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My Digital Fast for Lent

I’m giving up using digital devices for Lent. I’m doing this at least one day a week during the forty-day Lenten period, rather than giving up food. A lot of Christians don’t eat sweets for Lent, or choose one day a week to fast during the day. They give up food. For me it’s digital devices.

Food is easy to give up, I thought. What I really can’t do without—and what most of my friends and students can’t survive without more than a few moments—is our smart phone. If not the smart phone, we’re on the computer or watching some other LCD screen.

Giving up digital devices for a day, I thought, that would be a real sacrifice. It also would be an interesting experiment, to see what I have been missing in all the time that I have spent staring at the flickering light on my phone or computer screen.

The Christian observance of Lent falls roughly at the same time as the Muslim month of Ramadan this year. Though the contexts of the two customs are vastly different, in both cases, fasts are traditionally part of the deal.

In Ramadan, Muslims are not supposed to eat anything from sun up to sun down. Then there’s iftar, a lovely meal where families gather together to break the fast of the day. If you’re invited to a Muslim home to take part in one of these occasions, I highly recommend it. Like Seder in the Jewish tradition, Diwali for Hindus, and Christmas for Christians, it’s one of those lovely moments in the cycle of a religious year that reminds you of what is meaningful about the traditions.

In Ramadan and Lent, the purpose of giving up food is basically the same. It is to remind you of the sacrifices made by those who came before you in the tradition, and in the fragility of life. You appreciate more what you have when you do without it.

Lent is not a biblical custom. You don’t find it anywhere in the Christian’s New Testament, for instance.  Early Christians began the pattern of preparing for the Holy Week before Easter by fasting. Often forty days were chosen, as a reminder of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness when he was tempted by Satan and rejected him.

Christ’s forty days of fasting was at the beginning of his Ministry, and the Passion Week before Easter was at the end, but no matter, it seemed to justify a period of days in which to prepare for the Easter events. In 325CE at the Council of Nicaea, when so many other doctrinal issues for Christianity were settled, a 40-day pre-Easter fast was officially recognized as a Church tradition.

At first it did not have a special name. In time, however it came to be called Lent for a rather peculiar reason. Since it occurs during the Springtime when the sunlit days are longer, the term for lengthening, the Old English word lencten, became shortened to Lent.   

But fasting was central to the custom. This brings me back to my own efforts at fasting.

When I was a kid, I remember for a time giving up chocolate. I love chocolate, and for this reason, it seemed to be an appropriate sacrifice.

As I got older, however, I began to question the idea of giving up particular foods as a worthy effort in observing the fast. In fact, it seemed to me that modern people have way too much food anyway and giving up some is simply a smart health decision.

To really take something crucial to sacrifice, I reasoned, you have to look at what compels your time and energy the most. For some people it is sex. For others, and maybe for the same people, it is the digital screen.

I knew I could not last for a full forty days with no recourse to the phone. I questioned even my ability to last more than a few minutes.

But I became determined to try. I decided to take the easiest route, and designate one day in the week, from sun up to sun down, as the day for my digital fast.

That day, logically, was Sunday. Not only is it supposed to be a day of rest, biblically designated for that purpose. But also it is a day of relatively low information demands. In my case, it was a slow day in any event, since I would usually go to church in the mornings, and afterwards pick up the Sunday New York Times which could easily consume the rest of the day, if not much of the rest of the week, with the crossword puzzle alone.

So I chose Sunday as my day of digital fast. I’m now mid-way through Lent, and so far, surprisingly I have mostly kept my vow. Yes, there were a few moments when I was expecting an important call or I needed to check to see if someone had replied to my email. But mostly I kept hands free. I would wait until the last rays of sun dipped behind the mountains to leap towards my computer and my phone to restore communications with the known world.

But what I have gained in relinquishing these absorbing, demanding instruments is considerable. I have discovered the power of printed words on paper, the magic of long walks on the beach or on paths through the woods, and the discoveries of human interaction when you actually talk with someone rather than to read their cryptic text messages that flutter through space like old  telegraphs.

People exist, I found. And so does nature, and knowledge that is not on a screen. I vowed to keep my fast through Lent. But I may keep at it for a while, not just for sacrifice, but for the restoration of the human soul.

Martyrdom of Saint Alexei

            It might seem sacrilegious to think of Alexei Navalny as a saint, or his likely murder at the hands of Putin to be martyrdom. But hear me out.

            The word “saint” comes from the Latin sanctus, evolving in old French to sacrer, meaning “to make sacred.” The way one became sacred originally was through sacrifice—another word with roots in sanctus—giving up oneself.

            In the new Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, the elegant travertine walls of the modern structure are draped with woven tapestries depicting the saints. There is quite a procession of them. They begin with the saints of the New Testament, Mathew, Mark and Luke, and then Peter, and then a whole line of medieval saints.

            Towards the end are more recent saintly figures, including Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul. But then the very last tapestries portray some surprising figures. There is a young Afro-American guy in jeans and tennis shoes. Nearby is an Asian girl in a comfortable skirt. There are some kids in shorts.

            All of them saints, even the ones that we didn’t expect. They sanctified themselves with their lives.

            In the early history of sainthood, one of the most certain paths to beatification was martyrdom. The term “martyr” come from the Greek martur, which means “witness.” Those who witness to their faith to the extent that they would rather die than renounce it are the prime exemplars of martyrdom.

