Several days ago I completed a 12-day fast, a Peltier Freedom Fast. A dozen of us around the country took this action as a contribution to the movement to free political prisoner Leonard Peltier and to change “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples Day.”
Fasting is an important part of the cultural traditions of indigenous peoples, and the growing Islamic community fasts during the religious holiday of Ramadan, but for most people in the United States it is literally and figuratively a “foreign concept.” Since the early ’90s, however, there have been a growing number of instances where student, community or labor struggles have seen the use of this tactic.
Fasting is a simple yet profound way of combining the spiritual and the political. Mahatma Gandhi, the most famous nonviolent revolutionary of the 20th century, called it “the sincerest form of prayer.” It communicates seriousness and urgency without violence, thereby making it easier for those who hear about a fast to think about the issues of the fast; it focuses peoples’ attention.
Cesar Chavez, leader of the farmworkers’ movement, explained why he fasted in these words: “This fast is first and foremost personal. It is something that I feel compelled to do. It is directed at myself. It is a fast for the purification of my own body, mind and soul. The fast is also the heartfelt prayer for purification and strengthening for all of us, for myself, and for all those who work beside me in the farmworkers’ movement. It is a fervent prayer that together we will confront and resist, with all our strength, the scourge of poisons that threatens our people, our land and our food.”
Fasting is a way of connecting, of remembering, of feeling the pain of those who “fast” involuntarily. Pax Christi leader Marie Dennis, who fasted for 42 days in 1992, spoke in a statement of those who “cannot choose to stop when it gets overwhelming; rather, theirs is the daily, grinding hunger of simply being too poor to find enough food; it is a hunger that is ever-present and gnawing, that consumes their children slowly or quickly; it is a hunger for a more than minimal existence-for education and health care and housing.”
Fasting brings you face to face with yourself and what is really important to you, what you believe and how deeply you believe it. You cannot help but think about the WHY of your not eating, WHAT it is that is most important to you and HOW you can be more consistent so that your beliefs and your actions are one on a daily basis. It is a way to stay centered and focused and clearer, which in turn makes the cause about which one is fasting more understandable and of greater significance to others.
Fasting, if done correctly, can be physically beneficial, but it is not a course of action to be lightly undertaken.
In most cases political fasts are initiated either because there are no other options, as in the case of hunger strikes in prison, or because there is a felt urgency about the particular issue being addressed.
There are essentially three kinds of fasts: a total fast (no food or drink), a liquid fast (drinking fruit and vegetable juices and soups/broths-no coffee or caffeinated tea) and a water-only fast. Total fasts are dangerous and are rarely undertaken. Water-only fasts are serious, but a person can function well, other than doing physical labor, for a number of weeks while on one. Liquid fasts can go on for a long time; during the Vietnam War Dick Gregory was on a fruit and vegetable juice diet for years.
Fasting, if done for a long-enough period of time (dependent upon one’s weight and eating habits), cleans out of the body the toxins, chemicals and poisons that it is hard to avoid eating in a modern diet. This is particularly true for a water-only diet. Once food is no longer being ingested, the body first processes the toxins and poisons, then the fat.
Only after those have been metabolized does the body begin to feed on muscle, beginning with muscles in the legs and arms. This only happens if a person is on a very long fast with little caloric intake; i.e., water-only.
It’s like “the struggle.” Sometimes this struggle for justice is hard. It’s difficult to keep up the energy level for what occasionally feels like a hopeless battle. But ultimately, participation in this movement, like a properly-conducted fast, is a positive thing. It keeps us in touch with the best within us (or cleans out the worst), allows us to sleep at night with a clean conscience and keeps hope alive for those we interact with and those coming after us.
As Frederick Douglass said, “If we are ever to get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”
Sometimes, for some of us, this means not eating.