We used to live in a world where, stereotypically at least, rich people were fat and poor people were thin. In the West, the reverse is now often true. The rich still signal their wealth with their bodies. But now, thin equals rich. This complicates the Lenten idea of fasting.
I have never been big on fasting. In a world where people still starve, where 1 in 10 humans is chronically undernourished, I feel more than a little uncomfortable making a virtue of giving up something that other people are dying for lack of. Or perhaps I am just a glutton who likes my food too much, and so am highly invested in not appreciating the Lenten fast.
But anyway, this Lent is different.
A few days before Lent started, I visited the doctor and discovered my blood sugar was sky high. “You have to realise, that for a diabetic like you, carbohydrates are poison,” he said, not sugaring the pill in the slightest. It was an uncompromising message. And he scared me. The daughter of a member of my congregation recently had her leg amputated through diabetes. That’s it, I vowed to myself. No more bread, rice, pasta or potatoes. They have to go. And so, for the first time during the season of Lent, I have been fasting, and find myself almost permanently hungry.
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But I claim no great virtue for it, since I am fasting because I have to. Had I not over-eaten in the past, I wouldn’t be in this situation. And yet, the condition of being hungry does have what we might call ‘spiritual’ consequences.
The most obvious, for me as a priest, is that the only bread I get to eat during the week is a small circular wafer that I distribute to my congregation with the words “the body of Christ”. And this, symbolically, feels very much like a re-focusing on the central message of the Christian faith: that human beings do not live by bread alone, but the word of God. In other words, when all else is stripped away, one is able to concentrate more effectively on the things that matter most – for Christians, the source of life itself.
That most atheistic of thinkers, Friedrich Nietzsche, said, “The belly is the reason why man does not so readily take himself for a god.” I think of this as a hangover from his days as the son of a Lutheran pastor. For it expresses the very un-Nietzschean sentiment that we are dependent creatures, not in control of the sources of our own satisfaction.
Freud made a similar point. The infant who cries when the mother’s breast is withdrawn is being given a lesson that we are not self-satisfying beings: we are reliant on that which is outside of our power to make do as we wish. And this appreciation that we are not self-satisfying mini-gods, is the root of our need for others, of human sociality. “Give us this day our daily bread” is a cry to be fed that which we cannot find on our own. In short: “Help me, please.”
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Fasting is a staged version of this need. I could go to Tesco’s in five minutes, after all. And, being staged, it is susceptible to the charge of inauthenticity. I cannot avoid the disturbing thought that, in mimicking the condition of those who are genuinely hungry out of necessity, I am somehow stealing an experience. Sitting in a posh restaurant, choosing to eat only crudités has no sort of equivalence with those who go without because their crops have failed. Indeed, any such comparison is morally vacuous. I suppose this is why I have always been nervous of the supposedly edifying qualities of fasting.
But doing without, having less, is not just a designer simplicity affected by those who have everything, or for those who want to get beach-ready for the summer. In a world where resources are limited, global justice depends on rich people learning to have less.
I do not buy the convenient idea – alibi, indeed – that technology will always provide an answer to the challenges of infinite growth, continually allowing us to grow the pie so that we can keep on serving ourselves that larger slice of prosperity. On a finite planet, resources will always have a limit. And politics is about the distribution of finite resources. That is why hunger is the most fundamental political problem of them all. It drives people onto boats to seek a better life elsewhere. It motivates revolutions. It will bring down the mighty from their thrones. And by the mighty, I mean us.
And look at us. When I search Twitter for fasting, I read two very different sorts of comments.
There are those extolling the virtues of the 5:2 diet or similar. Last month, for instance, Twitter boss Jack Dorsey tweeted that he had been “playing with fasting for some time”, that recently he did “a 3 day water fast”. He goes on to say that, “The day feels so much longer when not broken up by breakfast/lunch/dinner.” His words remind me of that quote from Wall Street: “Lunch is for wimps.”
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Then there are those for whom it is a spiritual exercise: a copying of Jesus’ 40 days without food in the wilderness or, as with Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam. Going without is a religious self-emptying, allowing the fasting person to concentrate on God.
Both of these can be theorised in terms of Foucault’s description of the body as a site of self-subjugation, a place where cultural norms are internalised into a personal battle-ground of self-surveillance. Fasting is a way that we impose on ourselves the values that we take on from wider society.
But there is another sort of fasting that the prophet Isaiah talks about, linked to a fundamental shift in attitude, a reconsideration of our place in the world. What’s the point of this pious fasting if you keep on oppressing your workers and fighting with each other, Isaiah asks? No, the prophet insists, fasting should be a reconnection with the wider concerns of social justice.
Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, glosses Isaiah thus: Fasting is …
“denying yourself the pleasures of thinking of yourself as an isolated being with no real relations with those around; denying yourself the fantasy that you can organise the world to suit yourself; denying yourself the luxury of not noticing the suffering of your neighbour”.