It amazes me that an American so well known and beloved in another land can be so little known in his own.
I cannot condone what Morrison did, but neither can I condemn him. And I do not pretend to understand. I stand in awe and horror of a man who, as poet David Ferguson said, “spoke in a tongue of flame” (85). ...more
For Yom HaShoah, the “Day of Remembrance” for victims of the Holocaust, I read Nobel Peace Prize Winner Elie Wiesel’s Night, a fictionalized memoir ofFor Yom HaShoah, the “Day of Remembrance” for victims of the Holocaust, I read Nobel Peace Prize Winner Elie Wiesel’s Night, a fictionalized memoir of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald during World War II. One of the most powerful passages in Night was the story of a young boy executed in the concentration camp after being implicated in an act of sabotage.
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows. . . .
The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks. “Long live liberty!” shouted the two men. But the boy was silent.
“Where is the merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking. At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over. . . .
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish: the child, too light was still breathing . . .
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows . . .”
There seems to be no limit to man’s inhumanity or God’s humanity. Seeing an innocent victim executed unjustly can be the end of faith or its beginning. ...more
Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church is a beautifully written memoir about the author’s decision to give up her vocation as an Episcopal parish priesBarbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church is a beautifully written memoir about the author’s decision to give up her vocation as an Episcopal parish priest for an endowed chair at a small, liberal arts college. The author recounts her own faith journey, explaining how her religious beliefs broadened after she was no longer being paid to defend God and the creeds of the church. Although I enjoyed reading Leaving Church very much, I feel Taylor hasn’t let readers see into the truly dark and painful places in her life. That, or she’s lived a charmed life. There’s no comparing this book with my two favorite clergy autobiographies—St. Augustine’s Confessions and Will Campbell’s Brother To A Dragonfly. The former is even more profound and the latter, more transparent. ...more