By Rev. Dr. David R. Wilson
As the season of Lent is upon us, I wanted to share a reflection on an intersection of two themes that have crossed paths in my thoughts lately: the Christian practice of fasting, and attentiveness to the margins and the marginalized in our world.
A few weeks ago, I visited a church where “fasting” (I’ll get to why I set “fasting” in quotation marks, below) was recommended to the congregation for a season of praying and dreaming about the potential of that local church. Only a few days later, a friend of mine, a former parishioner from a church I served for several years, sent me a text asking if I had any resources for understanding biblical fasting. She was getting ready to lead a Bible study with a small group, and wanted to be well studied and prepared. Perhaps serendipitously, I have been writing a book on justice and the margins, and had been reflecting on the Judeo-Christian practice of fasting and our understanding as Christians of the “margins” in our world—the space at the edges of our world where people experience exclusion, otherness, and oppression, yet where the image of God abounds all the same, offering a perspective from the margins, a sort of commentary on the main text of our daily lives that cries out to be listened to, acknowledged, and validated as having dignity and worth. The margins are often a place of great need and for a plethora of reasons.
Some have inherited their place in the margins, others have escaped there finding a refuge when life in the mainstream had become unsafe, others have found themselves in the margins as the result of being in some fashion disinherited, and others still have been forced into the margins by systemic injustices of which all in the system are complicit, often to our own ignorance, (e.g., privilege arising from socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and other factors and the intrinsic complacency, prejudice, and self-justification, and micro-aggressions that privilege allows if unchecked) as well as by explicit forms of oppression and exclusion that come in so many concrete as well as symbolic forms (e.g., slavery and human trafficking, racism, sexism, economic and sociological scapegoating, xenophobia, and hate-mongering, or government regimes and systems that have left people literally fleeing for their lives as refugees, among others).
So what do the margins have to do with fasting?
I’m glad you asked.
First of all, it is important to understand just what is meant by fasting in the biblical sense. Strange as it may seem, for all the mentioning of fasting that has occurred throughout the ages on this religious discipline, in contemporary usage references to fasting are often glossed in ways that are only tenuously connected to biblical understandings of it. This is not the place for a comprehensive biblical exegesis of the term, but perhaps a brief summary will suffice.
Biblical fasting is a somewhat complex topic that is not actually covered in great detail within the text of the Bible. References that do occur must be observed in their various contexts (social, religious, economic, political, theological). Although there are different expressions of why and how God’s people fast, there is one thing that is central to the concept from which the reasons and methods for fasting progress. In every instance in the Bible, fasting is the abstention from food (and sometimes food and water) for a set or indefinite but temporary time frame. Its purpose varies. One dominant aspect is fasting as a demonstration (private or public, individual or corporate) of penitence (sincere sorrow for sin) and repentance, with the added mark of being a form of self-sacrifice to demonstrate the sincerity of one’s supplications (for forgiveness, but for other prayer requests as well). In other instances, fasting was a response to grief as a sign of mourning and lament (a crying out to God, perhaps for mercy and consolation, but also a sign to others of one’s own grief which played a sociological role, giving cues to the community as to how to act towards the grieving).
Fasting appears to be voluntary in most cases, although it may be commanded by ecclesial leaders (e.g., Old Testament priests), as a chance to experience God’s ability to offer sustenance despite lack of nourishment through eating, such as Moses and Jesus in their respective wilderness fasts and Jesus’ allusion to Deuteronomy’s (see Matt. 4:4 and Luke 4:4) exhortation that “[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3). In the post-exilic period (that is, in the period following the exiles of the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah), fasting sometimes was an act of worship and thanksgiving that went along with the self-sacrifice of giving of one’s resources to help others out of sincere devotion to God, although Jesus warned not to fast as a public show of self-righteousness (Matt. 6:16).
In the New Testament, it follows and expands upon this pattern of practice. As a natural supplement concordant with prayer, fasting was practiced before the laying on of hands of new leaders (Acts 13:3). In the early Christian period fasting became part of a larger tradition of bodily discipline (askesis from which we get both the concept of asceticism associated with monastic traditions and the word “athleticism” reflecting bodily preparation for competitive success). There are other examples we might look at, but these will suffice for now.
What is noticeably absent in the biblical and early Christian texts concerning fasting is a translation of the concept into a more metaphorical “fast” such as to “fast from an activity” or a “fast from a habit.” Fasting might represent in practice a separation from the worldly in a metaphorical sense, but the but actual fasting was abstention from food. (Or, to put it more directly, at least so far as “fasting” goes, there was no parallel to the modern usage of say, “fasting from screen-time” or “fasting from shopping” or “fasting from chocolate, sweets, or coffee.”
Other ascetic practices, such as practicing silence, following a set daily schedule of work and prayer, taking vows of poverty or chastity, etc. did develop in some ways amongst early Christians, especially amongst the first Christian monastics. These disciplines, however, are not considered “fasting,” and so using the word fasting as a generic form of abstention in this way (of example, to say “I’m going to fast from Facebook for Lent”) is foreign to the biblical concept of fasting and at a core level, leads away from the earthiness of the practice which reminded God’s people that they are sustained in this world by God alone and the gift of sustenance that comes uniquely through food and water.
