Hero or troubled soul: Dallas pastor takes his life

Right from the start, a long Page 1 story in The Dallas Morning News portrays the Rev. Charles Moore as a hero.

The headline on the weekend story:

In dying act, minister hoped to inspire social justice

The top of the 1,750-word story:

From segregated churches of East Texas to destitute slums of India, the Rev. Charles Moore fought for human rights.

He delivered sermons about racism and sexism. He stood vigil against the death penalty. He went on a hunger strike to protest discrimination against gays and lesbians.

But during retirement, the United Methodist minister questioned whether he had done enough. He saw the broken world around him.

So how did Moore — according to the Morning News — take his final, courageous stand?:

On a Monday afternoon in June, Moore, 79, drove from his home in Allen to Grand Saline, the town of his childhood about 70 miles east of Dallas. He traveled along country roads near fields of wildflowers and grazing cattle. In a strip-mall parking lot, outside a dollar store, beauty salon and pharmacy, he knelt down, doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire.

As flames engulfed him, he screamed and tried to stand. Witnesses rushed to put out the blaze with shirts, bottled water and, finally, an extinguisher.

He was flown unconscious to a Dallas hospital, where he died from burn injuries.

Keep reading, and the Dallas newspaper uses Moore’s own terminology — self-immolation — to describe the nature of his death:

Moore had intended his act to be a grand but selfless gesture in the manner of Buddhist monks who have done the same before him.

“I would much prefer to go on living and enjoy my beloved wife and grandchildren and others, but I have come to believe that only my self-immolation will get the attention of anybody and perhaps inspire some to higher service,” he wrote in one of the notes he left behind.

The Morning News does not explain the term, but Wikipedia defines self-immolation as “a ritualistic suicide practice” that refers to “killing oneself as a sacrifice.”

In an earlier story headlined “Madman or Martyr: Retired minister sets self on fire, dies,” the Tyler Morning Telegraph used the term “suicide” up high:

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Tibet is burning

YouTube Preview ImageLet me commend for your reading this AP article by reporter Gillian Wong on the military crack down in Tibet. Entitled “As Tibet burns, China makes arrests, seizes TVs” this article reports on the wave of self-immolations that have swept across Tibet in protest to the Chinese regime’s occupation of the region.

It opens with a strong lede, provides the facts in a straight forward – balanced way, offers good comments from knowledgeable experts, provides the principle points of view — all while being written under a Beijing dateline (which means the reporter can find herself severely discommoded by the government for reporting unpalatable truths.)

The article opens:

Chinese authorities are responding to an intensified wave of Tibetan self-immolation protests against Chinese rule by clamping down even harder – criminalizing the suicides, arresting protesters’ friends and even confiscating thousands of satellite TV dishes.

The harsh measures provide an early indication that the country’s new leadership is not easing up on Tibet despite the burning protests and international condemnation.

For months, as Tibetans across western China doused themselves in gasoline and set themselves alight, authorities responded by sending in security forces to seal off areas and prevent information from getting out, but those efforts did not stop or slow the protests. The self-immolations even accelerated in November as China’s ruling Communist Party held a pivotal leadership transition.

There is a strong religious component to the story:

Nearly 100 Tibetan monks, nuns and lay people have set themselves on fire since 2009, calling for Beijing to allow greater religious freedom and the return from exile of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Speaking technically, (e.g., removing the subject of the story and looking at its construction, language and the reporter’s craft) this is a superior news story — it has all the elements of good journalism. And when you add in the compelling subject matter of religious freedom and political self-determination for Tibet you have a great story.

Were I to add anything to this story, it would be a paragraph or two on what the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has to say about self-immolation. Buddhism holds that human life is sacred — how does suicide as political/religious protest stand in light of these teachings?

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