Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Edition of Satya and Call for Submissions, click here.

back issues


April 2004
Dying for Change: Self-sacrifice in Nonviolent Action

By Marianne Arbogast

Shortly after September 11, 2001, political satirist Bill Maher outraged sponsors and got his ABC talk show, Politically Incorrect, cancelled by agreeing with a guest’s observation that people who are willing to die for their cause cannot be called cowards. Rather, lobbing missiles from a safe distance is cowardly, Maher suggested. In the storm of patriotic controversy that followed, much of the anger seemed to focus on the idea that there could be any comparison between the suicide attacks and U.S. military action. But whatever distinctions may exist between terrorism and legitimate armed struggle (and these seem harder to draw as modern warfare blurs the distinction between civilian and military targets), or between different contexts in which suicide bombing missions have been carried out (Hamas is not Al-Qaeda), it seems hard to deny that the willingness to lay down one’s life for God, country or political convictions has significance.

This willingness—taken for granted in armed conflict—has also been honored by those who embrace nonviolence. The history of nonviolent movements includes many who knowingly risked their lives, such as U.S. civil rights workers who faced brutal assault and, in some cases, death. It includes leaders who, like Martin Luther King, Jr., were acutely aware of the likelihood of their own martyrdom. It also includes a number of “suicide resisters” who have taken their own lives and generated their own controversy.

The majority of nonviolent activists—especially those with roots in Christian faith—would condemn self-inflicted violence as well as violence directed toward others. Yet there have been some who, while rejecting any act that would take others’ lives, have accepted the deliberate ending of one’s own life for the sake of a cause. The classic modern example is the self-immolation of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, who, on June 11, 1963, set himself on fire at a busy intersection in Saigon to protest the U.S.-backed Diem government’s repression of Buddhists. This was an act which, according to University of Illinois sociologist Michael Biggs, brought self-immolation into “the global repertoire of protest.” (Biggs is the author of “Dying without Killing: Protest by Self-Immolation,” a chapter of a book on suicide missions edited by Diego Gambetta, now under consideration by Oxford University Press).

“The impact of Thich Quang Duc’s fiery death was immense and immediate,” Biggs writes. “Within Vietnam, it galvanized popular discontent in the cities. ...Four monks and a nun burned themselves to death before Diem was toppled by a coup at the beginning of November. This did not end self-immolation. ...Many more were to die in 1966, protesting against the American-backed military regime and the war destroying their country.”

Several Americans—including two Quakers and a member of the Catholic Worker movement—also immolated themselves during the Vietnam war years.

While American peace movement leaders spoke out forcefully against self-immolation, Vietnamese Buddhist leaders praised it. In a 1965 open letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh declared that “this is not suicide.”

“What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese,” he wrote. “To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. ...The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire nonexistence. ...He does not think that he is destroying himself; he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, 1967).

Biggs, who defines self-immolation as “an act of public protest, where an individual intentionally kills him or herself—without harming anyone else—on behalf of a collective cause,” says that there have been more than a thousand acts of self-immolation worldwide (not all by fire) since 1963. These have included Czechs protesting the 1969 Soviet occupation of their country, Indian citizens protesting a 1990 government proposal for caste-based reallocation of positions in universities and government employment, and Kurds protesting Turkey’s capture of Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.

In Biggs’ analysis, the core motivations of those who immolate themselves focus on advancing their cause—either by appeal to the perceived oppressor or to public opinion, by inciting other sympathizers to bolder protest, or as a plea for divine intervention. He also notes the role of despair for those who feel that all roads are blocked and, in some cases, a desire to avoid capture or trial. He mentions—though downplays—the possibility of selfish motivations or psychological disturbances. (Biggs relates the findings of a psychiatric study of 22 survivors of self-immolation in India, which noted “manifest psychopathology” in only one of the cases.)

