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  • Prayer or Protest?The Radical Promise of Voluntary Poverty in the Anti-Nuclear Fast for Life, 1983
  • Kyle Harvey

Fasting, nonviolence, protest, anti‐nuclear, hunger, peace, starvation, nuclear weapons, suicide, Cold War, nuclear arms race, activism, pacifism, religion, social change

While he is lying therePerishing, my good name in the worldIs perishing also. I cannot give way,Because I am King. Because if I gave way,My Nobles would call me a weakling, and it may beThe very throne be shaken.

—William Butler Yeats, The King’s Threshold

A hallmark of twentieth-century religious pacifism in the United States was the experiment with the idea and practice of nonviolence as a means of social and political change. This article argues that as activists pursued change through nonviolent protest, they attempted to embody a spiritual challenge to political policies, using the body itself as a dramatic and often extreme tool of protest. The more dramatic the use of the body, the more complicated the interpretation of nonviolence became. Where fasting was concerned, traditional nonviolence was layered with additional issues of voluntary poverty, biblical self-sacrifice, and the uncertain question of violence. Blurring the boundaries between the private, ascetic ritual of fasting and the public act of a political protest, certain [End Page 95] fasting campaigns challenged accepted notions of nonviolent protest with the confrontational challenge of an open-ended fast. The prospect of the suicide of those involved in open-ended fasting appeared contrary to the steady, reformist practice of traditional nonviolence and further complicated the role of religious ritual in political protest as practiced by American pacifists in the 1970s and 1980s.

This article traces the activism of Charles Gray, a Quaker, whose experimental quest of voluntary poverty in the 1970s and 1980s climaxed in a campaign called the Fast for Life, a 1983 protest intended to halt the nuclear arms race. Gray’s interest in hunger, poverty, Third World solidarity, and the human cost of the nuclear arms race helped him devise a program of action that bore witness to not only the evils of overconsumption and Third World poverty but also the patterns of Western affluence and defense spending that exacerbated those evils. With a core group of fasters, Gray engaged with a contemporary politics of hunger in much the same way as other activists who fasted in protest of a particular goal. However, they also engaged with a longer historic tradition of voluntary poverty, seeking to reject and retreat from modern society as much as they attempted to reform and critique it. By using the extreme spiritual challenge of open-ended fasting as a political protest, Gray and his fellow activists attempted to extend the boundaries of traditional nonviolent pacifism by radicalizing its practice and its potential. Their efforts speak to the significance of smaller campaigns of nonviolent pacifism on the margins of social movements, whose dramatic and radical nature offers an important dimension to the study of fasting and nonviolence and their place within pacifist social movements during the late twentieth century.

As scholars have demonstrated, the expression of nonviolence with communities of pacifists was often characterized by a pursuit of individual change within the context of a larger program for social change.1 Where pacifists engaged in specific political campaigns, they cited the influence of figures such as Gandhi, César Chávez, and Martin Luther King as models of the pure expression of nonviolence.2 Applying and extending the promise of nonviolence as embodied by these figures, pacifists in the postwar United States attempted to combine the most apt expressions of religious-based dissent with the spectacle and symbolism of political protest. Whereas many [End Page 96] pacifists would practice pure nonviolence as a personal witness, others found public outlets for their witness.3 The Plowshares movement is perhaps the most famous of these, as these mostly Catholic activists challenged (and continue to challenge) the state through dramatic acts of civil disobedience.4 However, other communities, campaigns, and individual activists have mounted similar challenges to state power, war, and social ills by combining elements of traditional nonviolent pacifism and extreme acts of protest designed to challenge not only the public...


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