Hungry For Justice
Today fasting in Christianity is seen as a process to pursue personal spirituality. But is that the whole picture? The biblical way to God is not just about God Himself but about one’s neighbors and the greater community. I believe that fasting can promote God’s restorative justice. But we need to move from pursuing personal spirituality through fasting to pursuing practical social spirituality through communal fasting,
In the Old and New Testaments the words for fast–“tsom” (צוֹם) in Hebrews and “nésteuó”(νηστεύω) in Greek—mean a period of complete abstinence from food and sometimes from drink undertaken as a plea to God. Most biblical scholars agree that fasting was not a particular law from God but was passed down as a tradition that was followed when communities were in crisis: as a nation they mourned and cried to God and fasted. Some scholars believe the custom has been around at least from the time of the patriarchs. It became a regular practice and finally it became a normative religious command. The first fast recorded was in the book of Judges, and it was a national fast. The Old Testament has many other occasions of national fasting that were undertaken when the people knew they had sinned, repented, and asked for forgiveness. We can see that fasting as a community was the rule because it had to do with justice and restoration for the people.
Isaiah 58 shows the true meaning of fasting and God’s restorative justice.“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice…” (Isaiah 58:6 NIV). Fasting from the beginning of Israel to the time of captivity was a part of godliness and had a nature of atonement and repentance. It drew the community together. However, after the exile, and the institutionalization of fasting, the original purpose of community fasting was lost, and the emphasis shifted to ritualization and form. Because sin and repentance were closely related to true fasting, Isaiah rebuked their fasting and mocked their lack of repentance. Rather than bringing the community together their fasting seemed to embolden poor behavior.
Fasting to cultivate the spirit of brotherly love was the only fasting that God would gladly accept and in the true sense, this is the path to the realization of God’s justice. What God desires from our fasting is related to the demands of the time. For people held in captivity, fasting is for release from brutal bondage, to break the yoke of oppression. True fasting is always motivated by a deep desire for justice and liberation.
Fasting to cultivate the spirit of brotherly love was the only fasting that God would gladly accept and in the true sense, this is the path to the realization of God’s justice.
Based on Isaiah’s restorative justice theme, I suggest several practical ways for Salvationists to use fasting in their ministries. First, the correct theological understanding of fasting needs to be taught. Second, fasting should be preceded by restoration of relationship with God, including spiritual restoration at the community level, as well as individually. Therefore, spiritual life should be guided not only toward the individual, but also should have a strong community dimension. Third, the fast must be applied to the everyday spiritual life of Christians. The CFOT (College for Officers Training) has been practicing weekly communal fasting for years. Every Monday during lunch hour people gather in the chapel to practice fasting prayer for personal and communal liberation and justice. I pray that The Salvation Army will restore the original meaning of fasting, extending it beyond the individual to the community, and rediscovering practical social spirituality.
written by Major Sun Kyung Simpson, College for Officers Training, USA East
For further reading
2 Chronicles 20:3; Nehemiah 9:1; Zechariah 8:21; Matthew 4:2; 6:16-18; Luke 18:12; Acts 13:2-3
Hanson, P.D. (1995). Isaiah 40-66.Interpretation. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.
Muddiman, J. (1992). Fast, fasting. In (Freedman, D. N., Ed.), Anchor Bible dictionary. New York, NY: Doubleday
Oswalt, J. N. (1998). The book of Isaiah chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Park, K. C. (2009) Fasting Controversy. Seoul, Korea: The Korean Society of Old Testament Study