Theologian James Alison joined the Voices of Peace Talk Radio (formerly called Playing for Keeps) on May 4, 2012 to explore how The Hunger Games and chapter 7 of the Old Testament book of Joshua have something very important in common: a lottery in which the winners get to die for the sake of the community. Many people joined Adam and Bob in the discussion with James to explore how lotteries are used as violent tools for peace.
Does the Hunger Games offer a Christian ethic in confronting the violence of our world? In this video, Adam argues that while The Hunger Games series warns us about running our lives by the fear of death and where that fear could lead us – into violent annihilation. The Hunger Games offers that warning, but doesn’t offer an alternative way to confront violence. Instead of looking to Katniss as our model, Adam claims we should look to Perpetua, a 3rd century Roman woman who, like Katniss, was forced into an arena of violence, but Perpetua overcame her fear of death and chose to respond in a different way. The difference between them is the difference between destruction and the hope for a better world.
The Hunger Games Blog Series – Table of Contents
My hatred of the Capitol has not lessened my hatred of my competitors in the least. – Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games, 238
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. – Jesus, Matthew 5:44
I value the loving self-sacrifice that we find in the first book of The Hunger Games series. There are two beautiful moments in the book that I think are worth exploring. The first moment comes at the reaping. All of District 12 has assembled to see who will be their tributes in the Hunger Games. Primrose Everdeen (Katniss’s sister) was randomly chosen as a tribute in the Hunger Games. After Primrose’s name was called, Katniss ran to the stage to take her sister’s place as a tribute. Katniss sacrificed her life so that her sister could live. It’s a touching moment of sacrificial love that moves the whole crowd (24).
Peeta provides the second example of self-sacrifice. When Katniss was just 11 years old, her father died in a mine accident. After her father’s death, she became the provider for her family. Her mother and sister were at risk of starving to death unless Katniss could provide food for them. Katniss did her best, but one evening she headed home without any food. She passed by some houses and looked in their trash bins for rotted vegetables or bones, “something no one but [her] family was desperate enough to eat” (29). Unfortunately, the bins were empty, but she soon passed by the baker’s house, where she could smell the aroma of fresh bread. She looked desperately for food in the baker’s trash bins, but nothing was there. The baker’s wife ran outside, scolded Katniss, and threatened to call the “Peacekeepers” (the police). Katniss felt hopeless and thought, “let me die right here” (30). But Peeta intentionally burned two loaves of bread so he could give them to Katniss. He took a beating from his mother for burning the bread, who then yelled at him, “Feed it to the pig, you stupid creature. Why not? No one decent will buy burned bread!” As Peeta walked to the pig, he looked in Katniss’s direction and threw the bread toward her. “Why would he have done it?” Katniss wondered. “He didn’t even know me. Still, just throwing me bread was an enormous kindness that would have surely resulted in a beating if discovered. I couldn’t explain his actions” (32-33). We discover later in the book that Peeta “had a crush on [Katniss] ever since [he] could remember” and that he had the affectionate feelings for Katniss before she even knew he was alive (130).
Katniss and Peeta provide us with wonderful acts of love and self-sacrifice that took tremendous amounts of courage. I admire these fictional characters for that, but I don’t want to confuse their self-sacrifice with the self-sacrifice of Jesus. Katniss and Peeta sacrifice themselves for people they already felt affection for and loved. Indeed, that’s a wonderful thing, but Jesus took sacrificial love a step further. He told his followers that they should treat their enemies in ways of love and self-sacrifice, too. He told them,
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. – (Matthew 5:44)
The Hunger Games is a brilliant book and I look forward to exploring the other two books in the series. This fictional account of Panem has a lot to teach us about the dynamics of human violence. But it doesn’t provide the solution to the problem of violence, which is a universal love that includes even our enemies.
