Sometimes things get so bad that you really don't know what to say or do. When that happens, it's a good time to fast and pray. Now, it's always a good time for fasting and praying -- especially during Lent, which begins this week. But sometimes, the practices of fasting and prayer feel more urgent -- which is how things feel to me right now.
I believe our nation is in deep trouble. And it appears most Americans also feel that way, with a large majority being very unhappy with the direction of their country. Long-time senators are leaving public office, naming the dysfunction of a system where politics has replaced getting anything done, and where constant campaigning has replaced any commitment to find solutions to our most pressing problems. Everything in Washington now is about winning or losing the next election, not about working together to serve the people who elected you. Veteran members of Congress tell me that while their legislative bodies have always been far from perfect, the atmosphere on Capitol Hill is now more vitriolic and toxic than anyone can remember, with every disagreement becoming an attack on an opponent's character or patriotism.
Health insurance is still a critical need for the tens of millions of Americans who don't have it; but the politicians in Washington can't get health-care reform done. Comprehensive immigration reform is a crying issue of social justice for millions of our most poor and vulnerable families; but it may not even come up in Congress this session, for fear of unleashing a demagoguery that would make the battle over health care look tame. Enormous debts and deficits keep piling up, and a bipartisan commission to try to solve the deficit threat to future generations was just rejected -- because it was bipartisan.
The most pressing issue on Main Street, America, is jobs, but the focus on Wall Street is billions of dollars in bonuses being paid to top bank executives. The risky and greedy behavior of a handful of huge Wall Street banks brought on the financial crisis that led to this deep recession. Then they used taxpayer bailout money to make themselves rich again, and are now passing out the shameful rewards to their top executives while one of every two workers in my hometown of Detroit is looking for a job. And it looks like the big banks are going to get away with it; they will pay enough money in campaign contributions to members of Congress to prevent themselves from being regulated for the common good.
Then there are those endless wars, with endless casualties and endless time frames. Both parties and successive White Houses have become trapped into a primarily military response to the real threats of terrorism. So here is the metric of success: Are we killing more terrorists than the number of new ones who are being recruited? We all know the answer to that is no, and that we are losing ground every day; but nobody in Washington is allowed to ask what would be the best policies to keep more people from becoming terrorists in the first place. The math of terrorism is against us.
In response to all these deep and deepening troubles, I find it very difficult to really know what to say or do, except to continue to struggle against all the bad things that are happening. How do we clarify the issues? How do we offer an alternative vision? How do we change the direction of our country, which is leading us to more confusion, pain, and suffering? How do we get political leaders (and even religious leaders) on opposite sides of the partisan aisle to really talk to one another? How do we find a more civil and moral tone for our national discourse? In seeking answers to those and other more personal questions, I have decided to fast and pray.
Fasting is intended to cleanse the body, clear the mind, create some time and space, nourish the spirit, and focus the heart. Prayer is for confession, repentance, turning back to God, and asking for both discernment and courage.
During the first Gulf War in 1991, I experienced similar feelings and decided to fast only on liquids for the forty days of Lent. Though strenuous, that fast brought clarity, focus, and direction for me. Of course, Jesus taught us not to fast to impress others (Matthew 6:16-18), and each of us must privately discern our motivations for such an undertaking. But hunger strikes and public fasting have served as powerful and prophetic witnesses in spiritually-based social movements throughout history, and fasting with others can provide much-needed encouragement and accountability.
This time, my wife Joy and I have decided to do a "Daniel Fast," a tradition stemming from that biblical character's 21-day fast -- eating only fruits and vegetables with no meat, dairy, grains or starch, coffee, tea, or alcohol. Again, it promises to be rigorous, but with promised benefits for our bodies, minds, and souls. And of course, fasting is intended to create more space for new and deeper disciplines of prayer during the season of Lent, which we will also enter into.
I have also decided to invite other religious leaders and clergy, students and young people, and other people of faith (or no faith) who also feel so led, to fast for clarity and direction in this Lenten season, hoping that we can support one another and perhaps find some common discernment about the way forward. Together we might fast and pray for wisdom, truth, and love at this moment of national and global crisis. If you feel the same kind of need, lament, and emptiness I do, I humbly invite you to fast and pray in your own ways, with disciplines appropriate for your own life and situation. This is not a campaign; it is a prayerful fast inviting all who feel called to such an action.
There are times when we come to the end of our own resources and must throw ourselves on God -- which is really always our true spiritual state, despite the illusions of our own self-sufficiency. And it is the very turning away from our own devices, opinions, and strength -- and turning to God once again -- that is the best way back to finding ourselves, our voices, and our missions. That is my prayer for us all this Lent.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, CEO of Sojourners and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.