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Ash Wednesday Is For Everyone

Catholics have Lent as a yearly remedy to our all-you-can-eat attitudes, one worth sharing with everyone else. If the call to "repent and believe in the gospel" isn't your speed, how about, "Stop eating the world."
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"Eat the world" is the slogan of the food court at a high-end Magnificent Mile mall in Chicago -- and it delivers. From sushi to stir fry, pasta to pancakes, all that stands between an eater and a defenseless world is the cash to pay for it.

"Eat the world" could be applied well beyond the eateries of our capitals of consumption; shopping malls are merely symbols of our insatiable hunger to gobble up the earth. Whether it's the breakneck pace at which we're torching the planet's stored carbon, the catastrophic deforestation of the planet to grow plants for food and fuel, or the mounds of garbage that pile up the world over, consumption truly is the American way and becoming the global one as well.

I've always thought of fasting as a practice everyone in the rich world, even if you don't believe in God or practice religion (and plenty of people fast without those motivations). On one level it is a way to enter the lives of the truly poor: What must it be like to live in Haiti even weeks after that earthquake and still be scrambling for a bit of food for you and your family? They could live for a week on what gets wasted at the food court in an hour. Maybe a little taste of hunger might help us open our checkbooks a little more widely.

Of course I could stop eating for a week and never come close to the terror of truly not knowing where my or my family's next meal will come from -- or if it will come at all. Between my bank account and the restaurants within a block of my home, a full belly is never far away.

But I still think it's worth it to fast -- at least to stop eating meat for 40 days. After all, the natural world has been pushed to perpetual fragility under the strain of so many hungry human mouths, especially now that everyone in the world wants to eat like an American. Soil is exhausted and eroded, fisheries have collapsed, water that can never be replaced is being tapped to grow crops in deserts. Like so many fields chewed to nubs by too many cattle, nature is barely able to recover from our feeding. We human beings are beginning to put locusts to shame. Maybe that's why ancient Christians (and many Orthodox today) keep a "real" Lenten fast: No meat, dairy, or eggs -- nothing derived from animals (including fish) for a full 40 days. (They skip oil and wine, too!)

Abstaining for so long would not only reveal just how dependent we are on our fellow creatures -- and the cost in grain, water, and energy of producing so much animal protein -- it would also force us to explore new, creative options of getting the nutrition we need. (Quinoa, anyone?) We may even find at Easter (or whenever you end your fast) that our tastes have changed into something more sustainable, a diet that would leave enough to feed the rest of hungry humanity and maybe give the earth a break too.

One ancient image of Lent from the Bible is Noah and the animals in the ark. Half in jest, a friend of mine once wrote of it, "What if [someone] had a sudden urge for a hamburger? It would have meant the end of cattle, forever."

It's time we remembered the truth of that ancient story: We earthly creatures are in this together, floating on a fragile, watery ark in a vast wasteland that extends to infinity. Though the planet and the life it sustains have incredible resilience, if we human beings are not careful, there may come a day when we have finally used up what has been entrusted to us. That's true whether you keep Lent as a Christian or love the earth and everything on it, whether something created it or not.

Catholics (and Christians in general) have Lent as a yearly remedy to our all-you-can-eat attitudes, one worth sharing with everyone else. So if the Christian call to "repent and believe in the gospel" isn't your speed, how about: "Stop eating the world."