Today is Good Friday. I often wonder why the day that Jesus died at the hands of the Roman and religious authorities is called “Good.” I’m convinced it’s because that on Good Friday Jesus revealed the only way to subvert the satanic mechanism of violence. (See part 4 of this series for more on that.) One way that Rome kept the “peace” was through the violent crucifixion of anyone who was deemed a threat to Rome. Jesus stood up to Roman violence by offering another way of life. He called it the Kingdom of God. It’s a way of life that leads to nonviolence, love, and forgiveness. Why would Rome see this as a threat? Because it challenged their violent ways of keeping peace. So they crucified him. This is where Christians talk about atonement. There is an angry, wrathful divinity that demands blood here, but it’s not God – it’s humans. Instead of praying for vengeance, which would only perpetuate the satanic mechanism, Jesus, the One who represents God, prayed words of forgiveness. As he hung from the cross, Jesus forgave those who killed him. “Father,” he said, “forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
In a few days we will celebrate Easter and the resurrection. After his death, Jesus came back to his followers. The importance of the resurrection is that Jesus offers peace to those who betrayed him. This is how God works. God’s peace does not come in uniting in violence against another. The Hunger Games reveals that’s how humans often create peace. Jesus reveals that God is not out to get anyone; that God doesn’t need victims to make peace. On the cross and in the resurrection, Jesus defeated the satanic mechanism by offering us a new way of creating community that’s not based on the violent death of another, but based on a community and a peace that comes through sacrificial love and forgiveness that embraces even, no, especially, those we call our enemies.
The desire to love in the way that Jesus loved is the hope for the future of our world.
The Hunger Games Blog – Table of Contents
I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not. – Peeta, The Hunger Games, 141.
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146.
In spiritual terms, the Capitol in The Hunger Games is symbolic of the satanic mechanism. Here’s why – the satanic mechanism is based on violence, but it’s a violence that leads to a feeling of peace. As I discussed in part 3 of this series, the Capitol desires peace, and achieves a semblance of peace through the violence of the Hunger Games. The citizens of the Capitol unite in their shared desire for the Games, as they happily watch 24 teenagers fight to a bloody death (The Hunger Games, pg 141). Of course, the 24 tributes want to survive the Games, but survival cannot be shared – the Capitol sees to it that only one tribute can survive – so they must compete to the death. It is indeed a satanic, evil, monstrous event.
And, of course, we should fight against such satanic, evil, monstrous events in our world. But fighting evil can be very dangerous because when use the same violent methods as our enemy we risk becoming just like them. The Hunger Games is explicit about this danger to our identity.
Peeta struggles most profoundly with the dangers of fighting the evil of the Hunger Games. Peeta tells Katniss that he wants to fight back against the Capitol, but he also wants to maintain his identity (142). He worries that fighting against the Capitol might change him into a monster. Katniss then asks the key question, “Do you mean you won’t kill anyone?” (142) Peeta responds
No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to … to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.
Katniss responds very practically by telling Peeta to not worry about his identity and just worry “[a]bout staying alive” (142).
This question of identity, violence, and survival is the critical issue of The Hunger Games, and the reason the series is so powerful is that it is the critical issue facing humanity. Like the characters in these novels, we have a fear of death, and we would rather put someone else in the place of death than go through it ourselves. But I think Peeta is on to something very important. In using violent methods to subvert evil, do we become evil ourselves? Just like everyone else who the Capitol throws into the Games, Peeta kills (162) and Katniss kills. Katniss explicitly attempts to subvert the Capitol through revenge (48, 236-7). Which brings up a question – in all of this violence and revenge, do Katniss and Peeta become, as Nietzsche warned, the very monsters they try to defeat?
Near the end of the first book, we discover that the Gamemakers have resurrected the 21 murdered tributes and turned them into “mutations” (333). They are wolf-like monsters that have the human quality of each of the 21 tributes. These human-monsters have one satanic desire that unites them, and that is to kill the remaining tributes.
Now, you may claim that Katniss and Peeta avoided becoming monsters. And, if you want to be very literal about it, you’d be right. But Cato, the other surviving tribute, didn’t literally become a monster, but throughout the book he is portrayed in violently monstrous ways. He’s the one who wanted to find Katniss and kill her in his own way without anyone interfering (217).
In the end of the first book, Katniss and Peeta are the last remaining tributes. It is true that they find a way to avoid killing each other. But their strategy for survival is based on death. They subvert the Capitol’s violence through their own violence, their potential double suicide.
Do Peeta and Katniss avoid becoming monsters? If monsters use violence to achieve their goal, then they have indeed become monsters. They have become the monstrous double of the Capitol. This monstrous doubling of two adversaries through violence is a major theme of The Hunger Games series, and we will explore more as we move into the next two books.
