The Common Good

The Power of Fasting

Do you believe in the spiritual realm? I mean really believe; not in your head — in your disciplines?

Courtesy of Fast for Families
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama visit the #Fast4Families tent. Courtesy of Fast for Families

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Do you believe that spiritual power can alter, transform, or even redeem social, institutional, structural and even legislative power?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I’m not sure I really believed … until recently.

On Sunday mornings, in the midst of our safe sanctuaries, our five-song worship sets, our 15-minute sermonettes and our one-hour services that can be timed with an egg timer, how does our worship and our practice offer witness to the reality of the spiritual realm? How do our disciplines engage the inner world beyond the good feeling we get from songs that comfort us? Comforting songs are valuable in our worship. In fact, God uses those songs to remind us of the ways the Holy Spirit interacts directly with us, knows us, and knows our most intimate needs. But how does our worship — how do our congregations’ spiritual disciplines strengthen our understanding and engagement with the powers, the principalities, and the world beyond our own homes and sanctuaries?  

 “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

In the first book of his trilogy, Naming the Powers: the Language of Power in the New Testament (1984), Walter Wink demythologized Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians explaining:

“… the ‘principalities and powers’ are the inner and outer aspects of any given manifestation of power. As the inner aspect they are the spirituality of institutions, the ‘within’ of corporate structures and systems, the inner essence of outer organizations of power. As the outer aspect they are political systems, appointed officials, the ‘chair’ or an organization, laws—in short, all the tangible manifestations which power takes.”

In the introduction of the final book in his trilogy, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (1992), Wink sums up his understanding of the powers: “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers must be redeemed.”

Over the past month, I have witnessed the spiritual power of the disciplines of prayer and fasting to redeem our nation’s institutional powers in ways I never imagined.

In mid-November Sojourners joined with a diverse set of partners to launch the Fast for Families: a Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship. I wrote a series of blogs about my experience of fasting alongside Eliseo Medina, D.J. Yoon, and Christian Avila for 22 days.

On the second day of our fast Speaker of the House John Boehner announced that the House had no intention of working with the bill the Senate had already passed for immigration reform. In the face of overwhelming evidence that the majority of Americans (including Republicans) want immigration reform, Boehner’s declaration made no logical sense. It effectively communicated to all that immigration reform was dead.

Over the next week, legislators began to visit the Fast for Families fasting tent on the National Mall. Each time the fasters shared our stories. We asked the legislators to share their stories. Then we asked them to hold our hands and pray for us … and they did.

One week later, Speaker Boehner announced immigration reform is not dead.

The fast gained traction. Three thousand people signed up to fast across the country and scores had come to visit the fasting tent.

Then throughout the second week of fasting the tent began to receive visitors from the White House: cabinet members and even the vice president. Each time, with discipline, the men and women who drank only water day and night shared their stories and the visitors shared their stories and then we asked the cabinet members to pray for us. And they did.

Then the day after Thanksgiving we received two unannounced visitors: President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. We sat in a circle. Each faster shared her story. The president and first lady shared their hearts. Then, we all joined hands and the president prayed for us and he prayed for the 11 million undocumented immigrants caught in our nation’s broken immigration system.

I have never experienced anything like this. The spiritual realm behind the offices and institutions was being drawn out and called to submit to the truth of God that every person in the tent and within our borders, whether documented or undocumented, is human, made in the image of God, and therefore worthy of the protection of their dignity.

In the days to come, Jim Wallis, would come to describe what was happening in the tent as “another kind of power.” He said that those on Capitol Hill have legislative power, but in that fasting tent there was spiritual power, and those who wield institutional power were coming to witness it!

The night before the four original fasters broke our fast, we were invited to be formally recognized from the floor of a House legislative session. We sat in the gallery high above the floor where the legislators who we see on CNN, MSNBC, and FoxNews milled about below, casting and counting votes. One by one they realized we were there. They pointed at us, waved at us, then one by one they made the trek from the floor to the gallery to greet us and to thank us. I sat there dumbfounded when several members thanked us for our courage. It didn’t feel courageous. We were simply called — called to engage the powers on the spiritual realm —called to fast.

Then one representative turned and applauded us from the House floor and then half the House broke into wild applause that went on for what felt like forever. I wept. I couldn’t hold it in. It was overwhelming. These legislators, these people whom Walter Wink would call institutional “powers,” were acknowledging the power of our spiritual act of discipline — fasting.   

The next day, we passed our fast to Jim Wallis, Gabriel Salguero, Stephan Bauman, Rep. Joseph Kennedy, Ciara Taylor, and others. And 10,000 people across the country also took up the fast.

And that same day, Speaker Boehner announced that he had appointed a new expert to help him pass immigration reform in the House!

Another 10 days went by with new core fasters taking up the fast. Jim Wallis blogged about his experience here.

Then on Dec. 12, one month after we began, we celebrated the end of the fast on the National Mall and Jim Wallis declared that the fast would continue in the New Year, but this time the spirit of the fast would be carried into every congressional district.

And on that same day, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, declared that Immigration Reform would be a top priority in 2014!

One legislator who joined our celebration on the final day said: “We have seen fasting work miracles before.”

I never had. But now I believe … in the power of the fast.

Lisa Sharon Harper is director of mobilizing for Sojourners.

(Editors Note: This piece has been revised and updated to more accurately reflect the author’s perspective.)

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