            This leads us back to Navalny. There is no question that this definition of martyrdom fits his remarkably brave—some would say foolhardy—stance. The very fact that he would persist in returning to Russia, to the land controlled by the same person, presumably, who had shortly before tried to poison him, is amazing. Few of us would risk such a thing.

            Navalny’s hope was that he would be able to follow the path of his hero, Nelson Mandela, who spent decades rotting in the South African prison on Robben Island before the political winds shifted. When Mandela was finally released, he was hailed as a hero and made the first President of the post-apartheid country.

            That was Navalny’s hope. Though he was fully aware of the likelihood that it would not end like that, that it would end the way it did. Sooner or later, Putin would finish the job.

            Yet he persisted in his witness, even to his martyred death. But was he a saint?

            In Christianity, the exemplar of sainthood is Jesus Christ, who according to Christian belief, gave himself to save the world. That is, his martyrdom was not a selfish act, to valorize himself, but in some way to ennoble everyone.

            It is a singularly odd way to live, this stance of trying to live a life where the virtuousness of the cause rises above one’s personal interests, even one’s own personal security. Martin Luther King Jr. had it. Gandhi had it. And so did Navalny.

            In Saints and Virtues, a book on the comparative study of sainthood that came out of a ten-year Berkeley-Harvard project on Comparative Religion, for which I was co-director, we considered the hallmarks of sainthood. In all traditions where saints abounded, including Sufi Islam and Bhakti Hinduism as well as Christianity, there was something peculiar about those people that we consider saints.

            They were “sublimely wacky,” we concluded. We meant that in a nice way, to describe people who lived unconventional lives for the sake of their understanding of truth. We are not really meant to be like them—they are not exemplars—since they are so unusual. And those around them who for most people are the ones you want to protect, are often abandoned.

            Gandhi was a horrible father, and not a very good husband. ML King had imperfections of his own. And Navalny has left his teenage son and his college-aged daughter on their own, along with their mother, whom he also abandoned in his imprisonment and now in his death. Yet she had taken up his mantle of leadership.

            We cannot all be saints. But thank God there are such beings on the face of the earth. We are all better for having lived in a world touched by them, by those like Saint Alexei.

ISIS is Not Over


The astounding announcement by President Trump that the US will be pulling all of its troops out of Syria is remarkable for several reasons. The very fact that it was issued on Twitter opens up the question of whether it was a real Presidential order. Since the Pentagon appears not to have been consulted in advance they do not know how to proceed—which troops will be returning when, for instance. And will some remain?

A more basic question is whether the announced basis for the decision is true. Has ISIS been demolished, as Trump claimed? The implication of his statement is that the war is over and all will be at peace.

That assumption is faulty for several reasons. One is that ISIS has not been completely defeated. About 20,000 active militants remain throughout Syria and Iraq, with 2500 in and around the city of Deir ez Zor near the Syria-Iraq border. Moreover, ISIS guerilla attacks continue, even in Raqqa and Mosul, where the cities are supposed to have been liberated – a task accomplished in part through massive destruction of large portions of both cities. In the Sunni heartland of Iraq, ISIS is restoring a foothold in Fallujah and Ramadi.

The forces that continue to fight ISIS are the ones that were instrumental in their defeat in the 95% of the area that ISIS once controlled. These fighters are Kurds from both Syria and Iraq, backed by US troops and air support. It is certain that without US military backing the Kurds would not be effective in continuing to contain the last elements of ISIS. Moreover, without US military support the Kurds themselves would be in serious trouble from the Syrian and Turkish governments.

The Syrian government is suspicious of the Kurds, their largest ethnic minority, since they are regarded as separatist, seeking their own semi-autonomous region as the Kurds in Iraq have succeeded in doing in the northern Iraqi province of Kurdistan. So even though the Syrian government acknowledges the role that Kurdish troops played in defeating ISIS, they have no intention of supporting them further.

Turkey feels even more strongly about the Kurds. The Turkish autocratic regime headed by Recep Erdogan regards Kurds as troublemakers and worse. Within Turkey, the Kurdish minority is regarded as separatist and inclined to terrorism. The Kurds in Syria are seen as their allies, and therefore Erdogan’s enemies. He would love to have an excuse to get rid of them.

It is probably not a coincidence that Trump’s announcement about pulling US troops out of Syria came shortly after conversations that he had with Erdogan. The Turkish autocrat is said to have requested Trump to withdraw the US troops from Syria—a de facto withdrawal of US support for the Kurds—which would allow Erdogan a free hand to control the Kurds along the Turkish-Syrian border. One interpretation of Trump’s willingness to please Erdogan is that he wants to soften the Turkish stand against Saudi Arabia after Turkey exposed the bloody role of the Saudi ruler Mohammed ben Salman in the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. According to this interpretation, Trump would be doing Turkey a favor, and in turn would take a softer stand against Salman.

By pulling US troops out of Syria Trump would also be doing a favor to Russia, which would become even more dominant in the region. Perhaps inadvertently he would be doing a favor to Iran, which with Russia’s support would extend its sphere of influence in an arc from Iran through Iraq to Syria.

Hence pulling US troops out would hardly lead to peace, but rather an increased instability in the region. A future US President might have to commit even more troops to the region to undo this dangerous path towards instability. And one of the winners in the precipitous Trump action would be ISIS itself, for without the constant fear of Kurdish intervention, it would be free to regroup and reassert its influence in Syria and Iraq.