Biggs says that while “most acts of self-immolation fail to generate any collective response,” there are some, like Quang Duc’s, which have “brought thousands or tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people together—to express their rage, grief and commitment.” Even today, he reports, a memorial on the spot where Quang Duc died is always adorned with flowers.

Fasts and Hunger Strikes
Biggs distinguishes self-immolation from hunger strikes on the basis that, for hunger strikers, death is not intended. In fact, he says, hunger strikers rarely starve to death.

A well-known exception was the 1981 hunger strike of 10 Irish Republican prisoners, who died protesting the British government’s denial of political prisoner status. More recently, 12 Kurdish prisoners died in a 1996 hunger strike for more humane conditions in Turkish prisons.

Many hunger strikers have not been committed to nonviolence, except as a temporary tactic. But fasts—of varying lengths and degrees of intensity—have been a traditional practice of many nonviolent leaders. Both Mohandas Gandhi and Cesar Chavez fasted in appeals to their supporters for adherence to nonviolent means of struggle, as well as in appeals to their opponents. Washington, DC, anti-homelessness activist Mitch Snyder fasted for 51 days in 1984 to pressure the federal government to fund renovation of a shelter. (The outcome was successful, but Snyder committed suicide several years later.) Activist Dick Gregory undertook frequent fasts, and served as advisor to a group of protesters who began an open-ended fast in 1972 to draw attention to American involvement in Vietnam.

“At the time, American soldiers were no longer dying in large numbers, but there was a lot of bombing going on,” says Tom Lumpkin, a Detroit Catholic priest who was one of the fasters. “We wanted to make the suffering visible here in the U.S.”

Participants in the fast believed they might die, Lumpkin says, but they eventually decided to stop fasting after 40 days, seeing a ray of hope in the Democratic presidential nomination of anti-war candidate George McGovern.

Peace Teams
While most nonviolent resisters in the U.S. have measured risk in terms of jail time, loss of property or personal inconvenience, a new form of nonviolent action has emerged in recent years which clearly involves the risk of life. Beginning with delegations to Central America in the early 1980s and continuing today with peace teams in Iraq and Israel/Palestine, Americans and others have traveled to war zones, particularly those in which there is some U.S. involvement, with the goal of nonviolent witness and solidarity.

On March 16 of last year, Rachel Corrie, a student from Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza as she stood in its path, attempting to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home. Corrie was a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led project which invites international volunteers to join in nonviolent direct action challenging the Israeli occupation.

Corrie was “the first International Solidarity Movement volunteer to be killed in this intifada,” an ISM press release stated. “The rationale of international protection rests upon the assumption that Israel cannot remain unaccountable for the killing of international civilians as it is unaccountable for the killing of Palestinians. Today this assumption has been challenged.”

Corrie’s letters home expressed her conviction that, as an American, she was far safer than the Palestinians with whom she engaged in nonviolent resistance. But peace team volunteers have never assumed immunity.

In a 1984 speech to the Mennonite World Conference which laid the foundation for the creation of Christian Peacemaker Teams, Mennonite theologian Ron Sider declared that “we need to prepare to die by the thousands” in nonviolent conflict intervention.

“What would happen if we in the Christian church developed a new nonviolent peacekeeping force of 100,000 persons ready to move into violent conflicts and stand peacefully between warring parties in Central America, Northern Ireland, Poland, Southern Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan?” Sider asked. “Everyone assumes that for the sake of peace it is moral and just for soldiers to get killed by the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Do we not have as much courage and faith as soldiers?”

Although a force of 100,000 has yet to be marshaled, many peace teams under a variety of auspices have engaged in impressive violence-reduction projects around the globe. In November 2002, 110 delegates from 47 countries met in New Delhi to launch what is perhaps the most ambitious such project yet, establishing an International Peace Force to intervene nonviolently in conflict areas around the globe.

