The Song of Roland
This story in the Brussels Journal got almost no notice last week. Lutheran vicar Roland Weisselberg, aged 73, set himself alight in Erfurt where Martin Luther took monastic vows in 1505. Bystanders rushed to extinguish the flames. The man later died of his injuries. In a farewell letter to his wife the vicar wrote that he was setting himself on fire to warn against the danger of the Islamization of Europe according to the Brussels Journal.
During the past four years the vicar had frequently expressed his concern about the expansion of Islam, urging the Lutheran Church to take this issue seriously. As the fire started the vicar cried: “Jesus and Oskar!” Oskar Brüsewitz was a 47-year old German vicar who died after setting himself on fire 30 years ago, on 18 August 1976, in the market square of the German town of Zeitz in protest against the Communist regime in East Germany. Both Erfurt and Zeitz are situated in the former East German province of Saxony.
Many people would call Roland Weisselberg's gesture a form of religious madness. It was outwardly exactly like this one, but that of course, was a sublime act of religious conviction.
On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk from the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon, Vietnam.. Eye witness accounts state that Thich Quang Duc and at least two fellow monks arrived at the intersection by car, Thich Quang Duc got out of the car, assumed the traditional lotus position and the accompanying monks helped him pour gasoline over himself. He ignited the gasoline by lighting a match and burned to death in a matter of minutes. David Halberstam, a reporter for the New York Times covering the war in Vietnam, gave the following account: I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think…. As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.
Thich Quang Duc had prepared himself for his self-immolation through several weeks of meditation and had explained his motivation in letters to members of his Buddhist community as well as to the government of South Vietnam in the weeks prior to his self-immolation. In these letters he described his desire to bring attention to the repressive policies of the Catholic Diem regime that controlled the South Vietnamese government at the time. Prior to the self-immolation, the South Vietnamese Buddhists had made the following requests to the Diem regime, asking it to: Lift its ban on flying the traditional Buddhist flag; Grant Buddhism the same rights as Catholicism; Stop detaining Buddhists; Give Buddhist monks and nuns the right to practice and spread their religion; and Pay fair compensations to the victim's families and punish those responsible for their deaths.
Thich Quang Duc's action was front page New York Times News. Pictures of it were on President Kennedy's desk the next day. It was regarded as a tremendous public relations blow against "the American backed South Vietnamese government and its war against the Communist supported Viet Cong". Even though it had nothing to do with Communism at all, it is possible that many Americans, shown the picture today, would misidentify it as a protest against the US troops in Vietnam, although American troops would not be there in numbers for two more years. The reaction by Weisselberg's own church to Roland Weisselberg's death was interesting. The UK Times reports, "The Protestant Bishop of Saxony, Axel Noack, said the suicide had shocked the community and that he hoped it would not hurt relations between Christians and Muslims."
Not Weisselberg's death, but the fact it was unremarked may be the real story of this event. Gestures must express some deep but unexpressed emotion to be effective. Roland gave the performance of his life but the gallery was empty. And now there is a stir offstage. Is it a new cast of players come to perform? Or have the night watchmen arrived to turn out the lights?