Fasting as an Act of Public Theological Witness: A Lenten Imperative

Public Reading of Jonah 3: 1-10

With the advent of the season of Lent, Christians globally have been busy preparing for the season. Fasting has been the buzz word this season of forty days, for people have been seeking various reasons to justify their fasting. Fasting has become trendy these days, for some give up a meal during the day, some give up eating meat, some give up drinking alcohol, some have proclaimed fasting on social media, some have given up Facebook, some have given up whatsapp and the list goes on. These trendy fasting, people say are part of a spiritual discipline, for at least, they can work out on de-addictions on their addicted habits. Whatever be the reasons, Fasting in the season of Lent has been a key element, which has been practiced from times immemorial continues to find an important place in the lives of the faithful.

Unfortunately, fasting remains to be a self-centric element in the lives of Christians, and has not permeated towards the cause of transforming the society. Fasting is not merely an act of self-piety rather has a public theological relevance, for it is intended to bring justice in the society. ‘Fast unto Justice’ is a rendering in that line which has had its deep Biblical and theological moorings. Duetero- Isaiah is very succinct on such an understanding of fasting, for in Isaiah 58: 1-12, he reminds the people the kind of fasting that is acceptable in the sight of God. This season of Lent, let us resonate with Isaiah and imbibe ‘fast unto justice’ as an act of our spiritual calling and strive towards justice through our fasting.

Liturgy as a Public Act:

Ronald Theimann’s important contribution to public theology is linking liturgy as public responsibility, which has a great relevance in public theological enterprise. In his book, ‘Constructing a Public Theology: The Church in a Pluralistic Culture’, he explains that, “the etymology of the word liturgy, which is leitourgia, is a Greek noun meaning, “the discharge of public office.” In the context of Greek polis, leitourgia involved engaging in public office at one’s own expense, thereby offering service to the state and so contribute to the well-being of the community or koinonia. The language adopted by the early Christian community for its own worship life was clearly and explicitly public or political language…The righteousness of faith must result in transformative justice within the public realm. Thus Christian worship is essentially political, and the leitourgia of the Church extends naturally and directly into political action.”[1]

Liturgy has been mostly limited to the worship done in the Church, and has not really taken political meaning out of it. By making public theology liturgical, public theology’s political characteristic is revealed and calls on the Christian communities to relocate their worship practices beyond their worshipping structures into the public sphere. A public political act of spirituality is envisaged by the Church, for only then her public witness is felt and impacted.

Therefore, the need and relevance of fasting becoming a public act aimed towards bringing justice and transformation to our society is imperative and instructive for our spirituality. One should also realise that there is no command for Christians in New Testament to fast, however Jesus did comment on fasting, where he emphasised not on any “show-off” or for boasting on self-pride and on self-righteousness, but said that it should be an act between an individual and God (Mathew 6: 16-18). That relationship between God and an individual should be reflected in acts of justice in our contexts.

In light of the discussion that Fasting as an act of public theological witness, the experience of prophet Jonah and his community’s fasting is of great relevance for us today, specially during this season of Lent. Allow me to present to you a reflection on Jonah, a prophet from the margins, and try to capture fasting from his community.

Jonah: Prophet from the Margins

Prophet Jonah is a minor prophet in the prophetic literature, and the story of Jonah has been one of the most favorite stories of all children for the involvement of fish in the story resonating with the modern fictional stories. Jonah as a book in the canon is independent of the historical settings of the Israel, and has therefore been related to several contexts. The book of Jonah begins with the title, ‘Jonah’s disobedience’ for he flees to Tarshish, when he was called to go to Nineveh. He has been branded by those in the centers as the disobedient person. No one has ever asked what could have been the reasons why he had to flee away to Tarshish? Probably, he wasn’t yet ready to proclaim the judgment about the wickedness of the city, when there has been lots of wickedness within his own contexts. He wasn’t willing to be a missionary in a foreign land, allowing a prophet to arise out of the Ninevehian context, however conditions demanded that he had to at the end, land up as a migrant missionary in Nineveh. He was called as ‘reluctant one,’ ‘a lazy sleeping guy’ when there was a greater storm, he was a ‘run away missionary’, the ‘main culprit for the raging storm’ and therefore had to be thrown away into the sea. The only human being in the history of human kind, who had to live in the belly of a fish for three days, spending time in prayer and confession, and most times he is viewed as a superman who spent three days to be alive.

