The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Fasting -- Personal and Public
Two important news stories converged in Warsaw this week -- the devastating storm that has ravaged large sections of the Philippines, and international negotiations on addressing climate change. The point of convergence is the Philippine's bold delegate to the UN's COP19 negotiations, Yeb Sano.
Mr. Sano -- in what seems to be the only memorable statement yet to come out of Warsaw -- spoke bluntly and personally about Typhoon Haiyan. He named the probability that its unprecedented ferocity was accentuated by climate change. (His entire statement is well worth reading.)
He notes that in late 2012 -- at the same time as the COP18 talks were being held in Doha -- the Philippines had "confronted a catastrophic storm that resulted in the costliest disaster in Philippine history." A year later, as the UN gathers again to talk about climate, his nation is again bludgeoned by a record-setting storm.
With that context, Sano said, "To anyone who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare you to get off your ivory tower and away from the comfort of you armchair." He listed communities and habitats around the planet where the disruptive reality of climate change is evident.
He said to the delegates, "Typhoons such as Yolanda (Haiyan) and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action. Warsaw ... should muster the political will to address climate change." But he also voiced his frustration with the lack of action from the UN conferences: "It is the 19th COP, but we might as well stop counting, because my country refuses to accept that a COP30 or a COP40 will be needed to solve climate change."
Mr. Sano's message was clear and powerful. But it was not his speaking that moved him into the international news. He ended his talk with a personal pledge.
In solidarity with my countrymen who are struggling to find food back home and with my brother who has not had food for the last three days ... I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate. This means I will voluntarily refrain from eating food during this COP until a meaningful outcome is in sight.
The UN conferences are overflowing with compelling words. They rarely see such words backed up with difficult personal witness such as fasting. Mr. Sano's pledge has caught the attention of many in Warsaw, and around the world.
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Yeb Sano has me thinking about fasting, and about the need to be clear in our intentions about such an action. Fasting is an ancient spiritual discipline, found in almost all cultures. It is also an effective political strategy.
This week, as I've heard appeals for people to join Mr. Sano in fasting, I have considered the difference -- and occasional similarities -- between spiritual practices and social change work. Being clear about our goals will help determine if we are effective when taking part in a fast.
Historically, fasting is a way of focusing and honoring a spiritual enterprise. Eating less, or not at all, for a period of days cleanses both mind and body. It can be a sacramental action -- "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." Voluntary fasting is found in many indigenous cultures. Fasting during daylight hours is a core part of the Islamic month of Ramadan. At the start of his ministry, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness.
While this kind of fasting may happen in a public and ritual setting, it is primarily a personal and interior discipline. Jesus reminded his followers that this is not an occasion to show off piety: "whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites ... so as to show others that they are fasting. ... But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret". (Matthew 6:16-18)
What Mr. Sano is doing is Warsaw is completely different. His fasting is designed as a public action, and keeping visible is an essential part of putting pressure on the other delegates. People present at COP19 are showing that they are joining in the fast by wearing large red dots on their lapels, and holding signs like, "It's lunch time but we're not eating."
The strategies related to fasting this week get murkier as we get away from the COP19 assembly halls. There are shadings of personal, charitable and political intentions. Fasting, in itself, is not the key element. It is important to identify the goal of the action.
All of these are good and appropriate actions, each related in some way to fasting. But they go in widely dispersed directions with their goals and strategies.
I give thanks for Yeb Sano and his courageous act of witness in Warsaw. His pledge to fast -- while his people are going hungry after Haiyan's climate change driven devastation -- is a brilliant and effective political action. Through the week remaining until COP19 adjourns on November 22, I urge you to reinforce the political pressure he is bringing on the UN delegates.
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