Simon Barrow

Fasting: reshaping our desires towards justice

By Simon Barrow
February 3, 2011

Coptic churches in Egypt, ecumenical groups in America, evangelicals in Britain, and now Christian students across the world - all have recently been involved in initiatives of 'fasting and prayer' for peace with justice in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East.

In a strongly materialistic, utilitarian and functionalist culture, such behaviour - choosing to go without nourishment for a period of time - might seem rather odd. One more example of the peculiarity and insularity of a 'religious' mentality, perhaps. Reckon so? Stop and think again.

First of all, in western societies it has been activists rather than faith communities who have often been at the forefront of recovering fasting - not as an individualistic act of piety, but as a specific, embodied way of reconnecting the personal and the political, the spiritual and material, in the struggle to see right prevail in the world.

In this way, personal and group abstention has in recent years been part of the active campaign for remission of the global debt burden on the poor. It has strengthened the pro-democracy monks in Burma. It has featured on protests outside asylum detention centres. It has also been used as a way of galvanising action over Darfur - and now for Egypt.

At its best fasting is, very directly, "hungering and thirsting for justice" (as the Sermon on the Mount expresses it). It involves putting your body on the line in a clear and empathetic way. It is also deeply bound up with prayer, which is about opening ourselves to the hopeful purposes of God in face of a broken and marred world.

No doubt those who hold an incorrigibly negative view of "things spiritual" will be tempted to dismiss fasting as mere punitive self-abuse for the gullible. Needless to say, its history, practice and impact is rather more complex than that.

Self-denial can be abject, pointless or pitiless, of course. In the gospels, Jesus sharply warns against its manipulation by religious authorities who enjoy their own power to cajole people into obedience, while ignoring real human need and good.

Rightly understood, however, fasting is a life-changing practice of personal self-examination and social re-orientation. It embodies (quite literally) the liberating discovery that we human beings are not simply the sum total of our appetites, but have been given the capacity to transcend such things in solidarity with those who are presently denied the very food and justice they desperately need.

In this way, it can helps us to reach beyond self-satisfaction and self-absorption towards the kind of transformative love that operates beyond limited or merely tribal affections - God's unbargainable, universal love, in other words.

Fasting is therefore an integrative discipline, focused on how we think with our bodies, not with disembodied and unaffected minds (the conceit of a certain naive conception of autonomous reason) or in some kind of airily 'spiritualistic' way (the delusion of self-centred religiosity).

Moreover, it is increasingly recognised that human consciousness and decision-making is inextricably bound up with our bodies, and with our being relational creatures - "dependent, rational animals", as the moral philosopher Alasdair Macintyre has put it.

There is genuine freedom in rediscovering this. But how do we learn it? Not just with our heads or by theory alone, but by exploring and directing our yearnings and actions, personally and corporately, through practical disciplines. Going without food for a period, as part of a clear focus on life-reorientation and the search for change, can be one of those practices, many would testify.

In a voraciously consumer society, where luxuries rather than necessities are the preoccupation of a majority, fasting is politically poignant in another way, too. When the quest to possess and devour more and more takes over, our personal, economic and social priorities are fundamentally altered. In contrast, fasting points us in the direction of sharing and the otherwise unimaginable politics of "enough is enough" (the title of Bishop John V. Taylor's sadly neglected book from the 1970s).

As a distinctly 'spiritual' practice with broad roots, fasting also readily connects with 'secular' initiatives like Buy Nothing Day (which takes place every November) and other grassroots attempts to resist the "thou shalt have no other jeans than mine" culture. That, by the way, is the wonderful title of an article by the late German theologian Dorothee Soelle. It appears in a collection of essays edited by humanist social theorist Jurgen Habermas, called The Spiritual Situation of the Age.

What people are learning through "hungering for justice" is that trying to come up with policies for a better world is not enough. We need changed people who have the will, desire and discipline to make them work - and to make the sacrifices of restraint (for example in our use of the earth's resources) that some will entail. This involves re-shaping our desires as human beings, not just our political aspirations.

At a fundamental level, that re-shaping is what prayer and fasting (and indeed the upcoming period of Lent) seeks to enable.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

Keywords:prayer | fasting | Egypt
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