Earlier this year, 60 year old lawyer, David Buckel, called in sick to work and proceeded to Prospect Park in downtown Brooklyn. There, sometime around dawn, he saturated himself with gas and burned himself to death.
Minutes before his suicide, Mr. Buckel sent several emails to various news outlets and attached a suicide note to a shopping cart at the scene, in which he explained that he was offering his body in an act of “protest suicide.” The sensational manner of his death was designed to draw attention to environmental issues — climate change most of all. He wrote:
“My early death by fossil fuels reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
Every soul-loving Christian ought to pity this man’s act of self-immolation. Deeply. And we must also pity the acute angst inside him that drove him to it. Yet, I can’t help but feel that his death was wholly unnecessary.
First, climate change has been one of the most ‘hotly’ debated subjects for decades now. Regardless of your position on the subject (this article is not about climate change), it is a stretch to think that the subject was in danger of fading from public consciousness.
Second, Mr. Buckel’s suicide may have actually rebounded to the detriment of his cause. Most view suicide as an extreme endeavor, performed by exceedingly desperate souls. Though some may view the act in question with a measured respect, many are repelled by its sheer radicalness.
Whether this assessment is justifiable or not, suicide often leaves behind the impression that there must have been “underlying issues, such as mental illness,” contributing to the decision (Robbins, et al.). These considerations surely weaken the impact of Mr. Buckel’s intended message.
In any case, life is precious. The body and soul are God’s gifts to the world (Acts 17.25). While it is honorable to lay down one’s life for others (Jn. 15.13), self-murder is not the answer to life’s problems, no matter how well-intended one’s motives may be (Rm. 13.9).
1 Corinthians 13.3
While I do not insist that 1 Corinthians 13.3 necessarily has any direct bearing on Mr. Buckel’s suicide (I know not the man), it nonetheless seems germane here:
“though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.”
Several acts of extraordinary character are listed in the immediate context, in addition to body burning: viz., speaking in all languages (whether temporal or celestial), having prophetic ability to know everything there is to know, and giving all of one’s possessions to the poor. As phenomenal as these endeavors are, love outshines them all. In fact, without love, these actions are valueless.
But valueless to whom? Don’t poor people “profit,” whether the man who gave them his possessions did so with love or not? Sure. But that is not Paul’s argument.
Ordinarily, love involves action which serves to benefit others. Here, however, love is designed to “profit” oneself (see also verse 2). The thrust of the text is this: actions taken, no matter how extraordinary or sensational, are valueless to the actor if he is bereft of sincerity — love for and within himself. Love makes actions meaningful and worthwhile.
Though that is fairly clear, there is, nonetheless, some ambiguity here, which makes this particular illustration challenging to comprehend. Does the apostle speak of self-inflicted burning, or martyrdom by burning? In fact, does he even speak of burning at all?
Burning or Boasting?
Certainly, the gist of the text may be easily ascertained, as per above. Nevertheless, there are complications to the passage, not the least of which involves a textual variant, whereby a single letter is modified (from kauthesomai [burn] to kauchesomai [boast], or vice-versa), giving us the alternative reading: “and if I sacrifice my body so that I may boast.”
Wakefield, who prefers the “boasting” variant, insists that “there is no such word as kauthesomai” (Notes, 123), and Meyer regards the future subjunctive form (so that I might be burned) as a “barbarism” of the Greek language, “the introduction of which…is due only to” a mistake made by “copyists” (391).
However, these authors appear to be referring only to a particular spelling of the word (where the omicron may have been altered to an omega, as found in a few manuscripts, including the Textus Receptus), which, indeed, may have simply stemmed from a scribal slip.
A text-critical analysis of these variants is beyond the scope of the present article. Regardless of which reading is the original (burn or boast), Paul’s subject concerns the sacrifice of one’s body. The means (by burning) or the motive (to boast) is the only matter in doubt.
For our present purposes, we shall work from the “burn” variant — presuming that kauthesomai was Paul’s actual term.
What does Paul mean when he speaks of giving his “body to be burned”? Does he mean: though I give my body to the flames; i.e., burn myself…?
Actually, the generic language of the passage does not necessarily preclude self-immolation. To whom (a persecutor?) or to what (to the flames?) does he “give his body to be burned?” Since Paul leaves his indirect object unspecified, it is impossible to tell through purely grammatical analysis.
