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The Hunger Games: Night at the End of the Tunnel

[There will be spoilers in this post, so if you haven't read the book because you have been waiting on the movie...I would like welcome you to Planet Earth: Home of the French Fry."]

The event of the year is upon us: The Hunger Games.

I’m sure you already have your ticket and you are about to sleep outside the movie theater to make sure you get a great seat, which for this movie is an entirely ironic act…as we will soon see. I read The Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins, long enough ago to have forgotten more than I remember, so by way of reminder, I bought a new book called The Hunger Games and the Gospel (Kindle) by Christian blogger Julie Clawson. She is thoughtful, thorough and quite gifted at connecting the fiction to history and Gospel. I’ll lean pretty heavily on her work here.

So…The Hunger Games is a phenomenon. It has spent 81 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. What this says is: There is something about this story that moves us, that attracts us. So far, my self included, I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t read the whole series (three books). What is it that makes Katniss Everdeen such a universal heroine? Why does the story hook us and keep our attention? And what in the world does The Hunger Games have to do with Christianity and the Gospel? To answer that, I could write a book and Clawson has got me beat so, in this first post I will introduce some themes that will shed light on the above questions, but initially I want to describe the context of Panem and connect that to the Roman world that was Collins’ inspiration as well as the world of Jesus and the Church.

Night At The End Of The Tunnel:
In the nineties, there was a shift in fiction. Perhaps it started in the eighties with Batman: The Dark Night, but either way, entertainment moved from fantasy to reality. There was less “Happily Ever After” and more “The Good Guys Die” kind of thing. There was less “Love Boat” and more “Real World.” Even sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends were comedies that seemed to be drawn right out of the apartment next door. Large audiences became hungry for something more real, something that mirrored the darkness and complexity of life. The Hunger Games falls into this genre. Instead of light, there is night at the end of the tunnel. If you think about it, The Hunger Games doesn’t have a happy ending. Sure the hero lives, but what has changed? The system that created the Hunger Games, the oppressive death machine, The Capitol, remains unaffected — if only temporarily embarrassed. But when empires get their feelings hurt, they choose something to destroy.

This is not a story where a happy ending is the point. On the contrary, The Hunger Games dares to go there. It takes fiction into the realm of non-fiction. Collins’ story escapes from the prison of the page and Katniss holds a mirror up so that we might see things exactly how they are. The world of Panem exists in our world, all around us.

This Is How To Make Peace!
Panem is a world that is supposed to mirror the Roman Empire of the biblical world. This is intentional. If you have made it to the third book, you remember that “Plutarch, the ex-Head Gamemaker turned rebel, explains to Katniss that ‘in the Capitol, all they’ve ever known is Panem et Circenses (Latin for ‘Bread and Circuses‘)’ [†].” In the ancient Roman world, the prime concern was the preservation and survival of the Empire. Rome taxed the empire beyond the city brutally. Not only that, but Rome demanded a high percentage of regional produce. Like the relationship between the Capitol and the Districts, Rome existed like a parasite on the body of the people to whom it promised Pax Romana (“Peace of Rome”).
To make a couple of further connections:

Peace = Plunder or Murder
Roman peace looked like this: A legion of the Roman army would pull up to the gates of your village and the General would approach and say, “Hi everyone, we’re the Roman army! Good news! We have come to bring you peace. On behalf of Caesar, I’m going to give you a choice: you can let us in so that we can take everything from you, your children will become slaves, and your wives will become our wives, and continue to do so for the rest of you existence OR we can just kill you. Totally your choice. No pressure. Peace!” The Roman Army was the “or else” of the Empire…kind of like the Capitol Army.

Bread and Circuses
One of the ways that Caesars kept a firm hand of control was by providing bread and throwing a circus. The Bread and Circus was a means of distracting the people from the pain they felt giving everything to support the Empire, filling their empty bellies with food and their eyes with the games.

A good rule of tyranny, for those of you with high aspirations, is keep people hungry. Hunger controls. If you deprive a man his Lexus, he can drive a BMW. Deprive a home of food and you can’t feed your family. You won’t miss the sound of a Lexus, but you can’t miss the sound of your hungry children. So, when the benevolent Caesar steps in with food, they are not only good, they are a Savior. See how the cycle is created?

Interestingly, in Rome, Tesserae were tokens used to (you guessed it!) trade for food, gain entry into the Gladiator matches, the games, certain inns and some merchants made their own for trade in their own goods. If you visited a god, they had their own tesserae that you would receive just for visiting and could then use to purchase, trade or get what you needed. Pretty cool, huh? No money for bread? Go to the temple, do some idol worship, here have a loaf! This is one of the many things the early church was up against. Remember Jesus, being tempted in the desert? Satan says to the starving Jesus, “since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus replies, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “People won’t live only on bread; (No, they live on whatever the Lord says.) Lk 4:3-4 CEB. Katniss’ resistance is kind of like the second part of this verse, people can go a long way on hope.

The Games in the Roman Empire were like The Hunger Games: real men and women, slaves, fought one another or animals to the death. Criminals, Christians and subversives were tortured, burned, hunted, taunted or merely fought to stay alive in the arena. Jesus was one of those subversives, except he wasn’t thrown into a game, he was thrown onto a cross which became a symbol, like the Mockingjay. A symbol that became hope for the hopeless; for people who knew that the world wasn’t supposed to be like this.

