Fasting is an act of penitence, preparation, and a purification ritual well-established in many religious traditions. We fast to clear the mind and cleanse the body, turning away from the pressures and pleasures of the world to focus instead on something more important–or even divine. Hunger pangs pass after a day or so, and fasters report focus, haze, visions, clarity, elation, fatigue, and much else. With water or juice, a fast can last for weeks.
The activists, authors, and clerics who began a fast against budget cuts to programs that serve the poor last week (discussed yesterday) were twisting a tactic oriented to the self into something that turns outward, toward politics. They certainly weren’t the first to do so.
Fasting is a standard part of the spiritual repertoire in many religions. By interrupting the most normal and routine aspects of daily life–making and consuming meals–people can turn their thoughts elsewhere, to the divine. The Hebrew Bible is replete with tales of whole communities fasting to repent; in the New Testament, Jesus goes to the desert for 40 days to fast before beginning his public ministry. Fast days (and even fast months) mark the year in contemporary religious life, turning our attention from the routine inward, to something spiritual.
Political activists have taken those trapping and turned them outward. Mahatma Gandhi staged fasts in the midst of confrontations with the British over independence, saying that he should bear the costs of the conflict he was provoking. His claim: his belief in the justice of his cause was so great, that he was bearing the costs of that certainty, rather than imposing it on others–through some kind of violence. (Note the spinning wheel in the photo above; during his political campaigns, Gandhi would spin cotton, as a concrete and symbolic step toward Indian independence.)
Of course, in real life, the British watched this spiritual leader starving himself to death–and others watched the British. There is something profoundly coercive here–at least to opponents who saw themselves as moral and just. Gandhi was well aware of this, and also well aware that the British were an opponent who might respond to such pressures.
Cesar Chavez borrowed from Gandhi, and adapted his fasts from Gandhi’s practices. He defined the fast as a means of spiritual preparation, and also as a way to demonstrate his seriousness. But he also found a way to keep the spotlight on his efforts–and his concerns. He would continue his fast until a demand was met, each day increasing the pressure on his opponents.
The idea of forcing an opponent to take responsibility for abominable action is a staple of protest politics, particularly nonviolent protest. The fast is a recurrent tactic in prison actions, non-cooperation with the daily routines being one of the few approaches available to the imprisoned.
The Irish Republican Army organized serial hunger strikes in the Maze prison in 1981, demanding that imprisoned IRA members be treated as political prisoners. The strikes followed a five year campaign for political status, which would include the freedom to wear their own clothes and avoid prison work. In previous efforts, prisoners had refused to wear uniforms (going “on the blanket” instead), and had also fasted.
Bobby Sands, the leader of the IRA members in the prison, refused food on March 1, drawing international attention, and mobilizing both supporters and opponents outside the prison as the strike went on. Two weeks later, another prisoner joined him in refusing food, followed at intervals by at least eight other IRA prisoners. Five weeks into the strike Bobby Sands won a by-election for a seat in Parliament, provoking commentary around the world, and increased pressure on the British government. Members of the European Commission and Pope John Paul II attempted to intervene to save Sands’s life, but were unable to persuade him to stop the strike.
Sands never took office, starving to death at age 27, after 66 days without food. His death prompted a series of riots in Northern Ireland, and more than 100,000 people attended his funeral. Meanwhile, one at a time, more prisoners went on strike.
The British would not force feed the prisoners unless their families demanded medical attention, and as several prisoners died, one at a time, other strikers’ families began to demand this intervention. The strike became increasingly divisive–and horrifying. Before it was over nine other prisoners had starved to death.
In October, the prisoners called off the strike, having commanded international attention and won some symbolic support from other political actors.
The current anti-hunger strike is unlikely to make a similar impact. No one intends to starve to death (Mark Bittman, for example, limited his fast to four days), and giving up one meal a day is likely to improve the health of many Americans. Whether a less dangerous approach to politics, embraced by many more people, can generate similar attention is very much an open question.