“Why We’re Fasting” is the title of columnist Mark Bittman’s essay in Wednesday's New York Times, the “we” being himself and David Beckmann, here described as a “reverend,” and “this year’s World Food Prize laureate.” The pastor heads “Bread for the World.” Yes, why fast? Readers can do their own sighting and hearing of all the media-reported clashes over the national budget, now in final crunch time. That scan will reveal the obvious: that lost in the necessary political and economic debates blighted by the side-tracking but focal partisan and sub-partisan disputes on the issue is one set of people. Biblical scholars in this “Judeo-” and “Christian” nation call them “God’s people.” They are the poor, disabled, disadvantaged, undersheltered and, yes, hungry, about whom some of the budget debates were supposed to have been waged.
Bittman and Beckmann discuss Isaiah 58, essential reading for believers and bystanders alike at such a time and place as this. G. K. Chesterton famously observed that one can look at something 999 times and then, on the thousandth sighting, see something revelatory, as if for the first time. We are asked to do such looking now. To bid each other to do so will sound embarrassingly pious, and yet. . . .
As Bittman tells it, he is fasting, or was, last Monday, when thousands of others also fasted to draw notice to those Congressional budget proposals (H.R. 1) which would “quite literally cause more people to starve to death, go to bed hungry or live more miserably than they are doing now.” Adds Bittman: “And: The bill would increase defense spending.”
Bittman confessed to some skepticism about whether things work out the way Isaiah 58, reporting on God’s revelatory word, suggests. That chapter also reflected God’s being bored by all of Israel’s fussing about how strenuous the people were about holy fasting. The prophet—in my own loose translation—says, for God: “You think you are going to impress me by fasting, but all you do is get hungry and thus get angry and then beat up on each other. Is that the fast you think I want?”
Also in elaborated but consistent paraphrase for the Bible-believers among us: “You can stamp ‘In God We Trust’ on all your money, fight for particular prayers in public gatherings and schools, sing ‘God Bless America’ and all,” but if the people would not feed the hungry, free the imprisoned, and take care of those in need, their fasting, they learned, was beside the point, if not futile and wrong. The ancient prophet said this more elegantly and with an authority that columnists cannot command, but his words should outrank other texts which are cherished by biblical literalists and their secular cousins during legislative and electoral conflicts. Beckmann: “. . . deficit reduction isn’t as important as keeping people from starving: ‘We shouldn’t be reducing our meager efforts for poor people in order to reduce the deficit. They didn’t get us into this, and starving them isn’t going to get us out of it.”
Bittman does not expect God to intervene, but he still hears the moral punch of the biblical language. Disagree with Bittman and Beckmann if they offend, one can suggest, but for the biblically-minded folk, proving that the two are wrong is hard to do. I hope both fasters savor their post-fasting food but stay on the cause. Those obsessed with budget-cutting will certainly stay on theirs. Note: Isaiah 58 speaks wonderfully, not grimly, about the promise of what could follow moral action in the face of human need.
Mark Bittman, “Why We’re Fasting,” New York Times, March 29, 2011.
David Beckmann, “God, Hear Our Prayer,” Bread for the World, March 28, 2011.
Martin Marty publishes every Monday in Sightings, available from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.