It's that time of year again: the time when the people you would least expect it thrust a little booklet under your nose and ask you to sponsor them in the 40 hour famine. It's a strange idea and one that I find odd in the extreme. World Vision, a Christian charity which apparently does good things for the starving in the developing world, invites a group of mainly young people to go without food for forty hours, less than two days, and have their friends, relatives, parents' workmates or whoever sponsor them for this extraordinary feat of self-denial at so much an hour. What can it all mean?
I believe that it means that secularisation is more highly advanced than we dared to believe. In the sixth chapter of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing ... on the street corners to be seen by men. ... When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. ... When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting." There's obviously some disparity here: on the one hand, the encouragement to tell everybody about it and gain sponsorship for it, on the other hand, to do it secretly, not shout about it, not ask for payment for it!
Now, before you criticise me out of hand, I do probably offer some support for the aims of World Vision, but I cannot offer my support for the "Famine". If you want to support them, I suggest that you write a cheque and send it to their head office. I'll put their address at the bottom of the page. I'm not at all happy about the famine though.
What else makes me uneasy? The fact that we make such a big deal of it all? Less than two days? Of course, if you're not old enough to fast for forty hours, there are other options. For younger folks, how about the twenty hour famine? This starts at 6pm and goes on till 2 the next afternoon. ("You only have to miss breakfast!") Younger still? You might consider something easier still...how about twenty/forty hours without computer games or television? Truly a major triumph of self denial!
The message that comes from all this is that fasting is not a big deal, not something that would be taken too seriously, not something that people should ever do for long enough for it to become even the slightest risk to our welfare. So much are we told that we should be eating three square meals every day that people believe that they couldn't possibly miss a meal or they would become ill. This is one of the dangerous messages of our secularised society, which takes the truth and rather than denying it outright, compromises it until what remains is only a weak shadow of what was there before.
Finally, I want to look at what is the most extraordianry thing of all...the corporate sponsoship of the event. The official sponsors of the 40 hour famine. You'd never guess that they would have food companies as sponsors, would you? Sanitarium, a manufacturer of cereals and drinks...Just Juice, a juice manufacturer "the official juice of the 40 hour famine" - what are we saying here? I seem to remember that last time I was fasting, there was nothing but water to drink - when our Islamic friends fast, they don't even drink water during the day (what happens overnight during Ramadan is another story, however). When I questioned somebody about this, they told me that the 40 hour famine is aimed at youth rather than adults, so it is appropriate to encourage them to drink juice, eat barley sugar...I'm sorry, I don't see it. Am I missing something important here?
The 40 hour famine undermines the importance, spirituality and integrity of fasting by promoting it as a short-term, fun activity with enormous marketing support. It leaves me with a great feeling of unease. What do you think about it?
So far, I have only received one response to this, from Jim in Australia:
I think that you are missing the point where ordinary people can help others less fortunate than ourselves. And it is not all young people - I am pushing 60 and doing it!! And I hope that you have a change of heart and at least sponsor someone. P.S. Why don't you publish on your web page the comments that people make to you? It may make interesting reading indeed! God bless, Jim
Well, Jim, the reason I hadn't posted any responses was that there weren't any. In what I wrote, I tried to take care not to undermine the work that World Vision is doing around the world. I believe that their work is very valuable, but my aim was to question the underlying concept behind the so called "famine". I realise that fund raising is a difficult issue and they want to differentiate themselves from other charities, but I am uneasy about this way of doing things.
In the past, I have sponsored people in this event, but in common with all sponsored events, I would prefer simply to give a donation to the charity concerned.
Incidentally, while looking at the referrer logs for my site recently, I found a number of my visitors were coming from intranet.worldvision.org.nz - I'd be pleased to hear from you!