Ash Wednesday Devotion

Isaiah 58:6-7

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Many Christians fast to draw near to God. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a season of fasting for many Christians. Ascetic practices like fasting train bodies and minds to focus on the spiritual realm. In many traditions, fasting is accompanied by alms-giving — the money one saves by buying less food is given to the poor who may otherwise go without food. In this way, fasting is an act of solidarity with the poor. Fasting can be an act of solidarity with others, too. While many poor people are hungry against their will, hunger strikers take on hunger to gain public attention and mobilize political action. Many models of nonviolent resistance have turned to the hunger strike to illustrate their deep commitment to their principles or cause.

This text from Isaiah offers a supplementary picture of fasting. It is similar to Jesus’ injunction in Luke, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:11). It matches Jesus’ self-identification with the hungry, thirsty, the stranger, the clothes-less, the sick, the imprisoned (Matthew 25: 42-43). It coheres with Jesus’ announcement of his calling: “to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Fasting is an opportunity to draw near to those who hunger, thirst, lack clothes, and are in prison, which includes the willful hungry.

Over a third of adult Palestinian men have spent time in an Israeli jail or prison, many as prisoners of conscience or for crimes of affiliation. Suleiman Khatib is the co-founder of Combatants for Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian NGO that brings together former violent actors (Israeli and Palestinian) around nonviolence and peacebuilding principles. Khatib was sentenced to 15 years in an Israeli prison when he attacked Israeli soldiers at 14. He has since turned away from violence. Khatib advocates hunger strikes as nonviolent resistance, in particular against unjust prison conditions.

Marwan Barghouti was a leader in the Second Intifada, convicted of five murders, and a potential presidential candidate in the 2021 Palestinian Authority election. In 2017, Barghouti undertook a 40-day hunger strike to protest unlawful prison conditions.

More recently, Maher al-Akhras was on a hunger strike for 103 days until November 26, 2020, protesting his administrative detention (according to which he was held without charge or trial). al-Akhras led other inmates to protest the conditions and of their imprisonment via hunger strike as well.

Not all hunger strikes have just ends. Not all hunger strikers refrain from violence. But as Christians, we are called to be in solidarity with the imprisoned. As the examples above show, hunger strikes are not uncommon in Israel and Palestine, especially among those in prison.

Fasting is also a way to remember the saints who were so committed to the cause of liberation as to risk death. As we remember our mortality today, Ash Wednesday, let us not forget the mortality of so many who have died in conflict, whether fighting for their beliefs or as innocent victims.

Living God, in this Lenten season, help us remember the poor and the oppressed, those in need and those fighting for their needs. Let us pray for the freedom of all people as we look forward to the fulfillment of all of our hopes in the return of Jesus Christ. As we remember our mortality on Ash Wednesday, may we mourn with those who mourn and fast with and for those who starve. Amen.

Kevin is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he also earned an M.Div. His research focuses on the relationship between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Palestinians with disabilities, and how the occupation produces disability. He is currently waiting to continue fieldwork in Bethlehem until it is safe to do so. In joining CMEP, he is excited to complement his research with advocacy work.

Kevin also earned a BA in philosophy from University of Chicago and has researched how churches can better care for and empower people with various disabilities. He has affiliations with the Evangelical Covenant Church, Vineyard USA, and United Methodist Church. In his spare time, you can find him running, biking, or playing the piano. CMEP is very thankful for the writers who contribute Spiritual Resources. However, CMEP does not necessarily agree with all the positions of our writers, and they do not speak on CMEP’s behalf.

The next Prayers for Peace (P4P) blog will be published on Sunday, February 21, and will be the second entry in our Lenten series: Beacons of Hope: Journeying in Faith for Peace and Justice in the Middle East. Lent devotions are a part of CMEP’s 2021 programming, CMEP Journeys. Learn more about the events and opportunities available to you here.