By Sam O. Doku, PhD
Earlier in the week, twenty-five-year-old graduate student of the University of Missouri, Jonathan Butler revolutionized fasting as a form of protest, couched in long suffering, to achieve one’s objective.
Butler ended his week-long fasting when University of Missouri President, Tim Wolfe, decided to step down in the sanctimonious name of peace to enable the University to mend and move on after days of demonstration against racism and taunts enshrined in white supremacist idealism.
Wolfe was forced to resign after appeals to him to act on racist remarks directed against blacks on campus went unheeded. Butler’s fasting on its own was no news, but as soon as the football team of the University, led by the head coach, Gary Pinkel decided to support Butler by boycotting training and matches until Wolfe resigned, it received the attention of mainstream media.
Indeed, Butler is not the first to fast for attention on issues emanating from violation of the civil rights of blacks. Dr. Martin King, Jr. and his revolutionary guard of civil rights activists fasted and were even incarcerated in pursuit thereof. Jesus Christ Himself fasted to get God’s attention as a way of teaching humanity the salience of fasting in pursuit of righteousness.
In fact, history is replete with individuals and groups fasting for just causes, be it for independence, freedom, or for the right to vote. I remember the forty-day fasting of Bobby Sands, demanding independence for Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Eventually, Sands died from his fasting, but his act has immortalized his name.
In terms of sports, they have also been used as a form of protest to warrant action for right actions and just causes. For example, during the apogee moments of apartheid, many African nations boycotted the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976 in protest against the segregation of blacks in South Africa.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter convinced the U.S. Olympic Committee to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest against Soviet aggression. In the postmodern era, black civil rights activists, Dick Gregory and Joe Madison have all fasted against injustice being paraded as justice.
But none of these moves had a more dramatic impact than the mélange of fasting and sports that was effectively applied at the University of Missouri.
Butler’s fasting is a vivid exemplification of the “Black Lives Matter” Movement refashioned, in the words of Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, in Nikki Giovanni’s poem “The Great Pax White,” a poem whose thematic framework is peace, derived from the oratory of the creator of Kwanzaa, Dr. Maulana Karenga.
“The Great White Pax” characterizes Jesus Christ as a black man and traces his origins Nazareth to Egypt, where God directed Joseph to take him to prevent his being killed. In a rhetorical scream for attention, the persona cries out, “CAN I GET A WITNESS? WITNESS? WITNESS?/He wanted to know/And peter asked who is that dude?/Who is that black dude?/Looks like a troublemaker to me.”
Butler’s selfless devotion to black dignity resulting in the resignation of Wolfe is seen in some Conservative circles as engendering trouble to the extent that Republican Presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, questioned the wisdom and fortitude of Wolfe as a university president.
However, to many civil rights activists, Butler’s individuality is couched in the proverbial unsettling soul of black activism that propelled black leaders like Frederick Douglass and King to keep protesting against injustice until justice starts cascading down like a river flowing downstream.
Grounding his sermon in Matthew Chapters 10 and 15, Dr. Butts emphasized the importance of HBCUs in the lives of blacks, noting that they are the Tigris and Euphrates of education and intellectual acumen for black folk in America, just as Christ is the Tigris and Euphrates of humanity’s redemption. He also complained about perennial under-funding of HBCUs in attempts to curtail their longevity.
Dr. Butts reiterated the existential significance of the black church on the American religious landscape, observing that black churches came into being because they had to be. As black churches, “we have to speak to the needs of our people. . . .Black churches are as important today as they were at their genesis.”
Rev. Butts called on blacks, especially Africans, to refrain from tribalism because black people are discriminated against not because they are from the Caribbean or Mississippi; they are discriminated against because they are black.
Dr. Butts also touched on the dignified context into which Dr. Karenga placed black subjectivity.
In the words of Karenga, “blackness is sacred and divine; blackness is duty and responsibility,” so Dr. Butts challenged young black students to take up the mantle and go to under-served black communities to serve the least of the least in the same fashion as Christ did because there is dignity in service.
Dean of the Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, Dr. Bernard Richardson presided. Like the Prophet Jeremiah, Dean Richardson warned that neglecting those who are in need is neglecting God. “You can’t love God if you don’t love your neighbor,” Dr. Richardson admonished in his opening prayer.