There is a great ladder of religious cruelty, with many rungs; but three of these are the most important.
Once one sacrificed human beings to one’s god, perhaps precisely those whom one loved most…
Then, during the moral epoch of mankind, one sacrificed to one’s god one’s own strongest instincts, one’s “nature”: this festive joy lights up the cruel eyes of the ascetic, “the anti-natural” enthusiast.
Finally — what remained to be sacrificed? At long last, did not one have to sacrifice for once whatever is comforting, holy, healing; all hope, all faith in hidden harmony, in future blisses and justices? Didn’t one have to sacrifice God himself, and, from cruelty against oneself, worship the stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, the nothing? To sacrifice God for the nothing – this paradoxical mystery of the final cruelty was reserved for the generation that is now coming up: all of us already know something of this.
Self-immolation in the Buddhist tradition is not the same thing as political self-immolation: the mindsets and motivations involved are different, and so is the societal impact. Yet even though the importance of religious-cultural background is undeniable in the case of the Vietnamese monks, political self-immolations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have become a major symbolic gesture in their own right. Still, regardless of their different specific aims (mystical enlightenment or political protest), all self-immolators share the same desire to transcend the human body as a strictly biological entity and to turn it, through fire, into a tool for other, higher purposes.
…Martyrdom (political martyrdom included) is as much the deed of the one who performs it as it is of those who witness it. The self-immolator’s death, no matter how spectacular, will remain utterly meaningless unless it is captured by a receptive gaze—that is, unless it occurs within a community eaten up by guilty thoughts and feelings. The guilt can be due to several factors: habitual toleration of injustices, collective cowardice and ethical numbness, passivity in front of political oppression, a general sense of defeat in front of a force (totalitarian government, foreign military occupation, and so on) perceived as invincible, if illegitimate. In other words, self-immolators are effective in societies that feel responsible in part for their servitude, where feelings of complicity, mutual resentment, and distrust have not only poisoned people’s private lives, but also undermined whatever social life is left.
We seem to be somewhere between the second and third rung — we pay lip service to the idea of “future blisses and justices”, and we’re still big on renouncing the body as a biological entity for, uh, “higher” purposes, but we seem to be worshiping the entertaining spectacle rather than the nothing. Self-immolation would barely stay in the news cycle for a few days here.