A series of posts reflecting on my first Ramadan. Here’s why I decided to do it.
A common refrain I hear from my new Muslim friends about Ramadan is the idea that fasting helps one to become aware of the plight of the world’s poor.
For example, Shawna commented on one of my blog posts, “Some people in the world do not have access to food any time they’re hungry, and ditto for water. Fasting also reminds us to think more of those less fortunate, and to know what it is like to go without.” Rayhan agrees, saying that fasting “reminds me what people in Somalia and east Africa are going through on daily basis having nothing to eat or drink. A friend of mine (from) Ethiopia shared once that they had to walk eight miles to get some water every day. Imagine how blessed we are and we don’t even think about it!”
Fasting does indeed put all of us in solidarity with those who struggle with basic survival resources.
First, it is a lesson in empathy. Those of us who live in developed countries generally (though not all) have access to clean drinking water and food on a regular basis. However, there are great numbers of people in the world who do not. When we choose not to drink or eat for a whole day, we get a glimpse of what it is like to have to travel eight miles (or more) for a drink. We learn what it is like to move around throughout the day with a gnawing hunger in the pit of our stomach. This seed of empathy then has a chance to grow, and become “compassion.” The word “compassion” in English comes from two words, “com-“ meaning “with”, and “-passion,” meaning “to suffer.” Thus, when you suffer with someone, you naturally will develop compassion for that person.
Having compassion for the poor and needy of the world is a first, vital step in our faith journey, but it certainly doesn’t end there.
Next, we must become generous givers, sharing with those in need out of our own God-given bounty. I have learned that this concept is the basis of one of the pillars of Islam, almsgiving, or the Zakah. It is a duty of every Muslim prosperous enough to have accumulated and retained wealth in the form of savings over the course of the year to give 2.5% of his wealth to the poor. The giving of Zakah often occurs during the month of Ramadan.
Christians also believe that charitable giving is an important part of living out our faith. The writer of James in the New Testament said, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
It is clear that people of faith have an obligation, laid out by God, to give to those in need.
But if we stop there, if we only concern ourselves with feeling empathy and compassion, and with giving a few dollars to the poor, we have failed to be the people God calls us to be. There is another level of engagement with the poor which God demands.
That third level is the pursuit of justice on behalf of the poor. Eventually, we must ask ourselves, “Why are there people who still do not have access to clean drinking water? Why are some nations still mired in poverty? Why is most of the world’s wealth concentrated in the hands of just a few individuals and corporations?”
These are questions of justice, and they are increasingly a matter which people of faith must address. If we do not address the root causes of poverty, then we may likely find ourselves feeding the same poor people over and over again, never actually reaching out to bring them up to the level of dignity and self-sustenance which they so desperately desire. To remain in a constant state of dependence upon the charitable acts of others for one’s basic needs would be a debilitating, degrading existence.
In my experience as a Christian pastor, justice is the hardest kind of work to do. People are easily moved to feel compassion, and they can also be very generous when it comes to giving to charitable causes.
When you ask someone to change the way they do business, however, then you begin to step on toes. When you begin to point out the injustices and inequities in laws, then you begin to step on toes. When you expose the selfishness and greed that lies at the heart of Wall Street, then you begin to step on toes.
When I fast, I try to move through all three stages of concern for the poor – from compassion to giving to justice. This year, Ramadan has forced me into deeper levels of each stage.
And so I’m learning how to step on toes … even harder!