The Islamic month of fasting is quickly approaching. It will begin June 28th or 29th depending on the sighting of the moon. The month of fasting is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and is obligatory for all adult Muslims with the exception of those who are ill, traveling, pregnant, breastfeeding or menstruating. I will be on Clove Island for ten days of the fast. During that time I have decided to join my neighbors in fasting. I will eat before sunrise and break the fast each evening with a friend or a neighbor.
As far as I know I am the only one on my team who is choosing to participate in the fast in the same manner as locals. So I wanted to take this opportunity to explain the three reasons why I, a Christian, am joining my Muslim neighbors in their month of fasting.
1. Personal Journey
While serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea, West Africa, I lived in a village that was divided between Malinke Muslims and Kissi Christians. I spent two years in this village and therefore had the opportunity to witness two months of fasting. While other Volunteers chose to fast with their villages, the thought never even crossed my mind. At that time, while I would have considered myself a Christian, my faith was weak and I did not walk with the Lord. Christian fasting was relegated in my mind to Lent, which was something that, as a Protestant, I did not do. If I was not interested in my own religion’s disciplines, why would I participate in another’s?
The month of fasting simply brought me annoyance. I couldn’t get the food I wanted during the daytime; my students would interrupt class to walk to the window and spit (in many cultures they do not believe you should even swallow your spit while fasting); taxi drivers became uber religious and would stop the car to pray. One of the principles of Peace Corps is for Volunteers to integrate into their communities. I rebelled against this in a lot of areas. I was different. I was reminded of how different I was every time I poked my head out of my hut and I was surrounded by children chanting my skin color, “tubabu, tubabu!”. No matter what I did, I would never be like a Guinean villager, so why try? I suffered enough with no electricity, no running water, no cell phone reception, no communication with the outside world. Why would I willingly choose to suffer more by depriving myself of food for absolutely no reward?
In the years since I have left Peace Corps I have changed tremendously. At 28 I am a different person than I was at 22. In coming back to Africa, I worried that I would fall back into some of the same bad habits and bad attitudes. The first night I spent on the islands, I was terrified. It was déjà vu. What was I doing here? I didn’t want to be that miserable person again. Since then I have done everything I can to not make the same mistakes I made in Guinea. I have made a break with who I was and what I did. Choosing to fast is yet another step in my personal journey to be different from the bitter, self-absorbed child that used to live in Guinea.
2. Bridging the Gap
Islanders do not understand Christians. Misconceptions are common. Many believe that we think God had sex with Mary and made a son, Jesus. They see the image of the cross and believe that we pray to the image as an idol that we believe can grant our requests. They are taught that Christians are infidels and believe heresies that will land them in hell if they remain in their error. Unfortunately much of the ex-pat community contributes to our negative reputation. Alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam, is seen frequently in the hands of foreigners who are assumed to be Christians. On Clove Island, culture and religion are synonymous. It is impossible to imagine a place where this is not so. So when islanders watch soap operas from France, the United States and Brazil (“Christian” countries) where the characters lie, cheat, steal, dress immodestly and sleep around, this is connected in their minds to Christians. We come from a godless culture so our religion must also be godless.
I want to show my friends and neighbors that this is not true. I want to make them question beliefs about Christianity they hold to be self-evident.
Mateen Elass, a pastor in Oklahoma, who comes from a Muslim background, says, “Muslims believe that fasting is an essential component during the month of Ramadan, essential to their obedience to God. So they assume anyone who is seeking to be serious about God will show that dedication by fasting as well. Muslims have a hard time understanding how Christians can be serious about wanting to follow God without also fasting during Ramadan. If Muslims see a Christian fasting, they tend to respond with a development of very positive rapport. They say, “Here’s someone who is serious about obeying God as much as we are.” It builds ties with Muslim friends and acquaintances.”
3. Opportunities to Share
For 10 days I will be eating dinner with different friends and neighbors. The month of fasting is a very communal event. Together people suffer; together they celebrate. Each day I will be questioned about what I am doing and why, opening up opportunity after opportunity to share my own beliefs. I will share why my fast is different. I am not trying to gain “points” with God. My desire is to become closer to Him. He loves the people here. If I wish to become closer to God, I will love what he loves. Sharing this time with my neighbors is how I am showing them love.
I believe this approach is biblical. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.”
We see this acted out in his life. In Acts 16:3 Paul had Timothy circumcised in order to not offend the Jews to whom they were ministering. Paul knew circumcision was not necessary. It was a part of the ancient law that had become obsolete with the new covenant that came with Jesus. However, he and Timothy chose to participate in a cultural practice in order to not offend.
We also see Paul purify himself in the temple in Acts 21, a strictly Jewish act. Paul had caused some strife within the new Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem with his ministry. In verses 20-22, the elders tell Paul that they’ve heard rumors that he tells Jews in other nations to abandon their customs. The elders then ask Paul to join in the purification rites of four men who had taken the Nazarite vow and to pay for their expenses and in so doing, show that reports were untrue and Paul still lived by Jewish customs. And he did as the elders suggested. “To those under the law I become like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law).”
I do not believe that God requires fasting. I do not believe that I will gain any points by observing the fast. Just as Paul would say that the law does not save, I would say that the month of fasting does not save. However, in being as “one under the law” the opportunities for conversation will be multiplied ten fold and that is worth an empty stomach for a few days.