Since we are in the season of Ramadan, and in the interests of interfaith dialogue, I felt it might be an idea to discuss the ritual of fasting. It often seems that the practice is known mostly among Muslims, holy mystics, and monks of various traditions. Within Christianity, the season of Lent most probably comes to mind, and even then the emphasis is upon the sacrifice of a facet or area of one’s life, rather than a complete fast (though I am aware that fasting includes this as well). Beyond these calendar boundaries, the dilemma strikes me as two-fold:
1.) There is no such thing, within the Christian tradition, as a “set time” for fasting in the sense that Ramadan is an example of set time. We are usually taught to fast whenever we are led by the Holy Spirit or if we personally feel we must.
2.) The standard of scripture is that we are to avoid, wherever possible, revealing that we are undertaking a fast:
“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.
Jesus is clear on the point that fasting is done as an act of servitude rather than for public glory. The ideal, then, is that one should not tell of a fast unless it is unavoidable (eg, someone asks). Now, this does not mean that the Islamic fast in Ramadan should be seen as invalid in the eyes of Christians, for while such a fast is publicly known it also happens to be the congregating of all Muslim people (those who are able) to join in a sacred act of loving God. It is quite astounding, I think, to realise that all over the world, people of the Islamic faith are expressing their love for God in such a manner, and doing so with unity.
I confess that I am not an expert on the Islamic faith, but I am given at least to vaguely understand, that the Ramadan fast is undertaken with these motivations:
– Spiritual cleansing: As in the Christian tradition, fasting is seen not only to purify the body, but the spirit as well. Depriving oneself of food for set amounts of time focuses the mind to concentrate on spiritual priorities, such as the study of scripture and prayer. During the fasting period, Muslims are called not just to abstain from food and drink, but also from lust, gossip, idle talk, smoking, and anything else that might dilute one’s spiritual awareness/concentration.
– Solidarity: Depriving oneself of food allows one to share in the hunger of the world’s deprived, and to experience their hunger alongside them. In turn, Muslims are encouraged to put greater emphasis on charitable acts during Ramadan.
I realise these are only summaries, and far from exhaustive. Christians likewise fast for all of these reasons, and I have also heard that fasting for some is a means for them to mourn for the suffering and violence which occurs in the world daily, which perhaps Muslims have in mind as well. The ritual, no doubt, is quite a holistic one. I am especially interested in the motive of solidarity toward the poor. Judeo-Christians, of course, should be aware of this famous piece of scripture regarding fasting:
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
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 and blood?
8 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.
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,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
This is quite important. The anonymous prophet who continued in the tradition of Isaiah was eager to emphasise that fasting (and indeed, any ritual act) is utterly useless unless it is done with the right motivations. What good is it to share in the hunger of the poor if one continues to oppress them? Or to mourn for them if they continue to marginalise them? Or express sympathy toward them if they continue to distance themselves from them, rather than welcoming them?
True righteousness, as the prophet says, comes from a fast in which the poor and hungry are fed and sheltered, and where we are no longer oppressing them. These days, I am becoming more and more challenged by the decadence in which many of us willingly live, and am seeking more new ways in which I might rid myself of the yoke of oppression I bestow upon those less privileged than I. I no longer want to distance myself from the poor of this world by engaging in obscure acts of donation and charity, but want more now to get alongside the poor, and welcome them as my friends and family. After all, did not Jesus say that when He comes to judge the world, the one thing He will ask is how we cared for the poor, homeless, and suffering? He went so far as to say that whatever we do for such people, we in effect do towards Him (Matthew 25:31-46). Further demonstration that, quite in keeping with the tradition of the prophets before Him, Jesus did not show favour toward the rich and elite of society, but rather toward its marginalised and oppressed. Isn’t it quite profound that the homeless man on the street is the Son of God and Saviour of humanity in disguise? The greater truth lies in that Jesus potentially lives in each one of us, and that in caring for the poor we allow Him to do so in fullness; not only this, but we become more open to seeing Him in others, and thus sharing in the radical nature of the Gospel whereby rich and poor, elite and destitute, male and female, black and white, come together in equal dignity. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first, as the Gospel often affirms to us. Or, when we learn to love properly, riches will have no meaning and poverty will come to an end. Amen?
Fasting then, is much more than sacrificial piety; it must come with love. After all, what good is doing even the miraculous if love is not the motivation? Without love at our centre, we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:3).
In the interests of all of this, I am going to attempt to engage in the Ramadan fast for five days this week alongside my Muslim cousins, as an act of solidarity not just toward the poor, but also toward those who believe in the Abrahamic tradition (My church, All Hallows, recently put up this page as a guide for Christians participating in Ramadan). As a Christian who is firmly grounded in my faith, I nonetheless consider the wisdom of other faiths to be important wherever they can allow us to grow deeper in our own; I happen to find the Muslim commitment to prayer, fasting, and scriptural study to be quite admirable, and since such things are ultimately expressions of love toward God, I feel that a Christian undertaking such things is valuable for our own perspective as well.
Earlier on today, I had a short discussion with a very good friend of mine, Yasmin, about the nature of salvation within Christian doctrine. I am unwavering on the point that faith in Jesus as the Son of God is what effects salvation within humanity (see my previous post as well as others in that category for more on my thoughts in this regard); at the same time, however, I believe that God is not so limited that He cannot act within the traditions of other faiths and bring them to the same truths I hold dear, even as I hope myself that I might be led toward the truths present in other faiths by finding them in the study of my own. I do not necessarily believe that people ought to call themselves “Christians” in order to be considered children of God, but perhaps people can remain within their own traditions and become disciples of Christ (As an example, Mahatma Gandhi called himself a Hindu, yet was a passionate believer in Christ and His teachings).
In this spirit of interfaith exchange, then, let us see what we can learn from each other as seekers of God, however we might interpret our own personal journeys. And perhaps just as importantly, let us be sure to remember that true righteousness comes not just with fasting, but with loving our fellow human beings and caring for them.