The Hunger Games and Holy Week; Second Year Reflection
As I walked out of an incredible Easter service into a stunning Sunday afternoon, all did not feel entirely well with my soul. While the service did, indeed, resurrect an ethos of hope and spirit to “rise up and live, rise up and love,” the image of Lift[ing] High the Cross, our final hymn, gave me the creeps. Descending the church’s stairs, I tried to place a vaguely familiar feeling of dissonance. Was I connecting to the mood of the scene at the original end of Mark’s Gospel, our scripture reading for the day? Unlikely. Where had I recently felt this uneasiness in a moment of supposed victory and closure?
And then it hit me. The Hunger Games.
Although I had not read any of the books, I knew enough about the series to be interested and was particularly intrigued by audience reaction. The Hunger Games has been a lightning rod drawing extreme responses. For some, the film is worth the wait and price of admission and generally well deserving of its Ages Tween and Up hype. For others, probably not those counting down to its midnight showings, its scenes of gratuitous violence and social deviance are deeply disturbing and offensive. The most shocking responses, though, were voices of disappointment and outrage against the casting of black actors for familiar characters readers had envisioned (i.e. misread) as white. The latter protest marks a serious lack of reading comprehension, but the broader spectrum of reactions to the film speaks volumes to our subconscious retention of written and oral stories. Though characters and settings are subject to change, the threads of the virtuous violence narrative are so carefully woven into our stories we barely notice them even as the archetypes we confuse as particular and salvific unravel our existence.
In the film, twelve- to eighteen-year-old kids are drafted from destitute outlying districts into a sophisticated gladiator game as tributes for past uprisings against the imperialistic, oppressive Capitol, whose opulent inhabitants are annually enraptured by the sacrifice of these young lives. The “Hunger Games”, as they are called, are simultaneously a terrifying reminder and warning for the poor and appeasement for the ruling class who is entertained, to the point of obsession, by the event. Imagine actual, don’t-try-this-at-home underage Survivor on Bravo.
Popcorn intake slowing to a halt, I sat in my comfortable theater seat repulsed and fascinated by the immanent and seemingly unavoidable violence masked as necessary virtue in the film and in the world into which I would eventually reemerge. The situational violence in The Hunger Games is exaggerated, to be sure, but its roots are frighteningly real and rampant. According to unnatural law, in order for some to flourish, others must suffer: for “those who have it together” to receive the best healthcare possible, “those who don’t” must go without adequate care; for the marriages — and identities — of one group to be validated, others have to be excluded not only from the institution but from full humanity; for someone to be legally justified in standing his ground, someone else may well be buried under it.
Whether these ostensibly direct correlations actually have to be this way or we are so trained to think so becomes a nearly impossible distinction to make. Sadly, perhaps nowhere are we more indoctrinated in this belief than in church. Certainly, nowhere is surrogate redemption — the idea of an innocent sacrifice being required for the sake of others — more glorified than in the Christian church. In some ways, has our commemoration of the past week not been a kind of Holy Games? Think of the crucifixion scene: an arena of extreme explicit violence bleeding out of conventional bias, serving as warning to the oppressed and entertaining reinscription of dominance to the powerful. The crucifixion is not unlike aspects of The Hunger Games, which reveals what is leisure for the civilized is often lethal for the ostracized.
It is not unlike countless less noticed, and in fact socially validated, violences committed daily in the name of civility. Jesus’ refusal to compromise his message and mission of relentless love of God and humanity is a beautiful and unsurpassed act of fierce compassion that deserves our active remembrance. But the cross is still the cross: a hideous site of torture rejecting the kin-dom of God Jesus emphatically proclaimed and lived. When we lift it high, may we remember the dark systems of injustice it conjures; the ideology of necessary, righteous violence it threatens to echo; and whose odds are ever in its favor.