Honor the martyrs of social injustice

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CW: This article discusses self-immolation, a form of voluntary suicide, at length. 

Wynn Bruce was killed by climate change.

The flames that wrapped his body like a shroud in front of the Supreme Court of the United States on April 22 — Earth day of this year — weren’t caused by the forest fires devastating his home state of Colorado, nor were they cast by a lightning strike born from intensified storms and erratic weather patterns.  

What killed Wynn Alan Bruce was far from an act of the natural world. When the 50-year-old climate activist and committed Buddhist set himself on fire on the steps of the Supreme Court, it was nonetheless in response to the U.S. government’s sustained negligence and outright exacerbation of the climate crisis. This February, the Court heard oral arguments for West Virginia v. the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, at the center of which was the question of whether or not the EPA had the authority to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions of existing power plants. For activists such as Bruce, this sounded an urgent alarm — it rang the death knells of planet Earth, which seemed to be crying for someone to come to its aid.  

Although it can’t be speculated as to what Bruce’s thoughts were in the months leading up to April 22, it is certain that his self-immolation wasn’t spontaneous, frivolous or poorly thought out, as those mocking his death in its aftermath tried to claim. According to his father, Douglas Bruce, Wynn made an attempt to self-immolate in front of the Supreme Court in 2017 for reasons that are less clear than the one to which he sacrificed his life five years later. A fire emoji and “4/22/2022” were the two edits he made to an old Facebook post a few weeks before his passing. Possibly still physically scarred by half-decade-old flames — no doubt an unforgettable agony — one cannot say that Wynn Bruce’s attempt to light the fire once more was anything other than intentional. Above all, he reflected his inner-strength through silence, for onlookers and those who ran to douse the flames recalled not even hearing him scream. 

The Supreme Court ruled against the EPA on June 30, just two months after Bruce gave his life on their steps. Major news media had grown tired of and inattentive to his story long ago, and just like that, the smoke rising from Bruce’s powerful gesture was subsumed beneath the dark plumes of another year of unfettered carbon emissions.  

Some may understand Bruce’s final act of demonstration as futile and unnecessary — a solitary funeral pyre for an unreachable audience. This is a completely understandable sentiment given the powerlessness of individuals compared to the institutions that govern them with little accountability, if any; however, it’d be a mistake to believe that Bruce gave his life to nothing, or that his ultimate goal was protest in the first place.  

Between car accidents inducing traumatic brain injury as well as an appreciation for the environment, the consequences of these elements of Wynn’s life both conferred at a young age. These are the conditions that would later set him on the path of Buddhism — the once-promising high school track star transformed into a bodhisattva. Of the world’s religions and spiritual frameworks, Buddhism is perhaps the most well-known for its encouragement of relinquishing the needs of the body and making pursuits of the spirit, the pinnacle of which brings the practitioner to the point of  Nirvana, the sanskrit word for “quenching” or “blowing out” greed, desire and want, hatred and other states of mind that are considered negative — states of mind that, in most cases, necessarily stem from the body and its requirements. Language in Buddhist scriptures does indeed emphasize death as a form of ascension for its practitioners and, in some less-subtle cases, formulated mindfulness “as if [one’s] head were on fire.” 

You are free to interpret Bruce’s self-immolation as an act of protest, as it functionally appears as one and you’d be hard-pressed to find a Buddhist who places their own intent and narrative over the one formed by the world. I choose to understand it as a form of release — of freedom. From an intuitive standpoint, the incomparably painful act of burning oneself alive is not an act of cowardice or acquiescence to the overwhelming and immoveable powers that be; rather, just like this article, Bruce’s self-immolation was not truly about him.  

The tradition of self-immolation as demonstration dates back to the 1960s. In 1963, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức mobilized a procession of monks in Saigon, then the capital of the U.S.-backed South Vietnam. In a supreme act of resistance against the majority-Catholic dictatorship, Đức and his cohort set themselves ablaze, on one hand releasing their bodies to enlightenment, and on the other sacrificing them to a movement. The “point” of the demonstration was realized by the global attention paid to the plight of Buddhists who were violently discriminated against in Vietnam. 

Martyrdom is not futile, no matter what it seems. It is just as individualistic to submit oneself to the extreme pain of fire as it is to be a casualty in a revolution or war of national liberation. Ideologically motivated sacrifices, from Nat Turner’s slave rebellion to John Brown’s militant abolitionism to Thích and beyond can be as limitlessly powerful as their observers choose to make them. That means us.  

Honor the martyrs of social injustice. Remember their sacrifice, whether it be one of distress or of existential freedom, through action in their name, in the name of each other and the Earth. Martyrs don’t make sacrifices so we don’t have to; they do so because the violence they address demands our resistance.

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