Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12
Richard Foster was really my introduction to fasting. As Foster himself pointed out in Celebration of Discipline, American Christianity does not really have a history of observing fasts. He wrote that in his research didn’t uncover any writings on fasting between 1861 and 1954. I was lucky enough to take a Spiritual Development class from a friend of Foster, and an author himself: James Smith. As you can imagine, we read Foster quite a bit, and we wrote reflection papers on Foster’s writing.
As I really didn’t know much about fasting, honestly, I didn’t even realize that Mardi Gras was about one last chance to use up everything that couldn’t be eaten during Lent. I only knew about “giving something up for Lent”, but I did not know that the traditional thing to give up for Lent was fat and meat. I don’t even know if I realized why everybody added fish to the menu in spring yet. Fortunately, I had recently made some Catholic and Orthodox friends who did quite a lot to help me with my religious education.
In my critique of Foster’s brief writing on Fasting, I noticed the difference from what I learned from my more traditionally religious friends, and what I read in his book. Foster’s writing, at this point, was very much about a personal faith, and personal disciplines. For my Catholic friends, Fasting is, normally, a community exercise. There is a cycle of feasting and fasting, with several named days for fasting such as: Lent, Advent, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and my personal favorite: Friday. While there is interest in the spiritual health of the individuals, Fasting is something that holds the community together.
The thing is that the “Jewish” idea of fasting is much closer to what I learned from the Catholics. An early Christian writer, Turtullian, observed that Jews fast throughout their entire lives. When he says this, he is talking about kosher laws. No matter what we think about such rules, I agree, this can rightly be called a fast. When a Jew who follows dietary rules goes out to eat, he must always be mindful of his relationship with God, and how to be obedient. Saying “no” to your stomach is not an easy task.
More importantly, the task of keeping Kosher is practiced by a whole community. A very large part of our cultural identity is based in our diets. When feasting and fasting are part of a community dynamic, people build community by sharing they cycle of feasting and fasting together. Jews share their history through these cycles — and Christians also, historically, lived out the stories of our faith through the cycle of feasting and fasting.
“Fish on Friday”, and fish for Lent is based on a traditional fast that removes meat, other than fish, from the diet. One of my Catholic friends made a gave an example of how to live up to the letter of the law, but fail to fast: He said that if the Knights of Columbus were to have their monthly meal during Lent, and would decide that because they can’t have steak like other months, it would be the perfect time for a Lobster dinner: they would follow the letter of the law while breaking the spirit of the law. Isaiah 58 speaks of the “Fast God chooses”, while speaking against those who fast and then ignore the needs of others.
Early Christian writers warned that fasting, even though it is recommended, can be a spiritually dangerous exercise. If we fast to be seen as more spiritual, we feed pride. Even if we do not boast to others, it is feeding pride. Justin Martyr quotes the passage we just read talking about following the rules of a fast, but not the spirit.
Why are Fish allowed in a fast from meats? The Friday fast was not going without food — it was eating the same sort of food that the poorer members of the community would eat on an ordinary day. Part of the discipline of fasting was to take the money saved on that day’s meals, and put it in the poor box so that the poorest members could continue to eat their vegetables and fish. Now, the last time I went shopping, seafood seemed more like a luxury item than a staple food — the fast only works if there is something left over to donate for feeding the poor.
Now, if the hypothetical hypocritical Knights of Columbus group were to follow the spirit of the law, they would charge for the steak dinners they have in other months (or maybe even for the lobster dinner), but, instead of lobster there would be a modest salad, a vegetable dish, rice and beans, and a small cup of fish chowder. Portions would be small, likely half the size of a normal dinner, and the drink selection would be water — the proceeds would, of course, be donated to the local food pantry.
Actually, while I’ve never been invited to a Knights of Columbus dinner, I did have the opportunity to eat at a non-denominational poverty awareness dinner that served a small plate of rice and beans, with a side of water. The dinner came with a presentation on world hunger and on food availability and affordability issues. While, in one sense there really was nothing I could do to help, in another sense, this is what compassion is. I not only learned from the lecture, but the experience itself gave me a new ability to feel empathy for those who’s dietary choices are not as vast as my own.
The more I think about the communal nature of fasting, the more I think that Richard Foster was wrong when he said nobody wrote about between 1861 and 1954. There is a rather well known Quaker who encouraged communal fasting at the turn of the 20th century — though, he didn’t do so because he thought people needed this as a spiritual discipline — he did so because millions of people in Europe were starving.
Herbert Hoover is respected internationally in a way that he is not here. As we likely know, Hoover earned millions of dollars in the mining industry. He worked internationally as a engineering consultant, and owned a large stake in several mining companies. When the first World War came, Hoover was in Europe. He did two things when the war came: First, he helped Americans get back to the United States, then he set up a NGO that fed over 10 million people affected by the war, every day.
There was a huge campaign throughout the United States to aid in this relief effort. People were encouraged to observe: Meatless Mondays, Wheatless Wednesdays, and “When in doubt, eat potatoes.” Hoover encouraged Americans to fast twice a week, so that people in Belgium could eat — and, people did sacrifice for this cause. Hoover inspired Americans to exercise compassion, and this compassion saved people across the ocean from starvation. There monuments to Hoover in Belgium, Germany and Poland. While Hoover’s presidency is not kindly remembered here, the humanitarian work he did both before and after his presidency is well remembered.
I know that this sounds very practical for a spiritual discipline, but Christians have a long history of being practical. No matter what you believe, fasting is about exercising self control, but for the Christian, it is also about exercising compassion and about fund-raising. The reason Friday was chosen as a recommended day to Fast is because of Good Friday. Every week, Christians are advised to remember that Jesus was compassionate for humanity, and Christ suffered with humanity all the way to the cross. The small exercise in compassion reminds us what Jesus is about — and, it helps us remember that we are also called to be compassionate to others.
Basically, a good way to describe fasting is to point out that the desperately poor cannot fast. If one is poor and hungry, its not called fasting, it is called starving. Somebody who lives on rice and beans as the main source of protein can’t very well fast from meat. People talk about the spiritual benefits of fasting from rich foods, but nobody talks about the spiritual benefits of not being able to afford such food in the first place. Fasting is a temporary exercise in compassion — on Saturday, the person who fasted on Friday gets to indulge in her favorite foods again. The persons she is developing compassion for cannot.
Christians don’t fast because we want to become more spiritual by means of our diet — such an attempt is likely to do us more harm than good. Christians fast because we want to learn how to empathize with others, and we feel called to help those who need it. Christians fast, because we know that there are still people in the world who are hungry. We fast, because Jesus taught us to exercise compassion.