Last week on my trip to Birmingham – which happened to fall on Ash Wednesday – I met some extraordinary people. Among them was Matthew, who had just set up a Hunger Hut with some in the grounds of the Cathedral, as part of the End Hunger Fast campaign. I used to do the fast of Ramadan years ago and know the power of it as both a personal and political act. They are doing a fasting relay to protest against food poverty in the UK caused by political policy and one of the initiators, the inspiring and radical Rev Keith Hebden, is doing a 40 day total fast, you may have seen this in the news. There is a lot around on this subject at the moment in the news and on the street, as every single safety net is being slashed in the guise of necessary austerity (in contrast to the uncollected corporate taxes which could render this totally unnecessary) and I think it’s difficult to make one’s voice heard amidst all of it, this panic, this moral crisis, where economy and ethics seem to have been set to different rooms and told not to speak to each other by those feverishly dismantling the welfare state.
But ancient rituals and disciplines, that double up as both spiritual and political acts – whether fasting or burning debts – can capture the imagination in a more oblique way.
I asked Matthew to enter a debt into The Book of Debts (read all Birmingham contributions here, they are powerful – and remember you can add yours before 3.15 Saturday to have it be read and burned as part of the finale ) and also to talk a bit about fasting as a public act. Here is what he said.
‘ A debt of socio-economic equality owed by the government to the poorest in society
End Hunger Fast is a national campaign to protest against recent policies by our government which are putting the rich before the poor . The government is saying that it’s ok for the richer to keep getting richer and the victims of that – the poorest people in our society – to be left at the bottom. We have got to a stage now in our society where we actually have – in the 21st century in Britain – people who are going hungry and can’t afford to eat – or who are reliant on charity. What we are saying is, we don’t think that’s right and we don’t think that is a just situation for our country. Already we have been here since 8.30 this morning and we have had a stream of people giving their own personal testimonies, their own stories of how they have been affected by the bedroom tax, by the benefit cuts, penalties to benefits.
There was one man who was here earlier talking about how he had gone to other countries in Europe and found short-term work and when he came back he was barred from the benefits system because he had been out of the country!
So even people who are making an effort to go and get a job, to find work are being penalised by the system. And really this is a way of us speaking up; using our voice to say that we are not happy with this situation and we want our government to take account of that and to think about the poorest people in society when they are making those decisions.
The act of fasting
Fasting is an ancient spiritual discipline and I highly recommend it to anyone – so I would recommend it to David Cameron and it’s a very complex discipline. So it has the spiritual benefits but also something that has been used through history as a political tool, as a campaigning tool. Famously by Mahatma Gandhi. So, fasting in this context really is about our own spiritual experience of putting ourselves in the shoes of people who don’t have food. So we are not saying ‘o we have got plenty of food but we are going to campaign for people who haven’t got food, aren’t we good? We are saying, actually, part of this I understanding their experience. And it could be argued that there is an element of naivety about that as well, in that choosing to not have food is very different from being forced not to have food. But it’s about grounding the experience in something real, something physical – and something spiritual. And it’s about communicating how important this is to us. We are talking about realities that are difficult to articulate, difficult to explain in full, but there is a power to fasting, which can change things. And we do want to testify that we believe in that .’