However, it must be remembered that Paul is speaking in the subjunctive (hypothetical) mood — with a hyperbolic (amplified) tone. Hyperbolic literature is not designed to focus on the literal details of the situation, but rather on the “emotional effect” of the statement (Ryken, 177). Hence, even if he is speaking of self-immolation, the act itself would have been viewed as highly improbable, if not “impossible,” and was used only “to express the greatness of the subject spoken of” (i.e., love; Bullinger, 427).
That said, the apostle may have had several historical incidents involving self-immolation in mind when he wrote this.
Five centuries before Christ, a Greek philosopher named, Empedocles, hurled himself into the fires of Mt. Etna (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 8.51-77). Legend suggests that he wished either to become an immortal god, or, more likely, by ensuring that his body could not be found, he wished to leave behind the impression that he had become divine. Unfortunately for him, an article of his clothing was left behind which exposed the subterfuge (ibid. 8.69).
In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great (cir. 356-323) pushed his army to the borders of India. In the forests of that region he encountered an Indian ascetic named, Calanus, who became highly influential in Alexander’s camp. As they reached Susa, the ascetic became ill. No longer wishing to live, Calanus built a funeral pyre in the middle of the camp, calmly stepped into it, and, as the trumpets blared and the elephants gave their royal salute, he phlegmatically permitted his body to be consumed by the flames.
Less than a century before Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, another Indian ascetic named, Zarmarus, likewise killed himself by self-immolation in the city of Athens, just miles away from Corinth. Though his motivations were unknown, the Roman historian, Dio Cassius, speculated that he did it either
“because of his old age, because of philosophical reasons, or because he just wanted to provide a spectacle for the benefit of Augustus who was in Athens at the time” (Benko, 36; cf. Cassius Dio 54.9.10).
These and several other similar incidents were famous in the ancient world. It is reasonable to suppose that Paul and the Corinthians were familiar with them, and that, perhaps to some degree, his audience would have loosely associated his remarks with these episodes of antiquity.
Nevertheless, theologically, it is not likely that the apostle had self-inflicted burning in mind when he wrote this — at least not directly.
First, Paul’s argument is designed to lead us to the conclusion that the actions he mentions are only valuable if they are performed with love. Yet, how can I be profited at all if I burn myself to death, even if it were possible to do it with love? Self-murder is the only sin wherein one instantly and irrevocably loses both earthly and spiritual blessedness. There is no profit to suicide (cf. Acts 1.16-25). And no amount of love can change that.
Second, the other items mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13.1-3 are each praiseworthy endeavors. If it were possible to converse in every conceivable language, and if I were able to know all mysteries, and if it were feasible to give away everything I own, each of these actions would at least be honorable. Self-immolation, however, would have no honor in Paul’s thinking. Thus, suicide is entirely out of character with the immediate context.
These considerations make it highly unlikely that self-immolation was the subject of Paul’s argument.
More likely, an act of martyrdom is in view here. The verb, give — “though I give my body to be burned” — is an example of metonymy, a figure of speech whereby the active form (to give) replaces the passive meaning (to allow).
Paul’s argument is this: even if I sacrifice my life for the maintenance of the truth, without fighting back against my persecutor, allowing (i.e., giving) my body to be burned by his instigation, it would not be advantageous for me if my heart were not in it, or if my motivations were less than pure.
Against this, several commentators observe that martyrdom by burning was not a common practice at the time (cf. Barnes, 244; Spence, et al., 423-4; Clarke, 266; Wakefield, Notes, 123; etc.).
However, Paul, a “Hebrew among Hebrews” (Phil. 3.5), would have been keenly familiar with the record of the three Hebrew youths in Babylon, who allowed themselves to be tossed into a fiery furnace rather than repudiate their faith (Dan. 3.1-30). If they had been insincere in their actions — if they, in other words, believed that just going through the motions was enough to please God, without genuinely loving him — they would have died in vain. Thus, fiery martyrdom was not alien to Paul’s worldview.
Furthermore, according to the Roman historian, Tacitus (c. 55-117 A.D.), the nefarious Nero murdered Christians in this manner about a decade after the letter’s composition
“to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44),
and hence the practice was not entirely foreign to Paul’s own age.
