Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fast action

Gandhi fasted more than a dozen times, once penitently when his people murdered police. He fasted for an end to Untouchability. He fasted more than once for an end to Hindu-Muslim bicommunal violence, and once he fasted against a British official for that man's accusation that Gandhi was promoting violence.

Cesar Chavez fasted many times as well, showing that the fast was not just a swami-guru phenomenon from India, but could be effective even in modern America. His most successful fast was his first, which was in opposition to, and in penance for, his own union members and supporters who were engaging in sabotage and other property destruction. "Thousands of farmworkers streamed to Delano to pledge their Loyalty to Chavez and vow allegiance to his nonviolent creed," noted David Cortright (2009, p. 92). At the conclusion of one 25-day fast for peace, Chavez accepted a piece of bread from Bobby Kennedy.

There are a number of considerations involved, including, but not limited to the following:

Will the fast be effective?

What will the effects be?

Do those likely effects work toward the goal of the campaign?

Is a fast likely to enhance a campaign or distract?

Can the campaign spare the energies of the faster?

If no one knows who the faster is, the effects will be minimal or nearly nonexistent. The faster or fasters need name recognition beforehand or it needs to be created. This takes media energy and is risky. If the fasting person is not particularly sympathetic--if the person appears mentally unstable or as though it is simply a publicity stunt--a cause can be hurt by such negative imagery. If a person unilaterally decides to fast for a cause and then expects others to publicize the fast, to work to support the fast, or to somehow draw attention to that person engaging in that action, supporters do well to think through it. There are not many Cesar Chavez or Mohandas Gandhi charismatic leaders who can engage in a fast and cause a good number of people to flock to them out of concern.

I've only engaged in one serious quasi-public fast that I started, and it was a learning experience. It was after communication with my action partner, Donna Howard, when we were both in jail awaiting trial for our Plowshare action of Earth Day, 1996. I wanted to draw attention to our judge's hostility toward international law, which was the basis of our legal opposition to the thermonuclear command facility we had partially dismantled. Donna and I traded days and passed off the fast back and forth, much like Cesar Chavez had passed his fast on to others. We continued for months, bringing in others in a Fast Friends community, people who supported Plowshares direct disarmament actions. I coordinated all the days via snail mail from my jail cell. It was very sweet, and it eventually became necessary to have multiple people fasting every day, including people from many states and even overseas. We failed to get the judge to either recuse himself or allow international law, but the experience was educational and empowering for all of us. We didn't expect nor did we seek personal approbation and in fact were delighted to step back and honor those who picked up the fast. We never tried to publicize the fast in mainstream media because that takes so much contextualizing for unknown people. Cesar Chavez is fasting? Everyone instantly understands. A couple of random Plowshares peaceniks are fasting? Are they nuts? Who cares? Let 'em croak! But our peace community totally got it and participated. It was more of a bonding action than a bridging action.

Fasting is powerful. It needs to be done carefully or the power can skew in unintended directions. Each culture conceives of the fast differently and each situation is unique. It needs serious appraisal before use.

Cortright, David. (2009). Gandhi and beyond: Nonviolence for a new political age. (2nd ed.) Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

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