On Oct. 2, 140 years ago, Mohandus Gandhi was born in Gujarat province in India. I didn’t learn this from the New York Times, CNN, or any other mainstream media source. I didn’t learn about it from progressive media outlets, although it is very possible that one or more of them publicized it and I missed it.
I learned about this as a result of being invited to speak yesterday at William Patterson University in northern New Jersey by a professor who organized a program about Gandhi’s relevance for today. Thanks to Balmurli Natrajan, Director of the Gandhian Forum for Peace and Justice, I’ve spent the last few days reflecting on this question.
When I was asked this question directly at yesterday’s forum, what came to mind is this: Gandhi is important, is of continuing relevance, because he wasn’t just a great, if imperfect, leader of India’s successful struggle for independence from colonial Britain. He is important because he understood that it was necessary for him personally, and for his people, to be about the process of personal and cultural change if they were to have a chance of truly lasting, truly revolutionary change, in the best sense of the term.
Gandhi did his best to live a life which reflected the values of justice and love which he understood were central to the teachings of all great spiritual leaders. He went on fasts that were directed not just against the British but for his own people, calling upon them to refuse to mimic English violence and repression in their struggle for independence.
The words of Gandhi that I have used most often over the years are these: “Fasting is the sincerest form of prayer.” I’ve used them as I’ve learned their truth, as I’ve learned about prayer, during long fasts that I’ve undertaken in connection with the campaign to free Leonard Peltier, against the Iraq war and for strong government action to address the climate crisis.
There’s another fast very much in the Gandhian spiritual and political tradition that will be taking place about a month from now, a Climate Justice Fast. This is a fast initiated by young people in Australia, Europe and elsewhere specifically directed at the leaders of the world’s governments as they move toward the Dec. 7-18 international meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark to try to come up with a stronger climate treaty than the Kyoto Protocol. As I write, things are not looking good at all that they will do what is needed.
Anna Keenan, youth climate activist and one of the initiators of this fast, wrote yesterday about Gandhi. She began with a quote of his, that “the world has enough for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed.” She went on to “share another great Gandhi quote: ‘Under certain circumstances, fasting is the one weapon God has given us for use in times of utter helplessness.’ In just over a month, on the last day of the Barcelona [climate] talks [Nov. 6], I and other activists around the world will be beginning the Climate Justice Fast and continuing until Copenhagen [over 40 days, on water only].
“While the concept of the fast may shock some, it will be a non-violent, morally forceful and peaceful action, and is perhaps one of the few types of action that we have available to us that is capable of deeply communicating the gravity of the situation that we now find ourselves in, both in terms of the profound disaster of unchecked climate change and the profound opportunity provided by the Copenhagen summit.”
I know that there are many climate and progressive activists who have problems with the idea of fasting. It’s too bad this is the case, because I have learned that fasting isn’t just one of a number of tactics that we need to keep in our quiver to use as we struggle for a world based on love and compassion.
Fasting is a form of action that is very valuable in building the internal discipline and the deeply-felt understanding of what’s really important in this world that we individually need to stay true to our best ideals. When you fast for more than a few days, especially on a water-only fast, you are forced to think about the reasons for your fasting, why you are putting yourself through this. You spend time thinking about all of the people all over the world who “fast” involuntarily because of an unjust world order which is dominated by a relative handful of billionaires and multi-billionaires. When on a fast related to the issue of climate, you think about the almost-certain catastrophic droughts, famines and other disasters affecting not millions but billions later in this century if we don’t rapidly make a shift away from the burning of fossil fuels and earth-destroying practices.
It is difficult not to feel helpless in the face of the timidity and resistance of far too many of the world’s government leaders to doing what clearly must be done. It’s maddening knowing that a serious commitment to the enactment of a clean energy revolution can be the decisive shift that opens up all kinds of possibilities for a very different future as the nations of the world work together to clean up the environmental mess capitalism has created.
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, killed because of his leadership in the anti-Nazi German resistance movement, “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.” Yes. Yes. Now and always.