But before we do that, we have one more topic to explore in this first book. It is the possibility of an alternative way of subverting evil. In fact, it’s the only way to subvert evil and avoid the apocalyptic future of The Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games Blog – Table of Contents
I recently came across a controversial statement about peace that I’d like to discuss with you. Here it is – our desire for peace actually makes us violent. (See Rene Girard’s book Battling to the End, especially page 44.) Sounds counter-intuitive, huh? I mean, if everyone desired peace, wouldn’t the world be a more peaceful place? Maybe not. The Hunger Games offers us a way to understand this idea
I don’t know about you, but it’s easy for me to hate the Capitol of Panem. It keeps the districts down through oppression and violence – ultimately through the violence of the annual sacrifice of teenagers called the Hunger Games. But here’s the thing about the Capitol – it desires peace and it creates a sense of peace and order in the Capitol by uniting through violence against the districts. The Capitol thinks that the districts are a threat to peace, so the Capitol uses violence as a method to subdue the districts. About 74 years before the events in The Hunger Games, we are told that the districts rebelled against the Capitol. Katniss, the main character of the novels, narrates that this rebellion created
… the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts against the Capitol. Twelve were defeated, the thirteenth obliterated. The Treaty of Treason gave us the new laws to guarantee peace and, as our yearly reminder that the dark days must never be repeater, it gave us the Hunger Games. (18)
It is the Capitol’s desire for peace that fosters the violence and oppression of the Hunger Games – because the Capitol thinks the Districts are a threat to peace. Indeed, the Capitol believes the Districts are barbaric, but it never questions its own violence as barbaric. (See page 74.) Indeed, in its use of violence to create peace, the Capitol believes itself to be unquestionably good. (84) Of course, you and I can easily question the “goodness” of the capitol because we know its sense of peace comes at the expense of the districts, whose citizens have to deal with the realities of violence and oppression every day.
Again, it’s easy for us to hate the Capitol. But here’s the sad truth about us humans. We’ve always used violence as a method to achieve peace. There’s a bit of the Capitol in all of us because violence does give us a sense of peace as it unites us against a common enemy. We all want peace, and we always tend to see another as an obstacle to that peace. So, we must subdue or destroy the other to achieve our desired peace. We see this not just in The Hunger Games, but we see it throughout human history. For example, the Pax Romana (or Peace of Rome) was created through the use of violence to subdue those that Rome believed threatened their peace. The Aztecs also used violence that created a sense of unity against an enemy. (See Father Robert Barron’s excellent video on The Hunger Games by clicking here.) Unfortunately, this method of achieving peace through violence remains with us today. In a desire for peace, the United States wages war against a common enemy. In an article called “The Bad Apple,” peace journalist Bob Koehler quoted a veteran of the war in Iraq,
The military turned hadji into a disempowering word. My sergeant major said, ‘The hadji is an obstacle. Get him out of the way.’ Denying a person their name gave us permission to separate ourselves from the people of Iraq. Thus, when a boy was hit by a truck, the CO said: ‘He’s gone, move out.’
The truth about violence that The Hunger Games points to is that humans have always believed our violence to be unquestionably good because we have faith that our violence will lead to our desired peace. The problem is that there is always one more obstacle to peace, one more bad guy that needs to be defeated. Who is the good guy when everyone believes in their own goodness and in their right to use violence to kill one another? To put it another way, does our use of violence turn us into monsters?
We’ll explore that question in my next post on The Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games Blog – Table of Contents
He made you look desirable! – Haymitch, The Hunger Games, 135
We must understand that desire itself is … directed toward an object desired by the model. – René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 146.
The Hunger Games presents us with a post-apocalyptic world living with a fragile peace. (For a summary of The Hunger Games, click here.) Violence is front and center with the annual ritual called The Hunger Games in which two young people from each District are entered into a bloody contest to the death that reminds us of the Roman Coliseum. (See Julie Clawson’s wonderful book The Gospel and the Hunger Games.) But all that bloodletting is meant to prevent a bigger outbreak of violence, like the one more than 74 years ago that nearly destroyed all life on the planet. We are not told much about that old conflict. We don’t know what it was about or what started it, but in this article I’d like to reflect with you on conflict and what we know about how it gets started.
Most theories of conflict focus on the differences between the two adversaries, because that’s all the adversaries can talk about. When we are in a conflict with someone, we claim to be as different from each other as night is from day, as good is from evil. Yet, conflict is not due to our differences, but due to our similarities. Indeed, there are extreme differences in The Hunger Games between the Capitol and the Districts. They are divided into the power elite and the oppressed workers, the well-fed and the starving, the rich and the poor and so on. But the differences, while they may exist in a very real way, are insignificant as triggers for conflict. Think about it this way, if there is an apple on the table (I mean the kind you can actually bite into) and you want it but I don’t, well, there’s no problem at all. But here’s where the conflict begins – as soon as I see that you want the apple, I get a little craving for it. In fact, the more I hear you talking about how good that apple is going to taste, the more I want it. And if I reach for it, trying to head you off at the pass, your desire will be both frustrated and intensified by the display of my desire. You see, we come into conflict with one another because we share desires, desires we learn from one another. Now there’s an easy way out of the conflict – I can admit that your desire preceded mine. I can even thank you for reminding me how good apples are and then I can pick some up on the way home from work. But we rarely take the easy way! I am most likely to forget that I borrowed my desire from you and see you only as a big ole meanie who won’t let me have my apple. Instead of a model for desire, I see only an obstacle to the fulfillment of my desire and that is the recipe for conflict.
