Remarks on Fasting/Meditation and Peacemaking from a Christian Perspective
By: Rev. Peter Laarman
Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting
Islamic Shura Council of Southern California - Interfaith Dinner – August 30, 2009
As-salaam alaikum…and good evening. It is an honor to be with you in this holy month and on this important occasion for reflection and celebration.
The topic of fasting and peacemaking interests me a great deal, although I must say right away that my own fasting experience is pathetically limited. And so as not to appear before you as a total fraud, and also because it is worth doing, I want to expand the sense of fasting to include intense meditation, intense worship, reverie, the kind of awestruck experience engendered by transformative art: any avenue taking us away from the crush of routine and away from what are essentially deadened thoughts and feelings.
I mean deadened quite literally. It is my contention, but not just mine, that the human spirit’s life in the late 20th and now the 21st century has been under constant assault from the pervasive fear-based regimentation that characterizes our U.S. culture in particular. Not that the same fear-based regime does not operate in other cultures, but that it mostly originates here.
One of the most pervasive forms of violence—and a form that contributes tremendously to the death of thought and feeling, although we do not like to discuss it—is economic violence, with the U.S. as the only industrial power that still treats joblessness and poverty as personal moral failings.
But this economic violence itself has spiritual roots. There is surely a spiritual reason why there is in 21st century America so much free-floating anxiety, so much aggression and virulent racism, and also so much fear-based illness and neurosis and sociopathology. To treat all of that anxiety and neurosis, we medicate and self-medicate at more than twice the rate of persons living in other rich countries. I should say here by way of a footnote that one of the reasons that health care reform with cost containment is proving so hard to achieve in the United States is that the big drug companies see a horizon of unlimited future profits in having a whole society that continues to medicate itself massively for free-floating anxiety.
I need not mention how our high anxiety predisposes us to treat other peoples and other lands. There is, in other words, a spiritual reason as well for the aggressive and unreflective stance toward other peoples and other lands that continues to mark America’s profile in the world, even with the change in national administrations. My task here is not to detail these symptoms or describe their genesis in depth: I am confident you will recognize what I am talking about.
It is in light of this secular regime of unremitting violence that I ask us to consider the beauty and power of sacred time apart, of sacred breathing in and breathing out the glory of the Almighty, the All-Merciful, and the heartbreaking beauty of everything God has made for our enjoyment—earth itself, light, water, stars, fish, lions, all living things, all green things, and of course human beings: the creatures God made just little lower than the angels. We just heard the incredible beauty of the Call to Prayer given by Qari Youssef: even that brief moment of vocal ecstasy took us to a place of healing, as intended.
My religious point is simple: if the secular industrial machine has the lethal capacity to deaden our spirits, then fasting and prayer and focused meditation possess the saving capacity to revive them. And when that refreshment happens, it is not just personal growth that is taking place within ourselves: it is also growth in the aggregate of human resistance to psychological coercion and soul-killing violence everywhere.
In my faith, Jesus—whom you revere as a prophet and whom we revere as God’s self-expression—Jesus takes time apart to pray and reconnect to the divine power. But he also does things with his friends that are highly disruptive to routine, deadened thinking.
He speaks in parables, which are like puzzles. The parable of the pearl, for example, has a kind of zen quality (Mt. 13.45-46). And again and again, Jesus speaks of losing one’s life in order to find one’s life. And here I do not think he always means redemptive self-sacrifice, although at times he clearly does mean that. Losing one’s life also points to slipping out of the psychological chains of the domination system and escaping the mindset of those caught up in the perpetual reign of terror that is any society in which the few are entirely free to oppress the many.
There is another image of Jesus as a subverter of false consciousness—my own favorite image—that comes at the end of John’s gospel when the post-resurrection Jesus is back with his friends at the Sea of Tiberias. The disciples go out fishing at night but get nothing until Jesus shouts out to them to cast the net on the other side. Immediately the nets are filled, and they know it’s him. But here is the sweestest part: when the disciples finally wade ashore, Jesus already has a charcoal fire going and suggests they bring over some of those freshly-caught fish. And then Jesus says, “Come and have breakfast.” (Jn. 21.12)
“Come and have breakfast”: it’s another way of saying, “Remember me this way, as your intimate friend in a place apart where time just slips away.”
The times we take for fasting and prayer—and also the times we take for feasting and celebration—all make us stronger and better able to resist psychological coercion. The times we take to behold the beauty of this earth and the beauty of one another subvert and sometimes even defeat the dreadful violence inflicted by this society. The times we take to tell our stories and inscribe our hopes and our follies and our vulnerabilities upon the hearts of others make all of us more fully human and more fully alive to the possibility of tenderness.
When we break our routines, we begin to break the power of mass society to kill the soul. We do not fast and pray for political reasons—we fast and pray because we need to—but our reconnection to the ground of all being becomes powerfully political nevertheless.
A great Christian preacher and teacher, William Sloane Coffin, used to say that religion is always personal but never private. If it’s any good, it will make a difference in this world. You know this well, and you demonstrate it daily in the works of peace and charity done by committed Muslims.
Thank-you friends, for making a spiritual and social difference during this holy month and in every month.
Let us teach one another to pray and to listen. Let us teach one another to step out of our deadened selves and into divine peace and joy. Let us teach one another to resist domination. And ours will yet be a force able to overcome the forces of violence and death.
- Peter Laarman
- Hussam Ayloush
- Hussam has been a lifelong human rights activist who is passionate about promoting democratic societies, in the US and worldwide, in which all people, including immigrants, workers, minorities, and the poor enjoy freedom, justice, economic justice, respect, and equality. Mr. Ayloush frequently lectures on Islam, media relations, civil rights, hate crimes and international affairs. He has consistently appeared in local, national, and international media. Full biography at: http://hussamayloush.blogspot.com/2006/08/biography-of-hussam-ayloush.html