A Word with the FSJ: Fasting for Peace in Gaza

The brothers of SSJE pray regularly for the cessation of war, the safe return of captives, and just and lasting peace for the Holy Land. We spoke with Christian Calawa, a regular worshiper at the monastery, about a recent experience of prayer and fasting for peace in Gaza that he helped organize.

Can you describe for us the basic outline of the fast?

The week was a 5-day fast with a core group of people down in DC. Some people had to come and go, but there were five of us who went without food for five days. There were a lot of people who joined remotely, largely in New England and some outside of New England and the East Coast, who joined in prayer twice a day, on a Zoom meeting that was structured. It was all very interfaith. We went from spiritual breathing exercises in the Ayurvedic tradition, to Compline, to other forms of prayers. But a lot of this was born out of a feeling of helplessness, a feeling that this world is very big and a lot larger than we’re able to engage with meaningfully in the way that we want to, that feeling being one of paralysis, and acceptance, and trust and belief that prayer is meaningful action, that prayer is not a passive thing to a God who is absent, that our prayer and intercessions are real and worthy of time. This is way we can participate as members of the faith community. It largely ended up being Christian.

We had a couple different themes. We were down in DC, and we spent one day each in front of big DC institutions: the White House, the Capitol building, the Israeli embassy, the Holocaust Museum, the Washington National Cathedral. Each day, the prayer was pointed toward the institution we were sitting outside of. There was prayer for wisdom, prayer for peace, prayer not to be bound by the normal political order that would often be slow or ineffective or managerial, prayer for meaningful action. That included all different forms; we weren’t very prescriptive on what prayer meant or what we wanted it to mean. I think allowing space for people to pray for deliverance, for justice, for aid, things both practical and impractical, that ultimately the God who is sovereign over all of this would be in control, that good may come out of the seemingly endless darkness was surrounding a lot of this.

How did this effort come about?

It was actually inspired by a good friend of mine, who was very frustrated with the Church, and the Church’s tendency toward apathy, and a lack of recognition of the world that we live in, the things dominating our newsfeeds, and the weight that that bears on parishioners and other people in the world. The Church was very silent, both in not taking a stand or engaging politically, but also in a stance of purely not mentioning it at all, or very passingly. It felt, and still does feel, like a culture that has a lot of fear around saying the wrong thing and losing people. And so a friend of mine was very fed up with that, and wanted to put her money where her mouth was, and say that Christians should be engaged with the world, as much as they should be engaged in prayer. That these things are not opposed to each other, that holiness and purity are not set apart from the messiness of the world, and ultimately that all of our prayer and all of our action, although imperfect, if done in trust of the Lord can be sanctified.

Would you describe this as political?

Yes, and it has to be, both in the sense that everything is political, and also that politics is also revolving around this a lot right now. It’s very political, and in some ways charged against a Church that wants to be very political in maintaining its purity, in order not to upset members, or constituent members, or partners that churches have. We met with the bishop of DC, and we heard from her as well as other parish churches, that they partner with more Zionist-leaning groups that take a much harder stance of “pro-Israel” rather than “pro-Palestinian,” and to make a statement or to come out strongly in favor of a people group that was being oppressed and killed, and still is being oppressed and killed, was dangerous. It would’ve ruffled a lot of feathers, it would’ve caused a lot of drama, it may have caused funding issues. There’s a perceived weakness in the Church, with dwindling attendance and numbers and finances, “well at least we have to maintain what is here, and we want to engage the world but we want to make sure that we’re doing that well, in a way that’s not alienating members of the community, to be very attentive to that.” And I think this movement, was political in the sense, not only, “Why don’t you take a political stance in favor of the safety and the dignity of the human lives that are being killed or removed from their homes?” but also to say that the Church is not dead when it doesn’t have any members in it, but that the Church is dead when it refuses to speak to any truth, regardless of whatever that truth is, whether it’s a full declaration in favor of immediate ceasefire, or it’s saying that we want to continuously pray and be a presence that is continuously engaging with the world, and praying for peace, and praying for justice, and praying that wisdom and leadership in conversation with the complexity that is on both sides, and the pain that is on both sides of this conflict, like every conflict. Simply, it is to engage.

One reason people might be less inclined to engage with this sort of thing is that this most recent violence was precipitated by killings and hostage-taking on the part of Hamas.

Yes. Absolutely legitimate. October 7th was horrific. I have no problem saying that.

What would you say to churches and church leaders who are worried about alienating people by speaking out on this subject?

