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Cultural decay yields self-destruction

Aaron Bushnell’s suicide tragically teaches (and warns) us about our times

Demonstrators gather during a vigil outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. Associated Press/Photo by Mark Schiefelbein

Cultural decay yields self-destruction
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Last week, an active-duty airmen, Aaron Bushnell, age 25, committed suicide by setting himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. This was an act of protest, live-streamed on the platform Twitch. Bushnell could be heard saying, “I will no longer be complicit in genocide,” as well as crying out “Free Palestine.” Bushnell also posted the following statement: “Many of us like to ask ourselves, ‘What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?’ … The answer is, you’re doing it. Right now.”

Such a horrifying situation has much to teach us about our current cultural moment. There are unprecedented aspects of this story, such as a performative live-streaming of oneself before a digital audience. But, sadly, self-destructive actions for a dubious cause are decidedly not unprecedented. Such instances usually arise in times of cultural decay, which we do well to mark if we are to navigate our context in a wise, faithful manner.

First of all, we see a lack of deliberation. There’s an assumption on Bushnell’s part that persuasion via argument is impossible. Instead, horrifically violent acts are what one needs to further his cause—including self-immolation. Is that how furthering one’s cause really works? And how just is it to commit suicide for a supposedly noble cause, pace Hamas’ terrorist activities? In case Christians have forgotten, killing oneself is immoral—it is self-murder. It is ethically inexcusable to commit suicide for whatever cause. The ends do not justify the means. This is not the same as accepting martyrdom at the hands of others or risking one’s life in a noble endeavor, which gets to the next point.

Bushnell’s case highlights the thorny political problem of courage and public life. Occasionally, courage would have the citizen, subject, and magistrate hazard violence. When a cause is deemed honorable and right, people reveal a willingness to die and even kill for something. It is not uncommon for this to get out of hand. It’s obvious that Bushnell perceived an honor to be had in his social activism. Note where he places himself: in line with those that fought slavery, segregation, and apartheid.

Commonly, suicide shows its ugly face when people feel deeply hopeless and helpless.

That was his self-perception. Those past activists were honorable, and he, too, saw himself as honorable for “doing something” about it via suicidal protest. Those who aren’t “doing something” are dishonorable. Undoubtedly, he held in scorn those who failed to combat past social injustices sufficiently. Bushnell obviously wanted to accomplish something good and worthy with his life (and death). Being a serviceman in the U.S. military did not scratch that proverbial itch. This was a man who obviously craved purpose. Remarkably, several outlets have defended and even praised Bushnell for his actions. An act of despair is cast as a (perhaps misguided) act of courage.

And let’s talk about that despair. Commonly, suicide shows its ugly face when people feel deeply hopeless and helpless. It is an act of ultimate agency—of taking your life by your own hands—that you hope breaks through the felt lack of agency. Combine with this some disordered loves and a strong sense of solidarity with the “have-nots,” despite the atrocities committed by Hamas. Obviously, Bushnell—like many people today (especially young men)—was susceptible to erroneous, radical ideology. His own rocky spiritual background probably played a factor in his radicalization.

But even those with a healthy background experience crises of meaning and morals, which existentially destabilize them and make them vulnerable to harmful ideas, including through the medium of the internet. This becomes especially dangerous when there is no sovereign, immanent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, loving God in the equation. If Proverbs, the Psalms, and the prophets teach us anything, it is that the LORD will frustrate the purposes of the wicked, in His good time, in His way. He defines what is right and wrong, and He vindicates the right and brings the wrong to naught. Vengeance is His. This means that the saint can risk his life and livelihood for the good while also refusing to ever commit sin for any cause and even forgive his enemies. It’s not all on mere mortals to make things right in the cosmos.

Moments of cultural decay make men desperate and can spur them into supporting unrighteous causes and committing grievous evils for causes righteous and unrighteous. Such is the character of radicalism when the world is turned upside-down. I remember a time when all was reduced down to money—“It’s the economy, stupid!” Now, as we see promising young men burn themselves alive on screen, it’s time to address the spiritual crisis of our unmoored society.

Barton J. Gingerich

The Rev. Barton J. Gingerich is the rector of St. Jude’s Anglican Church (REC) in Richmond, Va. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from Patrick Henry College and a Master of Divinity with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.

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