This reflection is from my friend and teammate Kim. She too is fasting. I have learned a lot from Kim and I know I will continue to do so. She is a great writer and I am so often moved by her words. I think you will be too….
Today thirty of us who are fasting gathered on the steps of the Journalists Syndicate to issue a statement about the fast. It was a beautiful gathering. We held signs asking for the siege of Gaza to be lifted, read the statement in several languages (see http://wwwmtingaza.blogspot.com the the text), and then listened as some of the hunger strikers, made personal statements. Among us were several veteran peacemakers from the states, including John Dear, SJ, Fr. Louie Vitale, and Martha Hennessy, granddaughter of Dorothy Day. There were also several fasters from other countries.
The tone of this gathering was very calm and peaceful as the names of Gandhi, Jesus, and Dorothy Day were invoked. Although the weather here this week has been very pleasant, today the sun shone with a special intensity and it was pure gift to simply sit in the sun among our fellow fasters.
I struck up a conversation with a faster from California who had attended our Sabeel conference in Detroit last year. She is a Quaker and we had a good discussion about the different ways in which people understand fasting. For example, many of the fasters are clear that for them this is a political hunger strike and not a spiritual fast. This is as it should be; people need to have the integrity to act out of their own conscience and convictions. For others, fasting is a way of acknowledging complicity and is undertaken as an act of contrition. For others, it is a way of uniting personal suffering with the suffering of the world. For some of the hunger strikers, it is a strong political statement capable of arousing the drowsy conscience of humanity.
For me, fasting has always been a way of physically experiencing the hunger for peace, justice, and human rights that so many in the world experience. My physical hunger pangs are nothing compared to the pain of living under oppression. If I can share in some very small way in this hunger for a better world, then I am humbled to fast from my position of first world privilege as a small act of solidarity with those who have been fasting all their lives. And who has been fasting more than the people of Gaza? Who has experienced more hunger? The hunger for freedom of movement, the hunger to live without being bombed, the hunger to live securely in one’s own home, the hunger for freedom. The hunger to be heard in a world that chooses not to listen. //
Although this was scheduled to be a very short press conference and thirty hungry people sitting on steps are hardly a threat, the riot police were called and formed a ring around the gathering. Usually, regular police come out first here, but this time, they started with the riot police who came out with shields and batons. Around the corner, two large vans filled with policemen were waiting to join the scene but, ultimately, were never used. As the final statements were being made, one of the police officers started collecting and stacking the shields held by the officers, leaving them with clubs in their hands. Obviously shields were not deemed necessary in confronting 30 fasters, including some in their 70’s and 80’s and several wearing white scarves as a symbol of satyagraha.
It may or may not be a coincidence, but this excessive show of force was employed after one of the hunger strikers made a statement in which he referred to the oppression here and then concluded by saying “Free Gaza and free Egypt.” Although I question the wisdom of this statement in the context of our gathering, it, perhaps, helped hasten the arrival of the riot police. Personally, I think it was a careless statement made from a position of privilege without regarding the welfare of Egyptians who should be the ones to issue that call themselves if they desire and not someone from another country. At any rate, even if this comment had not been made, I think it is safe to say that wherever two or more are gathered here there will be listeners and police and that the show of force was undoubtedly inevitable.
The press conference ended with an hour and the police officers never used their clubs. I have to say, however, that I believe many of them are conflicted and would find it difficult to follow orders to beat us. In our experience here, the police are generally young men who often give us the thumbs up, greet us, and laugh easily when their superiors are not looking on. But how does that translate in a culture of fear predicated on obedience to the authorities? //
I think back to our morning at the embassy earlier this week, where the universal mantra of “just following orders” was invoked. Were I one of these young police officers, I don’t know that I would possess the internal strength to resist orders, knowing full well the consequences for me and my loved ones. What a stranglehold authoritarianism places on the human spirit! How it is meticulously orchestrated to stifle the best of what makes us human! It is so easy to be an armchair analyst of these things from the comfort of an American academy. To say that we ourselves would never follow orders. And yet . . . There is a malevolent spirit to this kind of manipulation of human autonomy that is more powerful than we generally acknowledge. I know that I cannot claim any kind of moral superiority – I sense we have done little more that touch the underbelly of our species and the vile things of which we are capable. Intimidation, threats, torture. What to say? Perhaps there is nothing to say. Ultimately, I feel compassion for these young men.
Before we left the press conference, Dorothy very slowly and consciously walked in front of the police officers, gazing into the eyes of each. Very, very powerful and very much in the spirit of our fast. To acknowledge the humanity of all. The divine spark in each person – even the snarling brute who is himself ensnared in a system that militates against all that is free. We have noted in our time here, that we experience far more joy in Palestine. More music, more laughter, more long hours drinking coffee and sharing stories, more human spirit. There is a different kind of occupation here.