At 4 a.m. on May 27 — some 90 minutes before the start of Ramadan — a hunger strike by nearly 1500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails came to an end, exactly 40 days after it was declared. They had refused food in protest at the denial of their human rights. The demands of the strike for freedom and dignity were straightforward – for the right to family visits, the ability to speak to their family by telephone, to receive medical care, not to be subject to isolation or to imprisonment without charge or trial under administrative detention.
Two prominent Christian leaders, Gregory Lahham III, former Melkite Patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, and Archbishop Atallah Hanna of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, joined in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners as did many other people of faith around the world. Patriarch Gregory, who is 83 years old, said in an interview with Al-Mayadeen TV, “I say to the prisoners, we are with you in your sacrifice for Palestine.” Archbishop Atallah, said the prisoners’ cause is the “issue of all Palestinian people,” stressing his support for the prisoners’ just demands. He went on to say, “We belong to this land and we belong to this people who fights for freedom. We will always remain biased to the just Palestinian cause.” The Patriarch and Archbishop joined social activists and supporters all over the world in solidarity with the hunger strikers.
While taking one’s own life or causing self-harm is forbidden or discouraged, refusing or abstaining from food as a form of protest, ‘starving for justice” has been practiced from antiquity.
In the book of Esther, Mordecai tells Esther that God has put her in a position of influence “for such a time as this.” As the wife of the Persian king, she has access to the one person who has the power to save the Jewish people from destruction. Mordechi warns Queen Esther that if she is unwilling to risk her life and intercede for her people before the king, God will raise up someone else. Esther replied,
“Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16).
People fasted and prayed, Esther interceded and God moved the heart of the king to delivers people and execute justice on those who had tried to manipulate him for their own evil ends.
One of the most notable hunger strikes in modern history was carried out by Mahatma Gandhi as part of his passive resistance campaign to obtain independence from British rule in India and as to protest the oppression of the poor.
In Europe, hunger strikes were apparently first employed as a method of non-violent protest in pre-Christian Ireland. People would lay themselves at the door of the person from whom they were seeking redress or pardon and remain there in order to arouse feelings of guilt and repentance. The Irish patron, St Patrick is said to have resorted to a hunger strike.
One hundred years ago, in 1917, Irish Republicans imprisoned by the British, began hunger striking in order to obtain prisoner of war status. Twelve died as a result.
In 1981, IRA prisoners initiated another hunger strike over their treatment in prison. Bobby Sands who led the hunger strike, during which he was elected as MP for the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, died after 66 days. He became a martyr not just to Irish Republicans but an inspiration to many people around the world struggling for their rights.
Arguably the longest and most controversial hunger strike in history has been occurring in Guantanamo Bay. Hunger strikes began there in 2002 in protest at prisoners being held without charge or trial. Despite force feeding, the hunger protests have continued intermittently since. It is known that at least 115 of the 166 prisoners have been on hunger strike at various times. In December 2013, the US military announced that it would no longer disclose information about the hunger strikes, since “The release of this information serves no operational purpose.” It is now known how many are presently protesting in this way.
I need to make it clear that in citing these examples of hunger strikers, I am in no way endorsing their actions, or indeed questioning or criticising the grounds on which they may have been imprisoned. I am merely pointing out that they refused food because of what they and others perceived as unjust treatment.
What then are the similarities and differences between purely secular hunger strikes and Christian fasting?
- What is unique about Fasting for Christians?
The tradition of fasting is taught throughout the Bible. The prophets, Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel all fasted as did the Apostle Paul. Jesus fasted before being tempted by the devil.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]” 7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.” (Matthew 4:1-11)
Although the Christian scriptures do not explicitly command fasting, Jesus assumed his followers would fast. He said “when you fast,” not “if you fast.” (Matthew 6:16).
The Christian Church has therefore encouraged fasting as a personal spiritual discipline. Collectively, the forty-days of Lent are intended as a partial fast modelled on the fast observed by Jesus during his temptation, to help Christians reflect on their sins, seek God’s forgiveness and prepare to celebrate Easter. So yes, fasting is a Christian discipline. It is assumed, but voluntary.
2. Why Should Christians Fast?
2.1 Fasting can help increase our hunger for God
John Piper writes in his book, A Hunger for God, asks,
“If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great. God did not create you for this. There is an appetite for God. And it can be awakened. I invite you to turn from the dulling effects of food and the dangers of idolatry, and to say with some simple fast ‘This much, O God, I want you.’”
Fasting is the outward expression of an inward hunger for God. Fasting reminds us that we can get by without most things for a time, but we cannot get by without God.
The first and main purpose of fasting is to draw close to God. Fasting can help increase our hunger for God.
2.2 Fasting can help us discipline our bodies
We are so used to giving ourselves whatever we want without even thinking.
Our stomach is like a spoiled child, and spoiled children do not need indulgence, they need discipline. Fasting is therefore spiritual training in self-control. In the same way that gold is refined by heat which removes impurities from the ore, so God can do the same thing for our souls through fasting. More than any other single discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. God wants us to be like pure gold. The Apostle Paul writes,
“Spend your time and energy in training yourself for spiritual fitness. Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is much more important, for it promises a reward in both this life and the next.” (1 Timothy 4:7-8)
Out of all the spiritual disciplines, fasting is most like physical exercise. It is both physical and spiritual and it builds our faith muscles so that we can withstand the bigger trials and temptations that come our way. So, fasting can help increase our hunger for God. Fasting can help discipline our bodies.
