Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite, An ordained minister of the United Church of Christ
This is turning out to be a good day, even a good month to reflect on Ramadan for me as a Christian. In addition to being a month of fasting from dawn until dusk, Ramadan is also a time when Muslims are to turn their attention from worldly affairs to improvement of themselves, deepening their spiritual lives and seeking enlightenment. The stock market has fallen about 1,500 points since the beginning of Ramadan, so “turning away” is an excellent idea.
This isn’t entirely “gallows humor” on my part. The point of Ramadan is not to ignore the world, but to place it in its rightful context. You are not to let worldly affairs dominate your life to the neglect of a relationship with God, with your family, and with those in need.
As I resist the urge to check on my retirement investments yet one more time today, I realize that my anxiety is a symptom of “worldly” domination of my life and I need to free myself from it. I am not my stock portfolio. Well, not any more…
Another good point of reflection on Ramadan for me as a Christian is that Islamic fasting is not meant to be a denial of the self, as it has often been practiced in Christianity, but a way to discipline the body, mind and spirit to turn from the world to God. It also builds a real empathy for those for whom hunger is not a spiritual practice, but the result of poverty. It encourages generosity in Muslims. All of these values are surely needed by an American society addicted to war, debt and tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of the neediest among us.
Still, fasting does not have a good connotation among progressive Christians such as myself because it has so often been practiced as part of asceticism and accompanied by theologies that denigrate the body and sexuality, and by extension, women’s bodies. The Church called fasting “mortifying the flesh,” a term derived from the Latin motificar, meaning to kill. Some of the extreme ascetic practices did result in death, but that was not meant to be the goal.
The kind of fast practiced in Ramadan appeals to me, therefore, because it is not so harsh as to “mortify” the flesh. Abstaining for approximately half of a day, while difficult, is not impossible, and celebration meals (Iftar) upon breaking the fast lend an air of hospitality and the holiday food connection that to me evokes a combination of Thanksgiving and Christmas as big food holidays.
I wish I had fasted today and had an Iftar dinner to look forward to with family and friends this evening. I’d like to take my mind off of that other thing that I am no longer focusing on because I’m turning away from the world, right?