So if we want to understand conflict in the Hunger Games we can’t let ourselves get distracted by the differences. We have to look for shared desires. We have no information about the old conflict, but we can look at the potential for conflict that exists in the present of the first novel. The thing that the Capitol wants more than anything is prevent open rebellion. Stated positively, we can say that the Capitol wants peace and it goes to great lengths to get it, most notably forcing 24 teenagers to murder each other on nationwide television each year as a form of entertainment. I’ll discuss how the Hunger Games work to keep the peace in the next article. But what is interesting is that the Capitol sees the Districts as a threat to peace and, you guessed it, the Districts think the same thing about the Capitol. Both want peace and both see the other as the obstacle to its fulfillment. It is seeing the other as obstacle that allows each side to justify their hatred and violence against each other. I don’t owe obstacles anything, except their destruction. As the story progresses through the second and third novels, we will see all manner of violence committed in the name of peace. If, on the other hand, I recognize that we share the same desire for peace, I recognize myself in the other and that might be enough to at least slow my hate to a simmer. Unfortunately, what usually happens is an escalation to all out warfare as the Hunger Games will show us.
There is another example in the Hunger Games of shared desire, but one that does not lead to conflict but instead to love. It is the desire of Peeta for Katniss, which he openly displays in front of the entire country during his interview. The audience is sympathetic to Peeta, “For unrequited love they can relate to” (130). In other words, they openly allow Peeta to be their model of desire. At the end of his interview, the audience roars in approval of Peeta’s expression of love. Katniss blushes in embarrassment and after the show she confronts Peeta and yells, “You had no right! No right to go saying those things about me!” (134) Haymitch, their mentor, sees this happening and responds to Katniss by saying:
You are a fool … Do you think he hurt you? That boy just gave you something you could never achieve on your own … He made you look desirable! And let’s face it, you can use all the help you can get in that department. You were about as romantic as dirt until he said he wanted you. Now they all do. You’re all they’re talking about. (135)
The audience’s desire for Katniss is openly borrowed from Peeta’s desire – he reached for the apple and they want it, too! Peeta’s love for Katniss is actually contagious because like all good fans, the Capitol audience is not ashamed of their open admiration for these two celebrities from District 12. Peeta’s desire for Katniss is also explained by this contagious aspect of desire, as Peeta openly claims that “a lot of boys like her” back at District 12. (130)
The Hunger Games reveals how shared desire can lead to conflict and to love. This is of great importance if we desire a better world. When we find ourselves locked in rivalry with some wicked other who only seems to want to deny us the very thing we want, we may be caught in the trap of denying how that very rival has taught us what to desire. Learning what to desire from others is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s just how humans work. The danger comes when we think our desires are our own. That is, we run the risk of feeling justified in knocking others to the ground on our way to the apple. When Jesus talks about forgiveness in the Gospels, I think he means that we need to remember that the one who seems deserving of our hate may be the one we have the most in common with. The enemy that seems so different from me, may be my mirror image and want the same things I want precisely because I want them. It’s weird to think about conflict that way, but the next time you crave an apple (or an Apple) look around and see who else is thinking the same thing.
The Hunger Games Blog – Table of Contents
The world runs on violence. That’s the message of the best selling book by Suzanne Collins titled The Hunger Games and it is also the message of mimetic theory. For many of us, there is a growing concern that this violence threatens our very future. As political, economic, and other forms of social oppression spread throughout the world, I’m convinced that this violence needs to be confronted. Throughout human history we have confronted violence and have tried to subvert it in two distinct ways. The first way is offered to us by Collins in her books. According to The Hunger Games, the best way to confront and subvert violence is with violence. The second way is offered to us by mimetic theory, which takes its inspiration from the Gospel. According to this approach, the best way to confront violence, and the only way to truly subvert it, is through universal sacrificial love and forgiveness. It is confrontational because it meets violence head on and, by refusing to play by the rules of violence, it offers another way of being. It is universal because the principles of sacrificial love and forgiveness include even our enemies.