“The intention is to form a nonviolent standing army, which was the vision of Gandhi,” says Janet Chisholm, vice chair of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, who participated in the gathering. Plans call for the initial recruitment of 200 full-time salaried peace workers, whose numbers would grow to 2,000 within 10 years, with volunteer reservists augmenting their forces. Sri Lanka—which has suffered recurrent conflict between Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus—was selected as the site of a pilot project which began last June. The peace force will “attempt to create a safe space so that people will feel they can begin to have elections,” Chisholm says. “There is going to be land reform, and that could evolve into great conflict. It is a time when the different parties in Sri Lanka may be able to develop a peaceful way of co-existing.”

This past year, the risk involved in the work of peace teams has perhaps loomed larger than ever, as peacemakers have traveled to Iraq.

A February journal entry by Elizabeth Roberts, a member of an Iraq Peace Team (IPT) delegation sponsored by Voices in the Wilderness reflected on questions delegates were asked to consider. The first was, “In the event of your death, do you agree to your body not being returned to your own country but being disposed of in the most convenient way?” The second inquired if they had written a letter that could be sent to their loved ones in such an event.

“Some people here say the survival odds given to the American peaceworkers staying through the invasion is about 30 percent,” Roberts wrote. A core of peace team members is committed to remaining in Iraq for the duration of the crisis.

Yet, although they have considered funeral arrangements and assembled “crash kits” (bottled water, dried food, flashlight, passport, water purification tablets, ace bandage) for emergency use, IPT volunteers make it clear that they do not wish to die. They reject the “human shield” label claimed by other peace delegations, saying that they “refuse to incorporate military language or ideas to describe the peace witness of IPT members.”

Radical Freedom
For Christians, the willingness to risk one’s life flows from the cross, nonviolent activist and theologian Bill Wylie-Kellermann says.

“The call to discipleship is ‘take up your cross and follow me,’ which clearly is a question of risk.”

Wylie-Kellermann stresses the link between the cross and engaging the powers, describing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a freely chosen confrontation that resulted in his death.

“There is certainly an element of choosing his timing, and freedom, but on the other hand it’s consequence. It’s not suicide because there are all sorts of freedoms at play around it—people and authorities and powers could respond differently to what he’s offering walking into town.”

The word “sacrament” comes from the Latin word “sacramentum,” which was the Roman military oath to Caesar, Wylie-Kellermann says, and the Roman authorities understood the Christian sacraments as signifying an alternative allegiance.

“In baptism you die—it’s a baptism into the death of Christ as well as the resurrection, and in many ways it’s like the induction and the naming of this freedom. You’ve already died, you’re free to die. It means you’re able to go into any situation—you’re not only authorized but free.”
But there was also a “heresy of seeking martyrdom” in the early church, Wylie-Kellermann says, with some Christians insisting on being put into the arena.

“There’s kind of a line between this element of radical freedom, and throwing yourself on the fire or lining up to take your cross. It’s the difference between choosing risk within the context of something else—risking in order to serve human life in some way—versus taking a risk for your own justification. It leads toward a kind of idolatry—idolatry of death, I suppose.

“I think of the Buddhists who immolated themselves and the really careful self-purifying preparation they went through, and it really was rooted in compassion and a desire to light up the history and make visible the suffering of other people for the sake of peace. But I do think it’s so easy to mix a fascination with death with an exposure of death, or a kind of despair with an act of ultimate hope, and when you get pushed to that extreme, they’re subject to confusion.”

In some ways, self-sacrifice in nonviolent action can be compared to a soldier’s self-sacrifice, Wylie-Kellermann says.

“The folks who are on the ground in Iraq at the moment have to have dealt with the prospect of their deaths, and made arrangements and said goodbyes, the same ways that soldiers going off to the Middle East are saying goodbyes. There is a kind of analogy between the risk of the cross and the willingness of soldiers to die in battle.”

