Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My Thoughts on The Hunger Games, Part 2

In Part 1 of "My Thoughts on The Hunger Games," I explained three ways that I think the series speaks truth about the depraved nature of our world. I argued that THG accurately depicts the cyclical, never-ending nature of violence, as well as the devastating effects of human violence on the people perpetrating it. And, I argued that the series calls into question the possibility of a truly just war. In all these points, I think THG speaks in concert with the Christian tradition, though the third point works only within the nonviolent or pacifist stream of Christianity.

There is no doubt, however, that even as THG speaks truth about our world, it does not offer a real "solution" for the problem of human sin and evil. There is no Christ-figure in the series, the heroine is fault-filled and broken, and the conclusion of the tale is not "neat and tidy" or "happily ever after." Still, I would not agree with those who argue that the series is entirely without any good news. I think there is good news that can be recognized as contiguous with the Christian tradition, even if it is subtle and somewhat underdeveloped. The way I'd summarize the "good news" of The Hunger Games trilogy is this: Subversive acts of love are powerful tools against oppressive systems.  

What makes THG so sad and depressing at points is that the world Suzanne Collins created is a closed system. In the world of Panem, there is no escaping the human tendency to pride, power-grabbing, oppression, abuse, bloodshed, and exploitation. Even the "good guys" do "bad guy" things and many of the "bad guys" are shown to be mixed characters, as well (neither entirely bad or good and never fully and wholly responsible for their ignorance and blindness). This closed system can feel oppressive for a reader looking for that tidy, "happily ever after" ending, with a clear winner and loser and resolution of the ethical conflicts. But, I would argue that Collins' closed system is an accurate depiction of real life on our postlapsarian planet earth.

According to the Christian tradition, sin is the state in which we find ourselves. And, this sin is a closed system. There is no escaping it. Nothing and no one remains untouched by the desperate grab for autonomy perpetrated by our ancestors. We are born with a bent toward disordered and disoriented lives and we live in a world gone awry. Indeed, the Apostle Paul says that the creation itself "groans" under the weight of it's burden, longing to be set free. Moreover, all aspects of our identities are formed within this brokenness. We cannot escape the fact that from the moment we are born, a sin-sick world has been telling us who we are, why we matter (or don't matter), what we value, what we love, what we hate, and much, much more. Not only is our identity and sense of reality constructed for us by our environment, but also this environment is itself poisoned at its source by sin. I think THG trilogy "gets" the truth of this reality in a profound way. 

So, you ask, how on earth is this good news? Well, recognizing that we live within a closed, sinful system is essential to realizing what can be done about it. In book one of The Hunger Games, Peeta aspires to be more than just a pawn in the games. He voices a desire not to lose himself to the Gamemakers and their ruthless search for an entertaining and bloody show. The problem is, how to do this. How can he work within the arena--within the games designed to pit tribute against tribute until everyone but one is dead--and still not play by the "rules" of the Gamemakers and the Capitol? The answer, I think, is self-sacrifical love. Even though it is never explicitly stated in the text, I think that Peeta realizes (even before the heroine, Katniss), that self-sacrificing (one might say, agape) love is the way to work within the system and yet subvert and undermine the system at the same time. 

If you think about it, Peeta's undying love for Katniss runs against the current of the entire series. While even the heroine is plotting, scheming, and thinking of her own survival, there's Peeta, constantly seeking what is best for Katniss and needed for her preservation. That's why what happens to Peeta in the third book, Mockingjay (which I won't give away here)is so jarring--the perfect move by the Capitol against Katniss and the rebellion. They manage to darken (albeit temporarily) the one truly pure ray of light in the entire storyline.

And, I think herein lies the key to the "good news" we find in THG trilogy. In a world gone awry, we employ subversive acts of love as our tools against oppressive, sinful systems. Examples of this are numerous in the first book. We see a subversive act of love in Katniss' devotion during Rue's death and then the decoration of her body with flowers. This act acknowledges the value lost in Rue and the significance of her body as a fellow human being. She wasn't just another pawn in the Capitol's games. Also, we see a subversive act of love in the gift of bread from District 11, a sign from Rue's people that they saw and understood Katniss' loving care for Rue. (And, just as a side note, this is one of the things I wish the director had put into the movie. I think leaving out the gift of bread in the film was a bad choice.) And, of course, we see a subversive act of love in the way Katniss chooses to bring an end to the games. She chooses to accept death alongside of Peeta rather than take his life and this subversion of the rules forces the hand of the Capitol. In fact, we know that this last act of subversion is the thing that serves as the beginning of the rebellion among the districts. They loved (albeit imperfectly). They didn't treat each other as pawns. They protected each other. They survived the games together.

