The practice of thanksgiving is one of the most important practices of the Christian life. We must offer thanks for the good things we are given, the gift of our life and everything we are given to sustain it. This is a practice that is especially relevant at meal times where we are reminded that our own energy is taken from that of others—plants, animals, or even the human energy that went into growing and processing and preparing our meals. If we are to truly offer thanks for these meals we will come eventually to see that we cannot offer thanks without guilt for everything we eat. How do we offer thanks for chicken soup when the chicken we are eating spent most of its life as a laying hen confined to a small cage? How do we offer thanks for an organic spinach salad when it was grown 3000 miles away and transported with the help of a violent petroleum economy, not to mention harvested by migrant laborers who are paid unjust wages and kept in slave like conditions by an immigration system bent on offering inhospitality?
We cannot properly call these things gifts of God; we must admit that much of what we have and consume are objects that we have obtained through unjust means and an unjust economy. Surely we can give thanks to God for what he has provided, in spite of the injustices of our economy, but we must at the same time mourn the sustaining of our lives—our eating, clothing, housing, and transportation—through an economy of destruction. The practice of actively turning our lives from sin and embodying our mourning for sin is called penance—an ancient practice that needs to be recovered in the lives of Christians seeking to live their lives holistically.
There are many ways we might practice penance—we could collect on our 401(k)s and give the money to the poor to show repentance for our unjust means of income, we could wear only second hand and homemade clothing as a sign of our repentance for clothing ourselves through the exploitation of woman and children in sweatshops—the ideas for penance are as varied as the sins to which we must respond. I would like to offer fasting and abstinence as penitential compliments to the offering of thanksgiving at meals. Fasting is simply eating or drinking nothing, but water (though sometimes fruit juice is consumed during a fast). Abstinence, in this case, is abstaining from eating meat.
What if we simply decided to go hungry rather than eat an unjust meal? What if we made a commitment, like Wendell Berry has, to only eat meat we know to be good? Perhaps we simply fast from food on Fridays as a show of repentance for the injustice of our eating.
This penance is not meant to be a sign of our superiority over others; nor is it a replacement for the grace through which we live. As anyone who has tried to live without sin knows—we cannot escape sin altogether until we are in a world that is freed completely from sin (call it the ecological principal of sin). For instance, I would love to be able to live without the use of electricity, but I do not yet know how to be hospitable without it. If you are reading this you are certainly involved in the same net as I am.
What penance does is to keep me from simply saying, “oh well, so is the world.” By fasting on Friday’s for instance, I am able to say, I know that I eat meals that were grown in unjust ways, but I am going to go hungry today to offer a sign of my desire for conversion from that economy. Penance is a sacramental act of turning my life from a world of sin, something that goes beyond a simple personal prayer, but rather becomes a visible sign of the invisible reality of my turning.