Nevertheless, as Barnes suggests,
“it is more probable that he refers to this as the most awful kind of death, rather than as any thing which had really happened” (Barnes, 244).
Making the supreme sacrifice, in the most gruesome way imaginable, would not matter one wit without love.
There are reports of some, like the Donatists of later centuries, who actually provoked others to kill them (by pretending to attack them), in the hopes that they could effectively buy off their salvation through their premature death at the hands of others, though such reports may have been skewed somewhat by their Catholic antagonists (cf. Tilley, Donatist…).
Some viewed martyrdom merely as an escape from monetary debt, or some other earthly misery, or even as a magical elixir which could instantly alleviate the guilt of an inordinately sinful life (from which they never truly repented) and catapult them headlong into the upper echelons of heavenly bliss. Unfortunately,
“martyrdom for the sake of ambition was a fact of early occurrence in the church, if not in Paul’s day” (Vincent, 263-4).
Matthew Henry expresses it well:
“Some men have thrown themselves into the fire to procure a name and reputation among men. It is possible that the very same principle may have worked up some to resolution enough to die for their religion who never heartily believed and embraced it. But vindicating religion at the cost of our lives will profit nothing if we feel not the power of it; and true charity is the very heart and spirit of religion. If we feel none of its sacred heat in our hearts, it will profit nothing, though we be burnt to ashes for the truth.” (Henry, 461).
Even today, too many believe that action alone —without heart— is profitable in and of itself. Entire religions have been built around a sacramental system, whereby activity is exalted over devotion. But just as heart without action is without value (cf. Jms. 2.14-26), so also action without heart yields no profit (1 Cor. 13.1-3).
Some, like Judas, commit suicide due to extreme selfishness — they care only about their own losses, their own misery. Either they have not thought about the impact their suicide will have on others, or they simply do not care. In either case, they may love themselves, but they have failed to love others.
Others, however, commit suicide for more complicated reasons. They may genuinely love others, even to the point of becoming entirely selfless. But this too is dangerous. When one ceases to love himself, he has taught his heart to be without love — even to experience hate for himself — and even this will lead to a selfish act.
A person truly motivated by love will understand that one’s companions are much better off with him than without him (cf. Phil. 1.23-24). Love may be willing and even ready to die, but it is never desirous of it (cf. Mt. 26.36ff). Rather, a healthy dose of self-love serves as the very foundation upon which love for others is based. Without it, no one profits.
From the reports, it appears that Mr. Buckel was a highly sensitive soul, obsessed with helping others. This is admirable. We only wish, for his own sake, and for the sake of those who cared for him, that he had loved his own body and soul as much as he loved the environment — and the people — around him (cf. Mt. 22.39; Eph. 5.28).
Barnes, Albert. Notes on the New Testament: 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1949. Benko, Stephen. Pagan Rome and the Early Christians. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986. Bullinger, E. W. Figures of Speech Used In The Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2007. Clarke, Adam. Clark’s Commentary: Vol. 3, Matthew-Revelation. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1824. Correal, Annie. “What Drove A Man To Set Himself On Fire In Brooklyn?” Nytimes.com. Access date: May 29, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/28/nyregion/david-buckel-fire-prospect-park-fossil-fuels.html Henry, Matthew. Commentary: Volume 6: Acts to Revelation. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2000. Levenson, Eric and Gabriella Milian. “Prominent Gay Rights Lawyer Sets Himself On Fire In Protest Suicide.” Cnn.com. Access date: May 26, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/15/us/david-buckel-gay-rights-attorney-suicide/index.html Meyer, H. A. W. Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Corinthians: Volume 1. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1877. Robbins, Liz and Jan Ransom. “He Called Out Sick, Then Apologized For Leaving This World.” Nytimes.com Access date: May 26, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/15/nyregion/david-buckel-brooklyn.html Ryken, Leland. Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2005. Spence, H. D. M. The Pulpit Commentary: Vol. 19: Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1958. Tilley, Maureen A. Donatist Martyr Stories: The Church in Conflict in Roman North Africa. Liverpool University Press, 1996. Vincent, Marvin R. Word Studies in the New Testament: Volume 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973. Wakefield, Gilbert. A Translation of the New Testament. Cambridge: University Press, 1820.