“When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”
These words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have reverberated in Rev. Charles Moore’s mind when he got out of his car, knelt down, and lit himself on fire in a parking lot on June 23, 2014. Moore’s act of self-immolation was, according to a letter found after his death, a spiritually-compelled protest of the racial animus directed at African-Americans by the people of his hometown of Grand Saline, Texas. He wanted to call the town – and the nation – to repentance and healing, and felt his death could force a conversation about a topic most would rather ignore.
Moore’s act and its aftermath are analyzed in the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival documentary Man on Fire. Producer James Chase Sanchez, who grew up in Grand Saline, and Director Joel Fendelman visited the town many times and filmed interviews to capture the local reaction to Moore’s self-immolation.
Many residents of Grand Saline think it was a misguided, even crazy act by Moore, a retired United Methodist preacher who had recently moved back to the town before his death. The locals felt the racist past of Grand Saline was a distant memory based on exaggerated folklore. Moore’s family, friends, and fellow clergy, however, acknowledge the deep pain that Moore felt on behalf of his African-American brothers and sisters. Many subjects in the film also agreed with Moore’s conclusion that Grand Saline, as a town, was deeply unwelcoming to non-white residents.
This meditative and deeply moving film succeeds at the challenge of both portraying the townspeople of Grand Saline on their own terms while also giving space for Moore’s bold act to be taken seriously. Although self-immolation is not part of the mainstream Christian tradition, Moore was, according to Fendelman and Sanchez’ research, inspired by the martyrdom of Tibetan monks. Through beautifully rendered reenactments, Man on Fire puts the viewer with Moore in his final moments. Was this the decision of a madman or a bold action that might lead to justice?
The high price of martyrdom is also explored in the film when Moore’s stepdaughter, in tears, articulates the heart-wrenching reality of missing her father: “As much as we can say we support what he said, that doesn’t diminish the pain.”
Whether Moore’s act will achieve its desired impact remains to be seen, but the mere existence of this excellent film furthers his message and hope for healing and racial reconciliation.
Find out more about the film on its official site.