Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
February 11, 2008
Blow the trumpet and proclaim a fast
Blow the trumpet in Alberta; sanctify a fast.
It's unfortunate that the discipline of fast and abstinence has gone into decline just when society needs them the most. So, we should reconfigure the words of the prophet Joel for our own time.
We all know the disparities in the world – 12 per cent of the global population lives in North America and Western Europe, yet we account for 60 per cent of global private consumption. In Europe, $11 billion of ice cream is sold every year; it would cost $10 billion to provide clean drinking water for the world.
There is too much consumption by some, too little by others. Obesity rates and related health problems have increased rapidly in the developed world. We eat too much and spend too much time driving or behind a desk. We are running out of room to put our garbage and we are pouring so much CO2 into the atmosphere that we are changing the climate. We don't know what to do with all the toxic waste we create and there is a growing shortage of potable water, even in the developed world.
But we could eliminate hunger and malnutrition ($19 billion) by re-routing the money spent on makeup ($18 billion a year in the West).
We do well to fast from some of the stuff we consume. It helps us spiritually and it could help build a more equitable global society. We used to make the minor sacrifice of abstaining from meat on Fridays and eating fish. But today, 75 per cent of the world's fish stocks have been fished beyond their sustainable limits.
Despite any belief to the contrary, the Church never called for an end to fasting and abstinence. In 1986, the Canadian bishops declared, "Throughout the year, every Friday is a day of abstinence from meat, obliging all Catholics who are 14 or older."
They did give permission for people to substitute special acts of charity or prayer for the abstinence. But the requirement remains.
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting. But in our consumption-crazed society, more fasting would be helpful.
It would be helpful in reminding us of our human dignity as something greater than input-output machines. It would remind us that our real treasure lies in being people redeemed by God.
We might fast from things other than food and other material needs or desires too – anger, lust and greed would be a good start.
But what good is my fast if I am the only beneficiary, if skipping a meal only gives me more money to spend on other things? This is why fasting and almsgiving are so closely linked.
This is why Isaiah proclaimed, "Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house?"
A simpler lifestyle and a deeper personal spirituality are steps in the right direction. But they are not enough.
Society as a whole must move towards simplicity, away from consumption. Initiating such a move depends on our having leadership of the right sort.
In the United States, consumers collectively owe $2.5 trillion, not including mortgages. The average credit card debt per household is $8,300. But last month the biggest step taken by the Federal Reserve Bank in relation to the subprime mortgage crisis was to cut lending rates by three-quarters of a per cent so that people would borrow still more money.
If only the Bank of Canada would blow the trumpet and proclaim a fast, what a shock that would be! It could move us away from debt, and towards social equity, a sustainable environment and a sustainable spirituality. That would be a Lent to remember.
- Glen Argan
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