Fasts and Hunger Strikes: is there a difference?

By | April 29, 2009

Mia Farrow has embarked on a 21-day fast to “show solidarity” with the people of Darfur. “I’m just an actress. I’m not presuming anybody will care whether I starve to death or whether I go on a long hunger strike or what. But it’s a personal matter. I can’t be among those that watch – and I honestly couldn’t think of anything else to do,” she said. Both Farrow herself and the media sometimes call her action a fast and at other times a hunger strike. Is there a difference?

The type of fast that Farrow has embarked upon is often called a “political fast” to distinguish it from medical fasts (to cleanse the body of toxins, prepare for a medical procedure, lose weight) and religious fasts (Ramadan, Yom Kippur, Lent. . . .) Both fasts and hunger strikes involve abstaining from food. Insofar as its purpose is to draw attention to a cause and to rally the support of the faithful by jeopardizing the health and perhaps life of a beloved public figure, a fast has much in common with a hunger strike.

The difference, I think is subtle but important and perhaps best examined by looking at Gandhi’s fasts (he went on 17) and the fasts of Cesar Chavez.

Gandhi described four reasons for fasting: (1) To express his own deep sense of sorrow at the way those he loved had disappointed him; (2) To atone for the misdeeds of the people he lead; (3) A last-ditch attempt to stir deep spiritual feelings in others and to appeal to their moral sense and (4) to bring quarreling parties together.

He also defined when fasting was appropriate: (1) Fasts could only be undertaken against those people he loved; (2) fasts must have a concrete and specific goal, not abstract aims; (3) The fast must be morally defensible in the eyes of the target; (4) the fast must in no way serve his own interests and (5) the fast must not ask people to do something they were incapable of, or to cause great hardship.

Gandhi said about fasting:

“Fasting is an institution as old as Adam. It has been resorted to for self-purification or for some ends, noble as well as ignoble.”

“A complete fast is a complete and literal denial of self. It is the truest prayer.”

“A genuine fast cleanses the body, mind, and soul. It crucifies the flesh and to that extent sets the soul free.”

“What the eyes are for the outer world, fasts are for the inner.”

“My religion teaches me that whenever there is distress which one cannot remove, one must fast and pray.”

Like Gandhi, Cesar Chavez was willing to sacrifice his own life so that his work would continue and to ensure that violence would not be used. In 1968 Chavez went on a water-only, 25-day fast. When asked about his motivation for fasting, he said, “A fast is first and foremost personal. It is a fast for the purification of my own body, mind, and soul. The fast is also a heartfelt prayer for purification and strengthening for all those who work beside me in the farm worker movement. The fast is also an act of penance for those in positions of moral authority and for all men and women activists who know what is right and just, who know that they could and should do more. The fast is finally a declaration of non- cooperation with supermarkets who promote and sell and profit from California table grapes.”

Chavez fasted again in 1972 for 24 days, and in 1988 for 36 days. Speaking again about his motivations for fasting, Chavez said that farm workers everywhere were angry and worried that would not be a victory without violence. He fasted to prove that is was possible to win without violence. He said, “We have proved it before through persistence, hard work, faith and willingness to sacrifice. We can win and keep our self- respect and build a great union that will secure the spirit of all people if we do it through a rededication and recommitment to the struggle for justice through nonviolence.”

Turning specifically to the problem of pesticides, he continued “The evil is far greater than even I had thought it to be, it threatens to choke out the life of our people and also the life system that supports us all. This solution to this deadly crisis will not be found in the arrogance of the powerful, but in solidarity with the weak and helpless. I pray to God that this fast will be a preparation for a multitude of simple deeds for justice. Carried out by men and women whose hearts are focused on the suffering of the poor and who yearn, with us, for a better world. Together, all things are possible.”

We would discuss fasting in lesson six of the Class of Nonviolence when we discusses Gene Sharp’s list of 198 methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion. Sharp identified three types of fasts. The fast of moral pressure is undertaken to persuade a third party (St. Patrick fasted to urge the Irish king to deal fairly with the slaves, for example.) The hunger strike is considered coersive, especially when it is threatened to the death, which could cause civil unrest. The third type of fast Sharp calls the Satyagrahic fast, which requires spiritual preparation and is intended to convert an opponent.
Here is a video about Mia farrow’s fast. What do YOU think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *