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by Trevor Malkinson

A Spark Can Set a Field on Fire

On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. Bouazizi had been the main provider for his family since the age of 10, selling vegetables everyday in the market (1). For years he'd been bullied, harassed and humiliated by police; it was almost a daily occurrence. They would take away his scales or his produce, or fine him for not having a permit, which was basically a bribe because no permit was officially needed. The country of Tunisia had been under an authoritarian regime for twenty-five years, and corruption and nepotism were rampant. A vast majority of the country's wealth was in the hands of a small elite group, most of whom were blood relatives of President Ben Ali. On December 17 Bouazzi was harassed again, this time physically. And this time he'd had enough. After his request to speak to a local official was denied (as usual), Bouazzi bought some paint fuel, sat down outside the government building of the same unavailable state official, doused himself in the flammable liquid, and lit a match heard round the world.

As we all know now, this act by Bouazzi sparked an immediate uprising in Tunisia, one that spread to many other countries in the region and, at the time of writing, continues to spread. The conditions for this revolutionary outpouring have been in place for some time. The people of Tunisia, and Egypt, have long been disgruntled, and opposition groups had been quietly forming on sites like Facebook and elsewhere for several years (2). But it was Bouazzi's desperate act of self-immolation that broke the dam open into virtual release. It's hard for us to fully grasp the severity and totality of this kind of deed; it seems so radical and so awful. In one single snap of the fingers, this action negates all the core fears of our self-interested separate self- fear of pain, fear of suffering, and ultimately, fear of death. This horrific display of burning oneself alive in protest throws into stark relief the total commitment of the person doing it, and the total rejection of the injustice he and others had endured. Something sonic radiated outward on the day of December 17, 2010; in this act of self-negation, in this horrendous self-sacrifice, Mohamed Bouazzi managed to ignite a brush fire throughout the wider whole.

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3 Responses to “What’s Wrong With Martyrdom? – Lessons from Mohamed Bouazizi, Socrates, and Obi-Wan Kenobi”

  1. Meg Jordan

    I think this is very good work and I enjoyed the article very much. Since we are coming up to a rare coincidence between Earth Day 2011 and Good Friday 2011 I thought it was a little strange however that you did not mention one of the most well known martyrs on the planet–namely Jesus who is called by some, the Christ. I agree with you when you say ” I felt an urgency to speak of the critical time we live in, and how we’re all called to be martyrs in the birth of the next stage in human civilization.” I just feel very strongly that Jesus is one who has led the way and stood as a witness to a different way of being human on this planet. I would be very interested in your thoughts about this. Thanks.

  2. Trevor Malkinson

    Hi Meg, thanks for the words and the important question about Jesus and the topic of this article.

    A couple of other people asked me the same question after reading the piece. Reflecting on this, I came to realize that my choice to omit the example of Jesus wasn’t really a conscious decision; it didn’t really occur to me in my process. However, I also discovered that I don’t think I’m really qualified to speak about Jesus on this topic (which is likely why I didn’t follow that particular avenue). Cynthia Bourgeault, in her books ‘The Wisdom Jesus’ and now ‘The Meaning of Mary Magdalene’, argues that we’ve yet to really fully understand the nature and true depths of Jesus’ wisdom teachings. I intuitively feel that she’s probably right, and I also intuitively feel that I don’t think I understand what she means. Which is to say, as a practicing Christian for a only a couple years now, I don’t think I’ve practiced these teachings to the degree that I know the full depths of which Bourgeault speaks. Thus I don’t entirely feel comfortable trying to invoke them in such a public context as this. I’m entering into seminary soon, and perhaps I’ll have much more to say on this topic in the future. In the meantime, although I do feel in my gut that Jesus of Nazareth might well be the single greatest historical example of what I’m speaking about in this article, I don’t yet feel qualified to make such a claim.

    How about you, do you want to share your thoughts about Jesus and martyrdom etc.?

    Thanks again for the reflections and the question.

  3. Matthew Cecil

    If martyrdom is so important go kill yourself already…

    Otherwise you should stop spreading hypocrisy and conclude death never brings about just changes in society, but only violent revolution.

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