Jonah is a Prophet from margins, marginalized by the writers of the canon for not weaving his experience into the very fabric of the life and witness of the people of the OT. He is further pushed into margins, for his disobedient attitude to the word of God, for fleeing to a different destiny, for falling asleep when there is a raging storm, and for allowing a vicarious throwing into the sea. When there would have been total disappointment and hostility from ‘God’, from the co-passengers for trespassing, for sleeping without a concern, for being the sole reason of the raging storm etc. Jonah would have been totally looked down by the corridors of canonical writers, by the co-passengers and even by the people of Nineveh, who would have seen him as an alien after being vomited by the fish on their shores. What can you expect from such a person like Jonah? Out of his margins, God chose Jonah to deliver God’s people by speaking God’s justice at difficult moments of history.  Jonah, emerges as a political missionary who proclaims the gospel of repentance, as a mission from the margins to those in the centers.

It was a day of fasting at the city of Nineveh. After the miraculous save of Jonah through the belly of a fish, Jonah finally arrived in the city of his destination, Nineveh to proclaim the prophecy of God. At prophet Jonah’s call, the entire city from the king to the citizens to the animals joined the fast and put on sackcloth seeking repentance from God for their wicked deeds. The cry of Jonah, as recorded in Jonah 3, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” put the city to test and gathered the political attention, for His Highness the King of Nineveh took the lead and made it a public policy in calling for a fast with his royal proclamation. The call for the fast included turning away from the evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands, besides putting on the sackcloth and ashes. The call for fast on that day put God in a fix to change God’s plan for the sake of the life for that city. From the clashes of conflicts, the city went into fasting and ashes, and out of ashes, the city came out into a splash of liberation and life.

  1. Fasting Challenged the Polis (5 V)

As Jonah proclaimed the prophecy of God, the people of Nineveh believed God, and sought God’s help through a very democratic, political and spiritual way of fasting. This idea of fasting emerged from among the people of the city. The fast they proclaimed was communitarian and for the need of their city. Their fast was not for a selfish need or for an individuals need or for an exhibition of their piety. Their fast was a political necessity, for it challenged the whole of the city. As the fast was proclaimed, everyone in the city without any objections or reservations or concessions observed their fast by putting on their sackcloth and ashes. Great and small in the city, man and women in the city, child and adult in the city, the sinning and the sinned-against in the city, powerful and powerless in the city, irrespective of their lines of divisions and identities, the city came out to the open for a fast in support of their city. When the whole city got together to fast, both the sinned and the sinned against joining the fast meant repentance with regard to the sinned and an indication from the sinned-against that time is ripe for reconciliation. This fasting, which included everyone and in which no one was excluded, displayed the true spirit of fasting. It was this fast that challenged the city.

  1. Fasting Challenged the Polity (6-9 Vs)

With the impending peril at hand, when a fast was proclaimed by the city, the royal power at the city, who represents the polity, furthered the fast. The fast for the city was a mandate that emerged from the people and for the people, and therefore His Royal Highness was challenged to endorse it and made it a public policy for the good of the city. The king with all his power consciousness could have easily downplayed and rejected the idea of fasting, for as kings they only know to feast and they cared least if the city would go into a doom. The king was challenged by this fasting, and therefore at the peoples call for fast, he had to rise from his royal throne, had to remove his royal robes and had to cover him with sackcloth and had to sit in ashes. The spirituality of this fast was such, that it demanded the powerful to give up their power costumes, attires, attitudes and masks, and calls for a wholesome solidarity with the powerless and weak symbolized through ashes, the waste product that comes after the consumption of energy. The fast for the city challenged the king to issue a public decree calling everyone in the city to restrain from food and feed and be in solidarity for the cause by putting on the sackcloth and ashes. The royal public decree calls everyone in the city to turn their evil practices, practices of discrimination and oppression and to turn away from violence that was in their hands. The king also felt, such a fasting that comes from the community may also challenge God.

