By Ken Butigan
The December 14 rampage that claimed the lives of 28 people, including 20 children, in Newtown, Conn., has prompted a vigorous new debate on gun violence in the United States and the emergence of a spate of legislative proposals that the president and Congress may broach sometime this year. While policies designed to outlaw or control guns are needed now more than ever, for many of us these efforts must be rooted in a larger imperative: coming to grips with the culture of violence that makes this kind of tragedy possible and seeing our way clear to an alternative.
It is this deeper prompting that compelled Carol Bragg to begin a 30-day fast on January 1 calling on the nation’s political leadership “to embrace the revolution in values and commitment to nonviolence that are part of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
A former staff person for the American Friends Service Committee who served on the National Council of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Bragg’s appeal calls for a National Day of Prayer and Reflection on individual and collective responsibility for violence, the appointment of a multidisciplinary National Advisory Commission on the Causes of Violence in America, the incorporation of nonviolence education into elementary and secondary school curricula, study by the academic community of the history and causes of violence, and a commitment by faith communities to teach their members and the larger world how to love unconditionally. She is also hoping to prompt a meeting between President Obama and civil rights movement veterans to discuss concrete ways these dimensions of a “revolution in values and commitment to nonviolence” can be promoted and applied.
Cry for National Action
“In the wake of the recent tragedy in Newtown,” Bragg says, “2013 is a year that cries out for national action.”
Bragg’s resolve to launch this fast was deepened by her work over the past year as part of a team digitizing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons, speeches, articles, interviews and press statements for the King Center website. This immersion in the thought and vision of Dr. King convinced her “that the only thing that can prevent this country from spiraling down the path to self-destruction is a great spiritual revolution accompanied by experimentation with nonviolence in every aspect of life and at every level of human existence — from our urban streets and rural roads to our state houses to the halls of Congress, to the international level.”
While catalyzed by the violence at Newtown, Bragg’s action intends to highlight the numerous historic milestones in the history of nonviolent change that will be marked this year, including the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement’s Birmingham campaign, its monumental March on Washington and, on the first day of her fast this past Tuesday, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1.
Bragg is no stranger to fasting. In 1974 she undertook a 62-day fast at the U.S. Capitol calling for an end to U.S. funding for the war in Vietnam. As she reports, this fast began as a personal witness but then expanded into a 17-organization project. In 1988 she fasted for 19 days in support of stronger U.S. sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Fasting is a Venerable Tactic for Nonviolent Change
Fasting has a time-honored place in a wide range of religious traditions for ritualistic, mystical, ascetic, or other spiritual or ethical purposes. At the same time it is also a venerable tactic of nonviolent change. In ancient Ireland, for example, it was a recognized method for dealing with injustice: “The ancient Irish law books, of which several survive, explain that a person could fast against a man who had injured him in some way and who was of a higher social rank. The wronged individual went to the wrongdoer’s house and sat outside from dawn to dusk refusing to eat. By so doing he brought bad luck or ‘pollution’ to his opponent. The one fasted against then had two options. He could either admit his wrong and redress it — the fasting would stop and social harmony would be restored. Or he could counter fast to ward off the curse.”
The power of this Irish practice — which apparently has parallels in India — seems rooted in the energy that flows, not from violent confrontation, but from conscious nonviolent restraint and by dramatizing in one’s own flesh the injustice at hand. Instead of unleashing counter-violence that reinforces the opponent’s defensiveness, the faster engages in a culturally permissible ritual that opens psychological space but also likely created compelling, nonviolent pressure for a just resolution.
Gandhi fasted “for the unfoldment of the spirit” and in solidarity with the poor, but also for social transformation, including stopping communal riots in India. Fasting was a regular feature of his activism and many since then, including Cesar Chavez, who fasted in 1968 to help the United Farm Workers maintain nonviolent discipline. Fasting has been a regular feature of many movements and campaigns (the Global Nonviolent Action Database highlights numerous examples).
Powerful Nonviolent Action
In my own life, some of the most powerful nonviolent actions I have witnessed have included long fasts for peace and justice, including the 1983 Fast for Life for Nuclear Disarmament and the 1986 Veterans’ Fast for Life on the steps of the U.S. Capitol calling for an end to the United States’ wars in Central America. My co-worker Friar Louie Vitale has engaged in numerous long fasts. (I joined him once for a 21-day fast working to dismantle anti-homeless laws in San Francisco in 1995.)
The most compelling faster in my experience was Rev. David Duncombe, a long-time campus minister at the medical school at the University of California at San Francisco. After his friend Brian Willson was run down by a munitions train at Concord Naval Weapons Station in Northern California in 1987, Duncombe was arrested once a week for six years blocking trains and trucks transporting military weapons headed to Central America. During one of his stints in jail he did a 40-day fast. Later, he drew on this experience when he turned his attention to international debt relief. He joined the campaign to forgive the sweltering debt that was crushing poor nations and their citizens around the globe. From 2000 to 2007, he fasted three times for at least 40 days each time at the U.S. Capitol. He spent each day visiting Congressional offices. As he lost weight and energy, he sought to quietly demonstrate what hunger looks like. When one of the debt relief bills was about to come up for a vote, a conservative senator sent him a hand-written note saying he would be voting for it because of Duncombe’s witness.
There is no guarantee that fasting will have this kind of impact. Carol Bragg knows this. But she has also experienced its quiet power. When she fasted to protest apartheid in 1988, she sought to influence Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, who then was the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Pell opposed sanctions on philosophical grounds. “I had to assure him,” Bragg now recalls, “that I would never ask him to vote against his conscience but was fasting only to express the depth of my convictions on this subject. Six weeks later, when the hearing was held, he announced his reluctant support. During a recess in the hearing, he made his way to the back of the hearing room to shake my hand and tell me he was reading a biography of Gandhi. This was my best use of soul force.”
Each of us can experiment with this transformational power. Bragg is doing this, at the moment, with the loving but determined method of fasting, inspired anew by the vision and action of Dr. King. Her fast calls on all of us to reflect, act and build a world where this compelling cooperative power is unleashed to quench the fires of violence and injustice.Φ
Ken Butigan is a writer, educator and advocate for peace, justice and nonviolent change. He is also the director of Pace e Bene, a nonprofit organization fostering nonviolent change through education, community and action.