But there is also a fundamental difference, he says—as there is between nonviolent self-sacrifice and the self-sacrifice of a suicide bomber. “There’s a similar freedom obviously involved, and the connection of the political powers to that element of risk, but there’s an enormous difference between suicide bombing and the nonviolent way of the cross—just like there is between a nonviolent army and a military army. There’s just a categorical difference between freedom to die in order to kill, and freedom to die in order to offer life or justice or put a choice to people. They are not the same thing.”

Marianne Arbogast, formerly the associate editor of  Witness for Peace magazine, is a freelance writer based in Detroit. This article is reprinted from the May/June, 2003 issue of Witness for Peace ( Reprinted with kind permission.



Getting in the Way— Risking Proactive Nonviolence

In the third week of March 2003, as UN representatives, embassy personnel and others were pulling out of Iraq in anticipation of the U.S. attack, Jerry and Sis Levin, Episcopalians from Birmingham, Alabama, were travelling in the opposite direction. As part of a delegation to Iraq sponsored by Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), they expected to visit schools and hospitals, meet with representatives of various agencies, and help document the effects of war on the Iraqi people.

Preparing to leave, Jerry Levin acknowledged that their plans might well be disrupted by the U.S. invasion. They might or might not be able to return home in two weeks. They might not return home at all.

For the Levins, the journey was a natural outgrowth of a commitment that began in 1983, when Jerry Levin—then a broadcast journalist who had just been named CNN bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon—was taken hostage by Hizballah militants and held for nearly a year. During that time, his wife, Sis Levin, engaged in a process of investigation and dialogue on the roots of the conflict that eventually led to a meeting with the foreign minister of Syria, shortly after which Jerry Levin was allowed to escape.

Levin, who entered captivity an atheist, came out a Christian with a strong belief in nonviolence. The experience convinced him of the “futility of violence—not just the violence of the so-called bad guys, but the violence of the so-called good guys, too. That’s how I understand the meaning of the gospel, and especially the Sermon on the Mount.”

The Levins interrupted a two-year CPT commitment in Israel/Palestine to respond to CPT’s call for experienced Middle East volunteers to join the March delegation.

In Israel, Sis Levin, who holds a doctorate in education with an emphasis on teaching peace, has been working on curriculum development at the Mar Elias Institute in Galilee, a school that teaches Jewish, Muslim and Christian students together. Jerry Levin has been working with CPT in Hebron.

“We’re a violence-reduction organization—our slogan is ‘Getting in the Way,’” he explains. “We’re constantly doing two things: documenting the excesses of the occupation and its effects, and also going to where the problem of harassment and violence against the Palestinians is at its worst and trying to help relieve that problem, challenging soldiers when what they are doing is out of line.”

In the process, he has been punched, kicked, spit upon, stoned, shot at and chased by an army tank. When he focuses on risk reduction, however, it’s in a much larger context than personal safety.

“We have procedures, as best we can, even under the most difficult circumstances, to try to stop and look at what we’re doing—if it’s right, if it’s effective,” he says. “One of the questions, when we go into a potentially violent situation, is will we, by our presence, make the situation worse or better? How does one approach an Israeli soldier or settler at a volatile time in such a way that it doesn’t inflame them more?”

Levin is uncompromising in his condemnation of all violence, whatever its source.

“When our people drop bombs that kill civilians in Afghanistan and in Iraq, naturally we won’t call it terrorism,” he says. “I am so weary of all the rationales we officially put out for doing the terribly violent acts we’ve done fulfilling our obvious national ambition to dominate the world. It’s interesting that we call it fanaticism on the part of Palestinians when these kids are willing to blow themselves up, but we don’t call it fanaticism when our own soldiers are willing to go into battle and take the chance of getting killed, too.”

What of the risks he takes in attempting to prevent violence?

“I do it because of the conversion process I went through in Lebanon,” he says. “Sis and I passionately believe that the times do not call out for any more Christian soldiers. Instead the times cry out for Christian peacemakers, who are willing to risk proactive nonviolence.” —M.A.




All contents are copyrighted. Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.