  1. Fasting Challenged the Prophecy (10V)

The king, who was challenged by the communitarian fasting, felt that even the prophecy from God could be challenged of such fasting by people attempted for a change in the city, and may change God’s plans for the sake of promoting life. As was foreseen, the fasting challenged the polity and eventually challenged the prophecy of God according to the writer of this book. The prophecy from prophet Jonah that ‘forty days from now, Nineveh shall be overthrown’ was challenged because the fasting was for the sake of community and not for an individual need. The prophecy was challenged for the barriers of power, for the powerful gave up their power and joined the common, and the community encouraged each other along with the creation to save their city. The prophecy was challenged that the residue ashes became the common binding and bonding symbol in the city, which reveals their deepest concern for righteousness. The prophecy was challenged for both the oppressors in the city and the oppressed in the city joined together to fast, where the oppressor sought repentance from God and the oppressed and oppressed could see justice being enforced in the land. This fasting challenged the prophecy of God, for it was political in nature, for the fast focused on ‘save the city’. This fasting was for the common good of the people and the community in the city, and it has shown the city’s belief in God and in their spiritual quest for God’s intervention. On all these counts, this fasting by the city of Nineveh challenged the prophecy of God and challenged God, for according to the understanding of the writer of the book of Jonah, the city did not perish as was willed by God earlier.

Jonah’s Mission from Margins in the book of Jonah is the recognition of the fact that

  • God is concerned about unrighteousness as disastrous for creation.
  • God’s concern of impending danger as proclaimed by the prophet can bring people and powers together for common good, which directs the mission as lobbying.
  • The righteous could feel excluded in this process of reconciliation like Jonah, and such people need to include themselves in God’s act of reconciling all.

As churches, we are called to prophecy, reconcile and heal our situations of wickedness and bring in transformation to our localities and societies. The polis, the polity and the prophecy were thoroughly challenged by the fasting of the people in Nineveh, which brought in a change within and around them. Out of clashes they went into ashes, and out of ashes they came out splashing life and change.

During this season of Lent, when many people want to fast, as a spiritual discipline for forty days, there are several challenges for us from this text.

  • Fasting is not for an individual piety, but has to be corporal and for the transformation of our society. This season is an opportunity to give up our self-righteous attitudes and publicity displays on our acts of fasting.
  • Don’t take fasting during this season in vain, for many think this season can be an opportunity to cut down their calories and use it as a period to slim down their bodies. Fasting is not a cosmetic exercise.
  • The account of fasting in Jonah resonates with Duetro-Isaisah’s understanding of fasting, which is recorded in Isaiah 58: 1-12, to fast unto justice. Fasting is a spiritual exercise for justice. ‘Fast unto justice’ is the need, meaning, purpose and direction of our fasting today. The call for us it to proclaim a fast unto justice against the injustices of our times and strive to establish a just society.
  • In the context of the Campaign for climate justice, should not our fasting in this season sensitize our congregations and communities to be akin with the flora and fauna, address acts of greed and save our splendid earth?
  • In the context of the growing violence, oppression and discrimination done in the name of caste, gender, sexuality, religion and region, should not our fasting in this season conscientize our communities to become peacemakers and bring in justice and liberation?

Lent is a season to ‘spring forth’ for justice, and let the experience of Jesus’ Cross inspire and challenge us to partake in doing actions for justice. Jesus was nailed to Cross for he stood and strived for justice of his times, for he proclaimed an alternative vision to the reign of Roman empire in the vision of Kingdom of God, for he sided with those on the margins and for willing to be branded as ‘criminal’ for the sake of the values he preached and practiced. God’s resurrection strength did not leave Jesus, for he rose again on the third day defeating the forces of death, and springing up in new life.  Wishing you all a meaningful season of Lent, and let our fasting turn into actions of justice and help us to join along with experiences of Cross in our times today and make resurrection a reality for our times.

Raj Bharath Patta,

Lent 2016

[1] Ronald F. Thiemann, Constructing a Public Theology, The Church in a Pluralistic Culture (Kentucky: Westminister/ John Knox Press, 1991) P.113-114