The Christian tradition of Lent has long been at this time to fast, and by doing so draw closer to our neighbour and closer to God. This year, we will begin a time of fasting while half a million regularly go hungry in Britain. The End Hunger Fast is an invitation to join with others in fasting in solidarity with the increasing numbers in communities across the UK who cannot afford to eat.According to the latest research, over four million people in the UK do not have access to a healthy diet – including half a million children; people who are forced to live on an inadequate diet have a significantly increased risk of developing serious health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. They are also more likely to suffer from stress, ill health, poor educational attainment and shortened life expectancy.
The rising cost of living combined with austerity cuts is forcing poor families to choose whether to pay their bills or put food on the table. Food banks and charities are currently meeting the essential needs of many families and individuals in crisis, feeding adults and children who would otherwise have nothing to eat. Over 500,000 people were forced to turn to food banks to feed themselves last year. The likelihood is that this number will top one and a half million people this year, as the impact of benefit cuts and austerity start to bite every deeper into already stretched household budgets.
In his book The Spirituality of Fasting, Charles M Murphy says,
Social charity is the defining characteristic of Christian fasting. One of the main reasons Christians fast is to fight against innate human selfishness and possessiveness, and to resist the social forces that drive us to consume more and more of the earth’s resources at the expense of the poor. They fast to practise solidarity with the poor by practising the virtue of temperance.
Resisting selfishness and possessiveness within ourselves is important, but equally so is the imperative to work to remedy unjust structures; to campaign for justice, especially in all aspects of food production, distribution and consumption.
One of the most powerful biblical injunctions about fasting comes from the prophet Isaiah, who clearly rejects fasting if it is not accompanied by a true change in how we live:
Is not this the fast 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; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
We often hear talk of hard choices. Surely few can be harder than that faced by the tens of thousands of older people who must ‘heat or eat’ each winter or harder than those faced by families whose wages have stayed flat while food prices have gone up 30% in just five years.
Yet beyond even this we must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people using foodbanks have been put in that situation by cutbacks to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions.
The End Hunger Fast is therefore both a personal and a public act of solidarity: a personal commitment to go without food for a meal, a day, one day a week throughout Lent – as your circumstances and your heath permit. But also a very visible and joint public statement by all those who join the End Hunger Fast – to call on government to do its part: acting to investigate food markets that are failing, to make sure that work pays, and to ensure that the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger.
Dom Helder Camara once famously wrote,
When I give food to the poor they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist.
In fasting we rediscover our hungry neighbours and, with them, call in to question a government and the corporations that use hunger as a weapon against the poor.
Join the End Hunger Fast at www.endhungerfast.co.uk.
We are indebted to Keith Hebden and Alison Webster for the use of material they have prepared on Lent and Fasting in the writing of this article.