‘The Hunger Games’ and Christianity’s Sacramental Protest

Yesterday I read ‘The Hunger Games.’ There is an awful lot to praise Suzanne Collins for, most especially in how it could be understood as a rather pointed nuanced cultural critique.

A lot stood out to me as I read but what I found of particular note was her way of capturing how ideology functions – it dulls the imagination, blinkering many into the choice between very select options. (The Hunger Games is a competition designed to impress upon 12 Districts their impotence toward the Capitol, the government of Panem, because of a failed rebellion after which the Games was created. Two contestants are taken from each district to fight to the death – in being taken, in having to fight and participate in the charade, each district has its powerlessness reinforced as they have to submit socially, politically and economically to the regime.)

Following the death of the character Rue, Katniss’s train of thought is as follows:

“Rue’s death has forced me to confront my own fury against the cruelty, the injustice they inflict upon us. But here, even more strongly than at home, I feel my own impotence. There’s no way to take revenge on the Capitol. Is there? 

Then I remember Peeta’s words on the roof. “Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to… to show the Capitol they don’t me. That I’m more than just a piece in their games.” And for the first time, I understand what he means.

I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own.”

Now there is a sense in which it would be absurd to make any strong comparisons between the Capitol’s draconian rule over Panem with Western capitalism’s consumeristic-therapeutic ideology – but none the less in ‘The Hunger Games’ it is not hard to sense the dulling of the imagination as binaries and dualities entrap: there is the experience of your only choice being “kill or be killed” for the Capitol’s satisfaction. For the districts it is, “submit or be made to submit” – be content that the economic strains and oppression you face aren’t any worse. On a more deep and personal level there is the constant struggle between losing something intrinsic to your identity – be it goodness, kindness, self-control, beauty – in having to play a game that cannot be escaped from.

How true is this of therapeutic-consumerist capitalism, and its implicit connection in the West to militarized democracy? We choose daily between Sony and Toshiba; Diet Coke and Coke Zero; Hovis and Kingsmill; this and that government party’s policies that are only negligibly different, at the end of the day, because they both promise “more money etc.!” Necessary choices, no? We even feel a sense of correctness in others making geopolitical and economic decisions that may have some say in many rather pronounced injustices (that in turn produce our own, daily choices) – real, live hunger games, in war zones (created for our “safety”) and poverty stricken regions of the world (where many of our clothes just happen to come from).

The immense ideological question here is – can you imagine (in a positive sense) something other than capitalism, something other than democracy and how they construct society? (Perhaps they “work” so well because our economic and political viability may well have been (has been) established upon the misfortune of others, who we don’t have to see – this is of course the case in ‘The Hunger Games’ itself.) The difficulty is pronounced because this is how ideology functions – it is the lens through which we learn to see the world, and it can be desperately limiting.

Yet ‘The Hunger Games’ witnesses the dominant ideology being subverted; we see imagination explode the dualities and oppressiveness foisted upon the Tributes, as some struggle for some semblance of self-identity – from this we see new options begin to be experienced societally.

In a more theological sense, for Christians this takes on a different key in the church’s sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. In baptism we become members of an alternative society, a collective who owe their allegiance to another, who participate in a different set of values and rules and laws, who enter into a death that leads to life. In Eucharist we remember the life, and death and resurrection of the one we follow and allow this to capture our imagination, as it urges us to see material reality as the space in which we express, as baptised communities, our learning to live by the same creative, protesting, self-giving love of the one whose life we live by.

We do not participate in this story to “take control”, to domineer, to start rebellions, to impress Christianity upon the world. Christians imagine new things from this story with the full expectation that we will probably operate at the margins because we are an alternative society. We may suffer pain and misunderstanding, we may even represent something inconvenient in the same sense that Jesus represented something religiously, economically and politically suspect and so ended up on a cross – the billboards of Roman ideology.

In baptism and Eucharist we are claimed by an ancient story that imagines the world differently – and this story, as it captures our imagination, refuses to say that democratic-consumeristic-militaristic-therapeutic capitalist ideology is where the story ends, that this is the peak of human endeavour. It insists our values are the values of the God who defines justice, peace, goodness, truth, mercy, equality through the new creation of which Jesus is firstfruits – the church is a place that insists this has material, political and economic consequences and so embodies them.

If the ideological causalities suffering poverty, homelessness, hunger and violence because they can’t (or have never been able to) “compete” – locally and globally –, make us feel our “own impotence” to the point that Christian collectives can’t imagine a way “to show… they don’t own [us]” then the story of the God who is as interested “in earth as she is in heaven” has not seized us. Christians belong to a group for whom the immediate ideological options, binaries and dualities can no longer be the only conceivable as/is structure. Our story is one of insecurity, bias for the poor, oppressed and marginalized and a self-giving kind of life that dies so that others may find it. In baptism and Eucharist we are freed, as members of a new collective, from ideological blinkers for the purposes of imagining something new – we operate as a society of the new.

In baptism and Eucharist Christians are a people that dominant ideology “can’t own”, whose imagination is set free for the purpose of embodying something radically novel in the world because, in being that people who tell a different, more ancient and beautiful story than the one the many live by, we recognize and respond to the claim one who is infinitely loving and good makes upon the world.