A lot of this organization drew from Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, who were very staunch pacifists during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. She has a line in The Long Loneliness, her autobiography, where she says something like “everyone knew that we were pacifists, and that meant not engaging with the weapons of war, and now that we were making calls to enact that as the war effort was ramping up, I’m shocked that people are now all of a sudden outraged that we’re calling people to leave their jobs, because of course that’s what we were doing, that’s what we were always doing.” I think the more radical side of me says that you have to act in truth and according to your conscience and according to what you believe the Lord is speaking and doing, and being open to the possibilities of what that could actually mean, and that might mean losing funding and losing members, but I think that ultimately comes back to where we put our trust. I think a trust in God is unwavering and very sacrificial and costs a lot.

Maybe it’s easier for me to say that because I’m young and I don’t have a lot to lose. I don’t know the weight of shepherding an entire community of believers. But I do think speaking in a way that is honest and forthright about, not only issues that the person in charge of a community sees as valuable, but also clearly the world is seeing as valuable, that there’s clearly a lot of attention and a lot of weight on, is respecting members to respond in autonomy to a perceived truth, and to respond in grace as opposed to not letting them respond at all by keeping things very quiet. I think it’s actually very dignifying to the other person to confront in a way that is loving and kind and not at all attempting to alienate, but is attempting to love and serve as best we know how those who are poor, those who are oppressed, those who are sick, that the actual engagement of that question is far more honoring to people even if they decide to leave the Church. If that is their response, that is the response that they have chosen. At least they chose that response.

I’m struck by your use of the word “radical.” We often equate “radical” with “reckless,” but this effort doesn’t seem reckless. It was highly organized, and any group fast of that length requires discipline.

It was certainly not aggressive in any way. I don’t think it was disruptive at all. I think “radical” also feels very personal to me and my attitude toward engagement with the world, issues that I have strong beliefs on but quick to dismiss and fade into the background of everyday life. I was very surprised by myself agreeing to go down to DC, and even agreeing to fast for five days, I’ve never fasted for nearly that long, so it all felt very radical, and somewhat uncomfortable. There’s a real desire to go back to brunch, and to focus on myself in ways I need to be doing anyway, as we all need to be doing. “Radical” in this sense feels more akin to not hiding, not being avoidant of truth, and to take those convictions to a level of action that feels appropriate once you allow that fear to wash over you. I’ve constantly  been very challenged by the verse “Perfect love casts out fear.” That is the thing that casts out fear, the call of love, the call of Jesus and of faith is one that, if obediently followed, can cast out fear, and call you into greater love, and it’s only when that is ignored that that fear all of a sudden becomes held a lot more firmly.

Why fasting? Why did that feel like the appropriate response?

Fasting met this intersection of traditional political action and religious devotion that a lot of us found very intriguing, and brought with it some potential downfalls as well. Inspired by Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, these social movements that are very much praised that were rooted in a personal decision of piety that was then public facing, mixed with the devotional call to fasting found in religious life that is the emptying of oneself and relying solely on manna that is from heaven and not from earth. The intersection of those things felt very true to this cause and spoke to a lot of the powerlessness that we feel and what would politically sharpen our resolve in this tradition of political nonviolence, combined with the spiritual devotion in the immediacy of need for God found in just being hungry, and all of the things that happen to the body that correspond to that, all the strange desires that come about from being hungry, that really hones your sense of needing to rely on Christ in way that does not depend on your own will or your own strength. There’s a recognition of weakness that I think is really important when coupled with political engagement, the humility that does not come from the strength you mentioned of being more “radical,” not being somewhat reckless or somewhat prideful, not serving the self. I’m not against serving the self entirely. It felt good to go and protest, and I’m glad it did. But the orientation of that always has to be, in oneself, if honestly taken account of, toward the God we love and serve.

I asked earlier if you felt this effort was political. Would you describe yourself as political?

Historically no. In the sense that we all use, some who is political really enjoy about politics, caring a lot about voting, being an activist in any sort of way, historically no. I’ve certainly engaged with the topics more personally, never much communally. I think I’m political in that I do take seriously the realization that to not engage is also a choice that is political, that is casting a vote towards normalcy of whatever system is in play. So no, in the traditional sense of how we use it, but yes, of course.

A major part of this was that there was a community of people, in-person and following along at home, participating. How did that effect your experience?

There was the core group of people down in DC. Communally what that meant was a real reliance on one another, and an ability to speak our own frustrations, to pray together communally. “Wherever two or more are present, God is there.” That made it feel much more real than praying alone in one’s bed, and a level of accountability, more prayer and more action happened than would have otherwise.