It’s Not Supposed To Be Like This!
Katniss is a hero, not simply because she wins the Games on her own terms, but because she sees the truth behind the Games. She understands the system that turns its back on the humanity of the other districts and willingly and knowingly slaughters the innocent children of those districts. She recognizes the evil of the Capitol and the impossible situation she is in. In spite of this, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Theresa and Joan of Arc, Katniss accepts the responsibility that is thrust upon her (also explored here) because someone has to!

It’s not supposed to be like this! Children are not supposed to be slaughtered for entertainment! Whole societies are not supposed to be held hostage to greater powers. This is the world that Jesus stepped into. He believed the same thing, but unlike Katniss, Jesus had the power to change things forever. Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, a counter-cultural, upside down system where the poor hold the power and the powerful are blind guides. A Kingdom where the slaves are free and the oppressors are enslaved. A Kingdom where God wins and evil is vanquished into nothingness. Jesus described the way it will be, but we aren’t completely there yet…there is always another Capitol.

There is more oppression in the world today than I have ever been aware of: wars, fights, overthrow of governments, chaos, religious fanaticism, child slavery, adult slavery, sweatshops, cheap labor and the list goes on. There is always, it seems a system that hurts someone; someone who oftentimes is making something we need and use all the time. But the problem isn’t always a world away.

On February 26th, seventeen year old Trayvon Martin was shot in his Father’s gated community by an armed neighborhood watchman. Young Trayvon was ‘armed’ with Skittles and Iced Tea and died as a result of a gunman’s alleged fear for his life. Thanks to a law which provides anyone the right to take a life so long as they feel that they are in danger, Martin’s murderer has not even been charged.

It’s not supposed to be like that.

So my question is this: Have you heard about this? Has it broken your heart? Have you justified it behind an ability to shield your feelings about someone you don’t know? Have you ‘moved on’ already?

Chances are you haven’t and that’s great, but it proves a point. We don’t hear people many talking about rebuilding Haiti anymore, or sending support crews to Japan to help in the cleaning and reconstruction after last year’s earthquake and tsunami. We are prone to compassion fatigue, which is to say that we get tired of caring. That’s why The Hunger Games exist. Like in ancient Rome, people would rather be fed and entertained than take the high road to care for, to fight for the orphan and widow [Jas 1:27], to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God [Mic 6:8]. To take a stand, sacrifice and proclaim release to the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [Lk 4:18-19; CEB].”

We look to Jesus. He is the anti-Empire. Jesus is the power that confronts power that oppresses and controls. Jesus is the power that will topple Empires and establish the Kingdom of God on earth. This is what we pray when we say the words, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in [the Kingdom of God] heaven.” Every time you say that prayer you are sayin, “It doesn’t have to be like this.” Every time you say that prayer you are Katniss (or I guess Peeta, sort of) believing that as long as you are faithful, bold and courageous, the Capitol will fall.

How long are you going to wait for good seats to watch this film? More time than you have served those who are less fortunate? Those who need your help? How long did you spend reading the books? More time than you have devoted to engaging wrongs in the city, state, country, world? I’m not suggesting you feel guilty, just aware. How can our choices make a difference?

There’s sooooooooo much more but, that’s enough for now. I’ll write more as there’s a need. Chime in here in the comments below. Let me know what you think. Let me know what your questions are. Let me know what direction to go should I dare address this again.

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Clawson, The Hunger Games and The Gospel, 2012.

  • Geojax

    I really liked the connection to the Lord’s Prayer and the longing to say “It doesn’t have to be like this.”  I think we all fear the power of our voice while at the same time desire to do and say something heroic that will change the tide of tyranny, even if it’s subtle tyranny. For me, it is encouraging to know that someone has led the way in saying “It doesn’t have to be like this,” and that someone is our creator.  We all know that something is broken in this world and Jesus came in and said, “Exactly, I agree.  This is not how I intended things to be.”  That is why it is not that crazy when Jesus says to “love your enemy”.  Really, all he is saying is that I did not create you to be or have enemies so get back to the way I intended this world to be; a place where enemies do not exist.  Seems that he is just encouraging us to return to the original plan.

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  • Loma Kath

    Saw the movie last night, and I’ve heard about the Clawson book. One thing i find interesting in the story is that they lack any connection or sense of something greater than themselves. It’s what makes the story less hopeful for me. Yes, they win, but at such a cost! I agree with your comment that we have moved toward a desire for reality in our stories. And for me this story is about what Peeta says, “I want to die a myself. I don’t want them to change me in there.” in the face of oppression, and secondly about the deep cost of revolution against tyranny. I’m more reminded of Spartacus, albeit with a less tragic ending. But this is human change of power, and it will be necessary to pay that cost over and over. Jesus came into just this kind of world and paid the ultimate cost to bring about lasting change. It’s very different from this story for me, except for exploring the sacrifice involved in change.

    The movie is far more intense than the books. Watching it felt more akin to joining with the capitol and being sucked into watching something we should fight against. I wonder what the conversation is among the thousands? Millions? or teens who see it.

  • http://twitter.com/SmackSmog S OBryan

    I’m reading the book with my son right now so I’ve not read your post (didn’t want to hit a spoiler). Just wanted to mention that there is a Mennonite writer who is writing a companion book about Hunger Games and the Gospels. I thought you might enjoy it. http://www.mennoweekly.org/blog/2012/3/22/hunger-games-and-gospel

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  • http://www.prophetsandpopstars.com prophetsandpopstars

    Cool website! This link didn’t get me to the article. Love me some Menno, though!