Changing the World with Fire and Love

Wednesday, February 28th, 2024

By Robert C. Koehler

The easiest way to cope with the news is to shrivel it into an us-vs.-them abstraction and, thus, to extract as much humanity from it as possible.

I’m thinking about the recent protest death of Aaron Bushnell, who set himself on fire — doused himself in flammable liquid, lit a match and ignited himself — in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. this past Sunday, Feb. 24. The last words he shouted were “Free Palestine!”

No, this is not the first such death. Over the centuries — and particularly in recent decades, since the Vietnam war — a number of people, spiritually distraught over war or other social conditions, have killed themselves in protest by self-immolation . . . that is, in the most painful way imaginable. You might say they entered hell of their own accord. Why? The question tears at the soul.

Not to worry, however! You can peruse mainstream coverage of the suicide and begin to relax as the act fades into just more yada yada. Either the guy was mentally ill or absurdly hungry to generate a major public-relations impact for his cause. Here’s NPR, for instance, quoting a university professor — an expert on protest suicides — who explained that such acts started happening regularly around the world in the 1960s, when television had claimed media dominance and, thus, “protesters were able to reach a larger audience.”

This is basically the same way the media covers war itself: strategically. Human lives — human deaths — morph into video-game abstractions. What really matters is who’s winning.

All I can do is stand, or kneel, with the spirit of Aarin Bushnell, the 25-year-old man, an active-duty member of the U.S. Air Force, whose death is real, who surrendered his life because he could no longer bear his country’s complicity in Israel’s devastation of Gaza. Livestreaming what he was about to do, he said in his cellphone video:

“I will no longer be complicit in genocide. I am about to engage in an extreme act of protest. But compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers, it’s not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.”

And as the flames began to engulf him, he cried “Free Palestine!” until he finally collapsed. Police and others ran to him, sprayed the flames with a fire extinguisher. They rushed him to a hospital, where he died several hours later.

To minimize this as a PR stunt is itself a manifestation of illness — not mental illness, perhaps, but spiritual illness, which is the nature of war itself. I say this in my own incomprehension at the motive behind such an action: To open yourself to the pain a bombing victim himself might feel is something more than an “act of protest.”

It’s a direct confrontation with the wrong you can no longer bear witnessing or being a part of, and yes, it is using violence — but not to harm or kill your opponent. Instead, you are attempting to widen the public’s understanding of what you are protesting by killing yourself. It’s the absolute opposite of war. This is consciousness shift. This is an awareness that we are connected to one another and that we must protect that connection, even at our own expense.

These words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest and author of The Phenomenon of Man, suddenly seem remarkably relevant: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

The “energies of love. . .” What does this mean? I can only say this: It’s bigger than the horrific foolishness of organizing human society around the political need for an enemy, or what Walter Wink, in his book The Powers That Be, called “the myth of redemptive violence” — the belief that violence saves us.

Indeed, he wrote: “It doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be in the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god.”

Attention, mankind! That’s the wrong god. And we know this, at the deepest core of our being. As I contemplate Bushnell’s suicide, I also find myself unavoidably thinking about a 13-year-old schoolgirl named Marian Fisher, one of five girls killed by a lost soul of a gunman at an Amish school in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 2006. As survivors recounted, when the gunman threatened the children, Marian said to him: “Shoot me first.”

There’s something here beyond “normal” thinking, beyond, shall we say, “survival of the fittest.” What’s at stake is humanity’s collective consciousness, which both Aaron and Marion knelt to and gave their lives for, seeming to know it transcended them.

Their sacrifice — and the sacrifices of so many others over the years — begins to define the size of the changes we must make in our global politics, in our relationship with power, in our relationship with one another.

By trying to put such a change into words, let me not oversimplify it. I turn again to Teilhard de Chardin and his belief that we will harness the energies of love “. . . and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”