The choice we make between these two ways matters if we want to have a future. It’s the choice between the way of life and the way of death.
The Hunger Games – Our Cultural Fascination
The first book in the series, The Hunger Games, was released in 2008. It quickly became a USA Today and New York Times bestseller and has spent more than 100 consecutive weeks on the New York Times list. The Hunger Games has been sold over a million times as a Kindle ebook, making Collins one of six authors to join the “Kindle Million Club.”
The series has captured the imagination of our culture – and with the release of The Hunger Games movie this Friday, I decided it was time to read the first book in the series. It didn’t take long before I discovered why so many are fascinated with it. Collins explores universal themes in a very engaging way. Like any good work of fiction, the reader can identify with the characters in The Hunger Games as they struggle with the themes of identity, love, greed, sacrifice, freedom, compassion, and violence. As I read the first book of the trilogy, I understood what Stephen King, the master of violent thrillers, meant when he wrote in his review of The Hunger Games for Entertainment Weekly, “I couldn’t stop reading [because The Hunger Games] is a violent, jarring speed rap of a novel that generates nearly constant suspense and may also generate a fair amount of controversy.”
I was also intrigued by the reviews from fellow Christians who engaged their faith with the books. There are at least two ebooks that relate the trilogy in very positive ways to Christianity. The Gospel According to “The Hunger Games” Trilogy was written by Andy Langford and Ann Duncan, who are both Methodist pastors. It compares the characters of the trilogy to characters in the Bible. For example, Langford and Duncan compare Katnis Everdeen, the main character of The Hunger Games, to Moses and Jesus in her attempts to overthrow the oppressive Capitol. The second ebook is Julie Clawson’s The Hunger Games and the Gospel: Bread, Circuses, and the Kingdom of God. Clawson’s book is very good and worth reading, as she reveals how the fictional oppression found in The Hunger Games is an allegorical critique of many real oppressive practices in our world today. I have only read the first book, but so far the most important revelation I have found in The Hunger Games have to do with desire and violence. Collins knows that desire and violence are mimetic (a term we will explore in parts two and three), but Collins doesn’t offer the Gospel’s alternative to violence. If the final two books in the series follow the trajectory of The Hunger Games, Clawson’s argument that the books are closely related to the Gospel is dangerously flawed. She writes, “Although not explicitly ‘Christian’ books, the themes explored in the Hunger Games are the same ones Christians have wrestled with since the days of Jesus and his apostles. Themes of love, compassion, and justice in the face of oppression. Themes of what it looks like to live full of hope that a better world is possible” (Kindle, 90) and that The Hunger Games helps us understand the “life affirming way of the Kingdom of God. That is the life Christians are called to: a life that, despite struggles and hardships, still chooses to work for a better world that reflects God’s dreams” (Kindle, 292).
Does The Hunger Games offer us that hope for a better world?
While I agree with Clawson that Jesus and his disciples wrestled with the same “Themes of love, compassion, and justice in the face of oppression,” found both in The Hunger Games and in our 21st century world, I fundamentally disagree that the methods used to fight the oppression in The Hunger Games are the methods Jesus and his disciples used or would endorse. To the contrary, the Kingdom of God that they lived and taught as the hope for a better world critiques those methods because Jesus and his disciples knew that using violence to confront violence makes the world a more violent place. The methods that the Kingdom of God uses to confront and subvert violence are nonviolence, sacrificial love, and forgiveness. It is because of those diametrically opposed methods that, as fascinating as The Hunger Games is, it is neither explicitly nor implicitly a “Christian” book.
In fact, The Hunger Games may be fascinating for the wrong reasons.
Because the way that we confront violence and oppression in our world matters. In fact, it is a matter of life and death.
The Hunger Games Blog – Table of Contents
The Wicked Truth
The Thinking Person’s Guide to The Wildly Successful Broadway Musical
Employing political, social, and historical examples against the backdrop of the musical Wicked, The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things explores the ways in which modern society is not so different than the mythical land of Oz, challenging the very framework of our culture, our understanding of Good and Evil, as well as our sense of right and wrong. Written by Raven Foundation Co-Founder Suzanne Ross.
Tangles of Desire
In her second book, The Wicked Truth About Love: The Tangles of Desire, Raven Foundation Co-Founder Suzanne Ross examines the trials and travails of romantic love through the lens of mimetic theory.
On the page, you can watch videos, take a quiz, download music, read a chapter of the book, and discover your romantic pattern. It's wicked fun!
Illustrations by Susan Drawbaugh of Wee Five Designs.
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