Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Nonviolence, Scripture: Nonviolence
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 2007
“The Kind of Fasting I have chosen:” Isaiah 58:6
We are entering the Lenten season. In the mid 1990s when I was with Christian Peacemaker Teams we initiated a Lenten Fast in Palestine to highlight the demolition of houses and the creation of refugees. To do so our Palestinian partners built a tent for us in a prominent location in Hebron. Students, school children – Palestinians and Israelis came to join the fasters for brief periods of time and to discuss its meaning, house security and spirituality.
Eventually people around the world learned of the fast and thousands joined by giving up a meal each day, selected food or committing themselves to a specific daily discipline of sacrifice as they prayed for and remembered the situation in Palestine. In those days we weren’t sure how a Lenten Fast would play in the Muslim world where we were working. So we delayed the beginning to consult further, only to discover determined enthusiasm among our Muslim co-workers and advisors. Actually we didn’t get the fast started exactly 46 days before Easter on Ash Wednesday. But, when fasting began news of its purpose spread widely and support mushroomed. Along the way of the fast we discovered a fresh new connection from faith to action that eventually culminated on Easter Sunday.
Although I had fasted on a number of occasions before, this was the first time that my fast was linked to Lent, to Easter, and to a critical social issue – Palestinian housing. When we began the fast we had no backup material to encourage and warn people about the physical effects of the fast. Nor did we have suggested daily prayers or liturgy to help create a pathway for participants. We learned as we went and responded to these requests the best we could in the days before the age of the World Wide Web. I did a largely liquid fast for 32 days. In evenings my reward for the day was either a glass of fruit juice or a cup of broth.
Fasts are very human events. They can bring out our competitiveness, our irritability, and our less attractive demons that we usually keep hidden. But even this can be a gift when we recognize the negative voices within and figure out some new ways to live with them. As the fast progressed I found that my body remained strong, maybe even stronger than usual. I also found that my mind was much sharper than when it had to use so much energy directing my digestive system. My most difficult moments were at meal time when I discovered a ball of tension stuck in there where I had used food as comfort. As soon as meal time was over the ball of tension disappeared. By day 25 (I noticed that I did count the days) I lost interest in food and discovered some new dimensions of calm. Now I had a new worry. Would I be sharp, confident and decisive if a unexpected crisis unfolded somewhere?
The fast gave a burst of energy world wide, for the concern for Palestinian housing. Several local and international initiatives to stop home demolitions began around that time. Since demolitions still continue in Palestine you can make the argument that it didn’t work. However I choose to look at the underside of the event and notice how the fast riveted the attention of thousands of us to secure housing and I am confidently that some roads were not built where houses would have been demolished, some fields were not confiscated and hope was sustained in a very difficult period. On another level I felt a new surge of energy from the spirit to push forward and sustain the work.
One of my favorite fasts took place in Mexico in the spring of 2000 during Lent in front a military base and several hundred yards from the tiny village of X’oyep where members of the Bees, a 15,000 strong group of pacifist who had been attacked during worship two years earlier had found emergency housing. In that attack 49 people were killed by armed assassins supported by various forces seeking control over the land. I spent the week before Easter with our team at the fast site and we gathered with the local people to pray every four hours, night and day, as was the custom of the local people. The 12:00 pm and 4:00 am fast prayer times reminded me that the art of fasting which reaches back to the dawn of recorded history not only had to do with the spirit but it also subjected our ancestors to the cold.
Occasionally student groups and others joined the us at the inconvenient fast site deep in the mountains. After the massacre, a military base was set up to provide social services ( in military language civic action ) for the local people to win over the local resisters with benevolence. But the local people refused all dental attention, medical help and other emergency services. They refused the charity of the Mexican government because they believed that they were the ones who should offer hospitality if hospitality was desirable. They regarded civic action as an insult to their dignity and survival as a people. After all it was their land. On the Saturday before Easter Bees from surrounding mountains and refugee sites marched in single file over steep paths to a festival like event in front of the military base to celebrate their life of struggle and hope. The day was concluded by painting the military helicopter pad with a representation of the sun, their most powerful symbol of Mayan history and community. By morning the landing pad’s new face was destroyed by the military but hope was stronger than ever. By the end of the following year that military base was gone and the helicopter pad lay in ruins.
Lent tugs us towards our long history of fasting which shows up in almost every religion. For Christians, Lent is marked by fasting from foods and festivities, and by other acts of self denial. The three practices traditionally taken up during Lent are prayer (justice towards God), fasting (justice towards self), and almsgiving (justice towards neighbor). For the work of nonviolence in the examples above we have connected the lenten fast experience with a hunger fast, a method of protest used to stimulate deeper reflection and change on the part of the opposition. This connection has plenty of precedent among the Hebrew prophets who made generous use of popular notions of sackcloth and ashes. The prophets turned the popular notions of personal penance, mourning, and repentance into social protest.
One of the more striking examples of this was Mordecai who when he learned of the planned genocide against the people from Queen Esther, “he rent his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry” (Esther 4:1 RSV)
Perhaps the most impressive statement on fasting comes from Isaiah (58: 3-9 NIV) where the author uses strong words to condemn pious fasting that is not linked to justice and wholeness for the land and the people.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and
exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking
each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man
to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a
reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what
you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD ?
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the
chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the
oppressed free and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide
the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked,
to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your
healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness [a]
will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you
will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do
away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger
and malicious talk,
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