There is a literal life threat symbolically intended in the biblical fasts that evoke the seriousness of the practice as a focus on dependence upon God similar to the way practicing Sabbath in the Old Testament especially was a sign of one’s dependence upon God. If one rested as God commanded, they must trust that God would sustain their agriculture miraculously on the day that they rested from nurturing crops, feeding livestock, etc. This is not to say that there is not room for making metaphorical sacrifices such as giving up a leisure practice or a particular convenience for the sake of spiritual discipline. Again, this was done in the early monastic communities and has been practiced in numerous various forms of Christianity over the centuries, but is not what may be termed “fasting” in any historically or theologically accurate use of the word as far as the early biblical or early Christian tradition used it.
Fasting is a unique and distinct practice, bounded (at least as far as the Bible and early church tradition are concerned) by abstention from food for a small set of purposes, all/each of which had a devotional aspect on the part of the faster, and could expect acknowledgement and awareness of the practice by God who interacts with us as we interact with God.
So, again, how is fasting connected to justice and the margins?
In a direct way, perhaps it is not. However, indirectly, the intersection is of vital significance to Christian mission! One of the reasons it I think it is important to keep to the actual/original meaning(s) of the word and to translate them for our context is because when we redefine fasting away from its emphasis on abstaining from food and drink, from earthly sustenance, we contribute to implicit systems of marginalization by neglecting what is most significant about the practice and implicitly reducing its empathetic effect. To even be able to redefine it as abstention from a convenience or luxury is a mark of privilege. We all (should) know that there are for many of us an abundance of conveniences with which we might (and surely would in some cases) do well to do without, to abstain from either temporarily, or permanently. To acknowledge this, ought to also help us to acknowledge the place and stature of privilege we experience, and ought to cause us to pause and ask, is abstaining from this at all like fasting? That is to say, does it do what fasting is meant to do, and does it involve what fasting requires? If one is true to the original biblical instances and concurrent and subsequent developments of the religious discipline, then we would have to say (in my opinion) that the answer cannot be “yes.” Fasting is by nature a carnal discipline, a biological sacrifice that acknowledges not privilege, but basic necessities, common to all who are living, including those who are barely subsisting.
There is a considerable difference between abstaining for a period from a luxury or convenience, no matter how essential they might be perceived to be in the ecology of well-being, (and I’ll not list the possible equivocations here), and abstaining from the life-giving nutrients that every human needs. To fast (that is to give up food), is not only an act of sacrifice that can sharpen our senses, demonstrate our sincerity, and represent our contrition, but it offers a chance as frequently as we practice it to live in solidarity with those who fast involuntarily due to oppression, scarcity, and the economic systems that allow our fellow humans to barely live, some starving but not quite starved. It reminds us of our dependence on a God who maintains our fields on the Sabbath, gives living water, and assures us that we do not and cannot live by bread alone. Fasting brings us into solidarity with the marginalized in our world, with the poor, the oppressed, the ostracized, the judged, the religiously persecuted, (like Muslims, automatically judged to be dangerous, harmful, or whatever else due to generalizations and stereotypes that are in no way representative of everyday Muslims), the disinherited, the racially disenfranchised, the weak, the refugee, the stranger, the prisoner, the “other.”
It is only when this earthy human reality is recognized that we might perhaps reframe fasting as a metaphor for contemporary practice that is other than abstaining from food. However, to truly be a metaphor, the abstention must be analogous not in that it is a giving up of something, but that it is a giving up of something that brings us into solidarity with the image of God in our humanity, and thus with the marginalized. While food (and water) is at core the most basic way to this, other ways might be to consider the marginalized in your neighbourhood or in your world and consider what abstention might offer true solidarity. The refugee lacks a safe home, a safe place. What might we do to abstain from something we regularly do/have that would bring us into solidarity with the refugee? The “stranger” lacks friends or friendship, those to know and by whom to be known. What might we do to abstain from something we regularly do/have that would bring us into solidarity with the “stranger”? (e.g., How might I regularly put myself in places where I am a "stranger," prone to neither know nor be known by others, to the point where I had to find my sustenance for my sense of self in Christ alone as I find solidarity with others who are strangers all the time?) The “Muslim in America” faces judgment and distress from multiple angles from the very religious to the anti-religious and atheists who ridicule, taunt, and publicly disparage with little recourse other than continuing to live life as a peaceful contributor to the same society that seems to despise them. What might we do to abstain from something we regularly do/have that would bring us into solidarity with the Muslim? (e.g., What if we abstained from communities that only reinforced what I already believe and entered into geographies, spaces, and places that made it more likely that my personal religion, beliefs, and lifestyle might be challenged to the degree that my reliance for support of my beliefs would have of necessity to rest on God alone?)
As we look towards the season of Lent, a part of the Christian year especially devoted to prayer, penitence, mourning for our sin and the effects of sin on our world and solemn preparation for the annual celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter, there is a reason to consider taking up the tradition of fasting that has been part of Lenten devotion since the earliest centuries of the Church. Our world as much now as ever is shaken by the oppression of sin manifested in injustices and marginalization and crying out for the hope Jesus offers. Might we join the fast to mourn our own contribution through commission or omission, through our own action or our own complicity, and to find solidarity with the downtrodden? Might we join the fast to prepare ourselves for the declaration that Christ is risen indeed, and that we submit ourselves in sacrifice to him in preparation this Easter?
Joel 1:13-14 “Gird yourselves with sackcloth, And lament, O priests; Wail, O ministers of the altar! Come, spend the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God, For the grain offering and the libation Are withheld from the house of your God. Consecrate a fast, Proclaim a solemn assembly; Gather the elders And all the inhabitants of the land To the house of the LORD your God, And cry out to the LORD.”