Immediately surrounding was the remote group who were fasting according to however much they wanted to participate and praying alongside. That felt very encouraging of a broader social group of people, a lack of loneliness, a sense that all hope is not loss, that people are engaging and want to be here and want to be participating in any way they can, and there’s a hunger for this.

I think even more broadly than that, I was posting on social media. I was in DC for a week, so I was telling all of my friends, or other people not involved in this, or people in my church community, that I was going down to DC, and they would ask why, and I wouldn’t lie or hide any of the truth of the matter. So there’s a real feeling of identifying with this decision I had made, that individually it’s much easier to not make that a part of your identity to take on that view of the other looking at you, making this decision that maybe they don’t agree with. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re telling everyone you’re going to fast for Palestine for a week. You get a variety of responses, a variety of engagement, and it has led to a lot of conversations that I would have never had otherwise with people. I’m very grateful for all the unexpected things that community brought out of this, as community always does.

Can you speak about the difference between political and religious engagement?

A lot of the time spent down in DC, we were sitting in front of the White House, or the Capitol building, or the Israeli embassy, these are very secular political institutions, and our prayers for that were very steadfast. But I think the area that a lot of us feel like there’s a lot more room for engagement and immediate action we can take part in was at the church level. Our day at the National Cathedral in DC, and meeting with the Bishop of DC, to talk about the resolutions happening at the National Convention in June, that engagement with the church community is a real precedent that we all want to set, and we do not want a church that is disembodied, that is catering to people, but that is inviting people into something that is much larger, a vision of resurrection that is not based on individual piety, but is based on a communal understanding that we all depend upon each other’s toil, that my salvation is bound up in the other. That ended up being a lot of our focus, especially toward the latter half of our fast, the realization that this was our world, if we speak to anywhere, not even more effectively, but more truthfully. This is the language we speak, we know the language of church, the language of God. An engaged church community can be a real force against hopelessness and despair, both here and abroad. One of the people who was fasting remotely contacted us, and they had contacted family members that they had in Gaza, and they reached out to them and told them about the fast that was going on, and the remote faster told us that the person in Gaza just told everybody, and they all prayed for our movement, and were overjoyed that there was real attention and care being brought out. It was a surprisingly emotional moment, where I think a lot of the orientation had been, “What can we do for Gaza? What can we do about our church’s complicity in sending money and weapons?” But that script also being reversed, not only can we bless the people in Gaza, but they can bless us back, and give us real strength for the rest of that day. That was the fourth day, when we were all very hungry and counting down the hours until we could eat again. That that mutual exchange was so life-giving and affirming of a love that speaks far beyond any of our immediate actions.

People might feel reservation about churches becoming primarily political or social activist clubs, without a substantial theology. How do churches engage with these struggles without losing sight of the primary call to pray, and to strive after God?

It’s a good question. A lot of the conversations I have around the Boston area in the Episcopal Church, there seems to be the more high liturgy Anglo-Catholic tradition, churches that are very reverential and proud of their reverence from their heritage and want to keep all of the focus on God, and then there are these more evangelical Episcopal churches that tend to be more social activist leaning, that tend to be more engaged with the world, that a lot of people from the Anglo-Catholic side look down on, and then a lot of people from the evangelical side look at the Anglo-Catholics as being too separated from the world in their ivory tower. I do think this is a false dichotomy, and one that doesn’t serve either side of this generalized observation. What I would want is a church that is rooted in the liturgy and the preaching of God’s word, with the constant acknowledgement that that word is bound in a very practical and physical reality, in the body we live in. Maybe I’m young and naïve, but I think you can have it both ways.

And I’ve seen it done, where the orientation is unapologetically reverent, and oriented solely toward the worship and glorification of God, and a recognition of all of that glorification and worship takes place communally, and that the calls to care for the poor the widow and orphan are very serious calls, and things that need to be engaged with, both in the hearts and the minds. I grew up in a very evangelical culture, where the idea of a Christian being in the world but not of the world was praised, as not being too tainted or too worldly, but I think a recognition that everything God has made can be sanctified and is good as he called it good, has to be the foundation of a theology that is able to rightly honor and worship God, and take care of the world that he has given to us to take care of.

I want it both ways. And I want us to keep struggling to find it both ways. I think for me, and what I want for the Church more broadly, is the ability and grace to take imperfect action, and to trust in a God who is able to sanctify imperfect action, because all of this action we’re taking already is imperfect, and we’re trusting in his grace now. We should continue to do so.

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