2.3 Fasting can help purify our goals and priorities
Many people fast when they are desperate for God to answer their prayers. We can fast for rescue from a bad situation, healing of a loved one, direction in life or other requests that are close to our hearts. Fasting can bring a note of urgency to our prayers. We are coming to our Heavenly Father and telling Him (and ourselves) how important he is to us. The person who prays with fasting is giving heaven notice that they are truly in earnest… Not only so, we are using a means that God has chosen to make his voice to be heard on high.” So three reasons why Christians fast: Fasting can help increase our hunger for God. Fasting can help discipline our bodies. Fasting can help purify our goals and priorities. We have asked the questions is fasting Christian and why should Christians fast?
- What are the Pitfalls in Fasting?
In the time of Jesus, fasting was popular on Mondays and Thursdays because those were market days and there would be bigger audiences to see how pious people were. Jesus insisted we should fast in secret.
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
The answer to pride is to fast in secret.
Fasting is not about twisting God’s arm. Fasting is not some kind of spiritual hunger strike that compels God to do our bidding. God explains this in Isaiah 58,
“’Why have we fasted, 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. Your fasting ends in quarrelling 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.” (Isaiah 58:3-4)
There is a heretical tradition in Christianity of punishing ourselves for sins, by denying ourselves food and water. God’s forgiveness of our sins comes with no requirement except confession and repentance. We shouldn’t deprive ourselves of food to punish ourselves or gain favour with God. We already have God’s favour through Jesus. Three pitfalls in fasting – pride, manipulation and penance.
4. What then is the Purpose and Benefit of Fasting?
“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? “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? 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 them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.” (Isaiah 58:5-9)
This is the purpose of fasting. Fasting is not about me, or about us. Fasting is not about serving our own interests. Fasting is about how we relate to those who are abused and exploited, especially where we are complicit. Are we eating dates in Ramadan that have been harvested in illegal Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestine? Are we funding colonisation? Are we exploiting the poor? What about our tea and coffee, our chocolate and bananas? Are they fair traded? What about our clothes and shoes?
Have they been made by children who should be in school? Do the workers receive a living wage? Fasting should cause us to reflect upon whether we are causing harm or bringing a blessing to others by what we eat, by what we drink, by what we wear or buy.
Genuine fasting is about defending the oppressed. It is about caring for the poor and vulnerable. To act in this way is an act of worship. It is to do the very work of God. That is why Jesus fasted – to prepare himself to fulfil God’s will. In his first public sermon, after fasting and being tempted by Satan in the wilderness, Jesus took the words of the prophet Isaiah, and applied them to himself.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-20, Isaiah 61:1-2)
This is our mandate too. As we fast, we find ourselves being humbled. We discover more time to pray and seek God’s face. We recognize and repent of our unconfessed sin. And we focus our attention not on ourselves but upon the needs of others. As we align our hearts with God’s heart, we will advocate for those suffering injustice, we will share God’s blessings and provision with the hungry, the poor, the marginalised, with widows and orphans and with refugees. When we look at the world around us, it is easy to feel powerless, angry and frustrated. Jim Wallis, of Sojouners says,
“There are no easy answers or strategies. But there is our call to go deeper in our faith, to center ourselves in God instead of news cycles, to pray for God’s wisdom and presence, to fast in order to help focus our hearts and minds, and to be ready to advocate — to speak the truth to power — for those whom Jesus calls “the least of these.”
“We find ourselves in a similar moment — with a president and Congress pushing for deep cuts to programs that are vital to hungry, poor, and vulnerable people in the U.S. and around the world, and pursuing other harsh and harmful policies that make entire ethnicities and religions uniquely vulnerable. In order to block the worst cuts and policies, we are going to need a “circle of protection” to surround the most vulnerable — and, in terms of numbers of votes needed to stop the most dangerous and damaging things, that circle will need to be bipartisan. We have the power to influence our elected officials, but that power needs to be rooted deeply in our faith — and call upon political leaders to exercise theirs…
Starting with a three-day fast May 21-23, we will observe a day of fasting on the 21st of each month through until the end of the 115th Congress in December 2018. Again, we are fasting for the protection of poor and vulnerable people from funding cuts and other harmful policies.
Budgets are moral documents — they reveal our priorities, who and what is important, and who and what are not. As Christians, we must speak out and stand up against these dangerous policies and cuts. From the example of Esther, we call for a time of public fasting, praying, and petitioning political powers to change or block such unjust actions. It is our faith in a God, who calls us to protect the most vulnerable, that calls us for such a time as this.
This is a fast before God to bring us closer to God, to whom we turn in prayer and hope to change hearts — our hearts, the hearts of our lawmakers, the heart of the nation. We will pray and fast, each of us in our own ways, for mercy, compassion, wisdom, strength, and courage as we challenge and even obstruct the critical budget and policy choices about who and what are most important.”
Wallis is writing about the unprecedented political events in the USA, but his words could just as easily refer to the unprecedented events we are witnessing in the UK this week.
This is the kind of fasting God expects and requires. And this kind of fasting comes with a promise.
“Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.” (Isaiah 58:8-9)
A presentation on Fasting for Justice given at the Idara-e-Jaaferiya, Tooting, last night, promoting religious harmony among the three Abrahamic faiths.
Bill Bright: Your Personal Guide to Fasting and Prayer
Richard Foster: The Celebration of Discipline
Lisa Harper: The Power of Fasting
John Piper: A Hunger for God
Elizabeth Sweet: Exegesis of Isaiah 58:1-10
Brian La Croix and Mike Wilkins for their sermons on Matthew 6 and Fasting at www.sermoncentral.com