Until now, there have been two main reasons (other than dieting) that Christians have chosen not to eat:
1. To draw closer to God, using fasting as a spiritual discipline; and
2. To apply moral pressure on an oppressive or tyrannical regime, as when Martin Luther King, Jr., employed the hunger strike as a form of nonviolent resistance.
Now, however, we appear to be observing a third option: applying moral pressure on political opponents over legitimate policy differences. But whether this approach is Christian is certainly open to debate.
Former Representative Tony Hall, an outspoken and sincere Christian, recently announced a fast over proposed federal budget cuts as lawmakers discuss what to do about the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt, $1.6 trillion deficit, and faltering credit rating. Hall says that the recent budget compromise between Republicans and Democrats, which ostensibly trims a mere $38 billion in federal outlays for the current fiscal year, shows that the nation is not adequately focused on the poor.
The fast has received fairly extensive support, according to Christianity Today. “Activists and members of Congress are nearing the end of a fast over cuts to federal programs aimed at assisting the poor in the U.S. and globally,” CT reports. “HungerFast.org, a collection of relief and hunger organizations that opposed cuts, says more than 30,000 people have joined the fast, including members of Congress and celebrities.”
This strategy, though similar to the hunger strikes of people such as Mahatma Gandhi against the British colonizers or Aung San Suu Ki against the thugs running Burma, is not exactly a hunger strike, a weapon of asymmetric persuasion usually employed against an oppressive government when other peaceful options are not available.
In the United States, Hall and company have many options short of a hunger strike. These include speaking up, attempting to persuade, and voting. To leap past these other means and employ a hunger strike seems to cheapen this tactic, which ought to be used only as a last resort. Further, such a move short-circuits the debate that is so vital to a healthy republic and is in fact a showy smear on the character of one’s opponents.
Is it possible to debate with someone who has said your actions are so hurtful that the only response is to deprive oneself of food? After all, if the issue is so clear that you are willing to stop eating in order to shame your opponent into action, then he must be nothing short of evil.
David Gushee, a politically liberal Christian who represents the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, might be expected to stand with Hall on this issue—but doesn’t. Gushee instead says it is time for some grown-up discussion about debt and deficits.
“While I admire the compassion for the poor that motivates these actions, I think this is a time for deliberative decision-making about our nation’s long-term fiscal responsibility and moral sanity rather than a moment for dramatic gestures,” he said. Gushee wants to see a debate about spending, taxes, and entitlements. Though I expect he would call for tax increases rather than real spending cuts, it is a debate worth having, and long overdue.
“If we followed this kind of rational path toward fiscal solvency,” Gushee said, “tackling the big issues in a grown-up way, then we wouldn’t have to resort to showy, irrational budget-hacking or dramatic gestures of protest in response.”
Nor is Hall’s tactic a traditional fast, though Hall has appropriated the religious language of the fast: “I believe fasting, when done with the right heart and the right motive, gets God’s attention. Hopefully this fast also gets the attention of politicians who would balance the budget on the backs of the poor. It’s time to call on God.”
Hall’s attempt to “get God’s attention” makes it seem as if God is not omniscient and perhaps does not already care for the poor. Perhaps Hall is simply using a little political hyperbole, attempting to draw attention to the cause. If so, he is misusing this spiritual discipline.
As Hall undoubtedly knows well, Jesus left very specific instructions about fasting. The fast is to be a secret, between us and God alone. “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others,” he said in the Sermon on the Mount. “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Yes, God will reward an honest fast, but we already have his full attention. Tony Hall’s fast dangerously mixes devotion to God with political activism. Yes, we can serve God in the political arena, but let’s not baptize our policy preferences in holy water.
This tactic is neither an honest political statement nor an honest fast. It is, to paraphrase Jesus, hypocrisy. Tony Hall has his reward . . . in full.
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