(There are more examples of these loving acts of subversion in Catching Fire and Mockingjay, as well. But, time and space prevent me from going into more detail. Maybe you can pick some out and leave them in the comments.)

I think this employment of subversive action against injustice ties in quite well with Christian practice. The life of Jesus is indicative of what a life looks like lived entirely devoted to the Father's will and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And, over and over again, Jesus does things that powerfully subvert the sinful systems of his day. Jesus touched those who were considered unclean, thereby marking them as clean. He spent time with "sinners and tax collectors," proving that it is not sin that is contagious, but holiness. Jesus allowed his feet to be caressed by the hands, hair, and tears of a "sinful woman," thereby proclaiming her worthiness. He marched into Jerusalem in a mock coronation parade, symbolically announcing his reign in obvious opposition to the reign of Caesar. Jesus turned over tables in the temple and ran off money changers. Although this only stopped the trade of merchandise for a day (or even less), this subversive action proclaimed condemnation upon the Temple system and the beginning of something new. 

And, of course, the greatest act of subversive love is found in cross of Christ. Rather than employ the violent, self-serving, and oppressive methods of this sin-sick world to bring about his Kingdom, Jesus was obedient to the Father and exemplary of his love, even unto death. By absorbing in his own body all of the sin and evil this world could inflict upon him, Jesus disarmed it, destroyed it, and found victory over it in the resurrection. In fact, it is Jesus' resurrection that offers us the promise that even the smallest subversive acts of love are indestructible tools against the systems of this world (Paul called them the "powers and principalities"). Love really does win. The resurrection guarantees it.

The primary sacraments of Christianity can be understood as defiant acts of subversion, too. By submitting to the waters of baptism, one declares him or herself a citizen of God's Kingdom and a loyalist to Jesus Christ as Lord. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. And, if our Kingdom is "not of this world," then our loyalties lie beyond the bounds of nation, culture, language, and kin. The breaking down of these boundaries within the "one baptism" of Christian faith means that our love is no longer limited to our close friends and family. Our circle of concern now extends to include both neighbor and enemy. This is something that goes against the grain of our culture and customs. Many of us have forgotten just how dangerous and revolutionary the baptismal proclamation really is. 

By consuming bread and wine, we share amongst ourselves the body and blood of our crucified and risen Lord. Taking his presence into our bodies, we align ourselves with his life and death, his ways and purposes. This means we are living sacrifices, literally carrying within us the person of Christ and his mission in the world. This means we are fundamentally different beings, with different loyalties and priorities, than those around us. Again, our allegiance is to a King and a Kingdom not of this present evil age. And, every time we take the meal of Jesus together we are proclaiming our faith in him and his Way of self-sacrificing love--in direct opposition to the ways of the world. 

Even beyond the central rituals and rites of Christian worship, there are many ways that Christians can and do employ subversive acts of love against oppression every day. I think of the junior high student who bravely chooses to sit alongside and befriend an abandoned and "outcast" student, rather that with his usual gang of friends. I think of the mother who chooses to drive further and shop with less convenience at the shop of a local immigrant family so as to contribute to their business success in a difficult economic period. I think of the family that opens their home to the teens of the neighborhood, giving them a safe place to gather, banter, play, and eat. In all of these ways (and so many more!), Christians employ subversive acts of love in opposition to the "closed system" of sin we find ourselves in. 

Until the King returns and makes "all things new" in his time, we remain "resident aliens" in a world that has yet to recognize the triumphant in-breaking of the reign of God. Our works as churches, families, and individuals signify to the Evil One and the "powers and principalities" that they are not Lord and to the watching world that God's Kingdom is coming "on earth as it is in heaven."

To summarize, then, I have argued that the good news to be found in THG trilogy is the power of subversive acts of love as tools against oppressive, sinful systems. The only qualification I would make as I conclude is that the people employing these actions within the machinations of Panem (apparently) do so without the enabling power of God's grace and the Holy Spirit--both of which Christians acknowledge as essential to the works of love our Lord requires of us. Indeed, it is the work of God within and alongside of us that guarantees that the subversive acts of love we employ in this sin-sick world are not wasted, but truly the first-fruits of a Kingdom guaranteed to triumph by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So, what do you think? Are there other glimpses of "good news" in The Hunger Games? I'd love to hear your thoughts...

1 comment:

Christiane said...

there is one kind of hope that makes sense in violent world, and THG reminds me of it

“Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart;
it transcends the world that is immediately experienced,
and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons
. . . It is not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.”
(Vaclav Havel)

We follow Our Lord Who was unafraid to come into a dying world . . . He is what makes sense to us when little else around us does.