By Martin Accad
My two young children (10 and 8) gathered around us a few days ago. My wife and I were going to have a heart-to-heart with them. Though we had so far decided to spare them the feelings of financial insecurity, we felt it was time to have a conversation that would sensitize them to the current economic situation of Lebanon. No, we hadn’t decided to turn them into economists, nor did we plan to make them feel victims of the circumstances. What we wanted was to cultivate in them a greater sense of empathy for the plight of their compatriots.
Empathy is the ability to recognize emotions in others around us, to rejoice with them when they are happy, to weep with them when they are sad, to feel revolted when they are angry for suffering injustice, and to hold our breath with them when they are scared. The experience of those shared feelings is what then makes some of us spring to action in solidarity with others. Empathy is what makes us more human, better neighbors, more pleasant friends, and responsible citizens.
The Lebanese Pound is now freefalling against the US Dollar. Food prices are spiraling out of control. Our purchasing power is weaker than ever. Over half of the Lebanese population – some say 55% – is now living below the poverty line. By the time this post goes live, the Lebanese Pound will probably be worth no more than a third of what it was worth only a few months ago. And when I reread this in a few months, I will smile at those good old economic times. Yet for most Lebanese people, their income in Lebanese Pounds has – at best – remained the same. Countless others are now earning only a portion of what they used to. Tens of thousands have already completely lost their income, either because they were daily labor workers or because they were let go by a sinking company in a collapsing economy.
This economic situation, coupled with the social realities associated with the pandemic, will make fasting even more challenging than usual for Muslims this month – the month of Ramadan. In order to find out the magnitude of the challenge, I asked my good friend, Sheikh Fouad, how Muslim “pastors” are supporting their congregations. “Ramadan,” he assured me, “is the month of patience and challenges; because when people fast, they are working on bolstering their will in the face of challenges.”
Indeed, fasting is not unique to Islam. It is practiced by every religion as far as I know. At the level of popular piety – whether you’re a Christian, a Muslim, or a Hindu, fasting may be your way of earning brownie points with God. For others belonging to more spiritual and ascetical currents, fasting is a spiritual discipline. From the Desert Fathers, to the ecstatic Sufis, to the meditative monks in the Himalayas, fasting can be a way of reining in your physical needs and bringing them under the control of your spirit. It can be a way of letting go of the desires of the flesh to let yourself be absorbed into the peace of the divine.
In the biblical tradition, fasting is permanently associated with justice. God’s message through his prophet Isaiah is particularly clear and poignant. In chapter 58, justice toward fellow humans is the pre-condition for God’s presence and response to our prayers (see v. 9). Fasting without justice is a waste of time: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke (v. 6)? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood” (v. 7)?
Thus, in everyday practice, fasting has to be associated with generosity and good will. Giving up food for a time, resisting the needs of the physical ego, should affect your value system by helping you overcome your natural selfishness. My sheikh friend would agree: “it is also an opportunity for connecting, for mutuality and giving, particularly for those with more means.” He explains: “The role of social welfare organizations is to get in touch with the rich in order to help them reach the poor with the financial and other material assistance that they wish to transmit to them.”
As my little family gathered that morning, I had to boil it down to a couple of very basic principles that my children would understand and practice in times such as these:
One of Sheikh Fouad’s statements resonated particularly well with this thinking: “In these blessed days, we call people to be frugal and only to buy the bare necessities, and we invite those with means to give and expend in order to help the poor.”
In a striking passage that takes empathy above and beyond human logic, the apostle Paul builds on the teaching of Jesus and says: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:14–15 emphasis mine; see also Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:28). The New Testament invites us these days to live frugally – and no doubt reminds us that this should be a life principle. Whether we fast or practice any other spiritual discipline, we do it neither for the brownie points nor simply to take pride in our ability to subdue the desires of our flesh. We do it because Jesus and the New Testament invite us to practice human solidarity, the only valid response to empathy, this deep groan of compassion placed inside of us by the Holy Spirit.
The Institute of Middle East Studies is seeking ways to partner within a network of Christian and Muslim faith leaders to help address the growing need of food security facing families in Lebanon. We desire to be part of an effort to cross religious boundaries together in response to God-given empathy. Please pray for this developing initiative, and if you’d like to stay informed about it, please contact our Partnerships Manager