Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hunger Games

"Watch out for yourselves. They will hand you over to the courts to be beaten and condemned... But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved." Mark 13:9,13

The Hunger Games technically takes place in a post-apocalyptic future amidst the ruins of North America, but the tale is one that could apply to just about any era in human history - from the time of the Roman Empire to the present day.

The premise is this: in punishment for an uprising seventy-five years earlier, the dictatorial government of Panem requires its subject "states" (called districts) to participate in an annual gladiatorial contest by offering up two teenagers (one male, one female) to fight in what is called "the hunger games." In total, 24 young people from 12 districts face off, where 23 of them are expected to die or be killed, and the lone survivor declared the winner. Asked why this pageant is carried out instead of simply rounding up 24 people and killing them outright, Panem's President Snow (Donald Sutherland) simply says, "because hope is stronger than fear" when it comes to controlling a potentially-rebellious populace.

Into this fray comes Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a resourceful 16-year old from District 12, who volunteers for the games so that her younger sister Primrose, who was selected by lottery to compete, would not have to fight: a great example of self-sacrifice which gives us more than a hint as to what type of person that Katniss is in this story.

In short order, she and the district's male selection, Peeta (John Hutcherson), make their way to the Capitol to train and impress the crowds in advance of the competition.

Despite the lavish parties and rituals that the players, called "tributes," must endure, when the games begin, it quickly turns into a bloodbath. Friends and brothers turn into vicious enemies, killing one another in order to survive. Katniss instead chooses to run into the woods, evading the others, hoping that she can make it to the end by simply remaining silent and hidden.

But since the competition is a spectacle televised across the nation, the producers (run by the government) won't allow such a strategy and do what they can to draw her out into the open and face the other teens and their lust for victory. But this turn of events also challenges her to put aside her default tendancy for isolationism and individualism - and to learn that community and support can be a great avenue to success.

The story itself is nothing new. The Hunger Games harks back to the Greek myth of Theseus or to the real-life tales of Roman gladiators forced from their enslaved nations to fight to the death in the Coliseum, the poverty and policies of Reconstruction in post-Civil War America, or the dictatorship and spectacles of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany. It reminds us of books and movies like Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949 book), Lord of the Flies (1954 book, 1963 and 1990 films), The Running Man (1987 film), The Truman Show (1998 film), and Gladiator (2000 film).

But most especially, it calls to mind the postmodern obsessions that we, as a culture, have with reality television, endless game shows, violent entertainment and sports, and the real crime, violence, and international wars played out on 24-hour cable news and websites. However, when we read the above sampling of historical precedents and previous literary and cinematic warnings, we see that this is nothing new. We simply have new ways of digesting public spectacles and putting up with injustice and poverty.

Nonetheless, since we haven't seemed to learn the lessons of history, we are once again repeating them - and a story like The Hunger Games is a good reminder for us to pray, reflect, and do a little introspection of our own part in this phenomenon.

As I watched this movie, one of the things that struck me was the representation of the citizens of the Capitol city, dressed in their gaudy decadence. Quite literally, many of them look like clowns. And as I came to understand that these people were reflections of those of us who mindlessly and passively watch as people get humiliated on reality TV or brutally killed on the evening news, it became apparent that this image was an indictment of us all.

Like the bloodthirsty crowds in the Roman Coliseum, are we not clowns in our acquiescence of such spectacle today? When a young teen from District 11 is killed in the film, we are shown the outrage and rebellion of her community. And when we see the dignity of life shaken on television, in social media, or in our news, why do we not feel the same outrage? Why aren't we overturning tables in the Temple like Jesus in the Gospels when we see injustice and corruption? Or are we just as complicit in our eagerness to win one day, living up to President Snow's observation that controlling us is easy because a false hope is more powerful than fear?

To stand in opposition to such passivity is the call of the prophet. Consider Amos who said, "Woe to the complacent in Zion and to the overconfident in Samaria... lying upon beds of ivory and stretched comfortably on their couches... but they shall be the first to go into exile and their revelry done away with." (Amos 6:1,4,7) It's easy to blissfully watch, but it is the way of God to take action in the world, righting injustices and standing up in righteous anger against those who would oppress and destroy.

Another thread that spoke to me was what happened to the teenage tributes who are drafted into service into the hunger games arena. Before their selection, most of these young men and women were probably living lives dedicated to work and family - but once they arrive in the Capitol, they begin to fall into vengeful survivalism.

We see this unfold in our reality competitions and game shows (see: the Bachelor, the Apprentice, Survivor, Project Runway, among others). At their core, these are good concepts and could yield healthy competition; yet too often, the participants become a shadow of their former selves, preferring selfish moves and retaliation to working together and forgiveness.

And before we begin pointing fingers at the television set, does not the same thing often happen in our schools, our workplaces, our churches, our political systems, our business networks, and on a global scale, our international community? When we feel we have no option but to compete (either for a promotion, a sale, or for the price of oil), we, too, can turn into a shadow of our true selves - and fall into words and actions unbecoming of our best intentions and most especially, the Gospel we profess.

In The Hunger Games, the tributes are locked into a desperate battle for supremacy. Yet despite this, our heroine Katniss looks for ways to overcome her survivalist instincts by befriending little Rue from District 11 or by offering comfort to Peeta even when he would probably not do the same in return. While she is by no means perfect, she shows glimmers of hope that selfishness and pettiness does not need to have the final say.

Jesus warns the disciples that, once he has ascended to the Father, they would be confronted with their own survivalist experience. They could stand up for the gospel mission in the world or they could succumb to passivity, selfishness, and running away from the way of Christ.

He says, "Nation will rise up against nation, kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquake and famine, but these are just the beginnings of labor pains. Watch out for yourselves. They will hand you over to the courts to be beaten and condemned. But the gospel must be preached and lived to all nations... Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child, children against their parents to have them put to death. You will be hated by all for the message you preach. But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved." (Mark 13:8-10,12-13)

Each day, we ourselves are faced with competing in our schools, our workplaces, and in our society. We are deeply immersed in a "hunger games" experience of our own. So how will we act? What will we do? Will we revert to the way of the survivalist, selfishly guarding ourselves and plotting our way to the top? Or will we chart the course of Christ, who refused to play by the games of his day - and rewrote the rules by sacrificing himself on the cross for the love of others and the way of peace?

The early Christians adopted this strategy - and when it was their turn in the Roman Coliseum, as bloodthirsty crowds watched in anticipation, they threw out the playbook. Despite the sacrifice of countless Christians, actions like these made the faith more powerful than had they all reverted to survivalism, huddled in the Upper Room, waiting for the pain to pass. Instead, like those martyrs and prophets, and like Katniss in this film, we must also come down from the tree and approach the world with radical love, with unconditional forgiveness, and with justice for the poor, the marginalized, and the forgotten.

So whether we find ourselves spectator or participant, we are called to something greater. We can quickly devolve into the worst version of who we were made to be - we can become like clowns or like bloodthirsty tributes - but God has hope in us.

In the arena of our universe, God watches on - not to see who comes out on top - but to see us all work together to build what his son Jesus tirelessly preached about: the Kingdom of God on earth just as it is in heaven. This kingdom is one of forgiveness, nonviolence, compassion, selflessness, justice, faith, hope, love, and abundance for all. This kingdom is one without hunger, without want, and without hatred.

And it is all indeed possible when we begin to learn the lesson that we have been told from ages past - from the streets of Rome to this book and movie series taking the nation by storm. Let us hope that the popularity of The Hunger Games is a telling sign that the lessons it shares will begin to take root in our hearts.

Let us hope. For real victory is at hand.