"I lift my hand to my mouth, taking one last look at the world. The berries have just passed my lips when the trumpets begin to blare.” It’s not quite Socrates sipping the hemlock, but it’s probably a better known scene, at least among young people. It ends, “The frantic voice of Claudius Templesmith shouts above them. ‘Stop! Stop! Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to present the victors of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark! I give you — the tributes of District Twelve!’” (345)
The Hunger Games is adolescent fantasy, but the novel nicely illustrates two fundamental Christian themes: the suffering that comes from sin and our need for a savior. Take the first, the pain that comes of moral evil. The Hunger Games is set in the not-too-distant future. America has been destroyed by an unexplained cataclysm. (Like most American creations, this novel doesn’t give a thought to the rest of the world.) Taking the place of the U.S.A. is a system of thirteen districts, administered and exploited, by a new capital region, located in the Rockies.
At first glance, the idea that the denizens of the capitol would be so callous as to order selected young people — two from each of the subjugated districts — to fight each other to the death as a form of entertainment certainly seems fantastical. But does it really? We already live in a society that creates celebrities only for the purpose of exploiting their suffering, their hopes, even their dignity. That’s the premiss for so much of reality TV. Many suggest that college athletics is equally exploitive. And watching the news coverage of an event such as the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, one can’t help but wonder if we’re being conditioned to accept the suffering of others as stimulant. Wherever one might detect it, the great moral affront of our times is turning human beings into commodities. Like any good piece of fantasy or science fiction, The Hunger Games allows us to see a bit of who we already are, simply by extending a trajectory into the future.
How one apportions the blame for exploitation isn’t as important as the recognition that humanity is caught in a web of suffering that we ourselves have woven. Like the combatants in The Hunger Games, we’re forced to hurt each other as a means of survival. Could there be a better illustration for the doctrine of Original Sin? No one of us created the snarl of sin, yet each of us finds ourselves suffering from its effects. We may not send young people to their deaths as a form of entertainment, and yet the very nature of sin involves exploiting others so as to save ourselves. The demonic irony is that each of us suffers because each of us is afraid of suffering. We wound rather than allow ourselves to be wounded.
But Katniss won’t have it. In the climatic scene of The Hunger Games she and her friend Peeta are the last contestants standing. The game’s logic demands that they now turn upon each other, but each of them would rather die than kill the other. Suddenly Katniss remembers the lethal berries she is carrying.
My fingers fumble with the pouch on my belt, freeing it. Peeta sees it and his hand clamps on my wrist. “No, I won’t let you.”
“Trust me,” I whisper. He holds my gaze for a long moment then lets me go. I loosen the top of the pouch and pour a few spoonfuls of berries into his palm. Then I fill my own. “On the count of three.”
Peeta leans down and kisses me, once, very gently. “The count of three,” he says.
We stand, our back pressed together, our empty hands locked tight.
“Hold them out. I want everyone to see,” he says.
“I spread out my fingers, and the dark berries glisten in the sun. I give Peeta’s hand one last squeeze as a signal, as a good-bye, and we begin counting. “One.” Maybe I’m wrong. “Two” Maybe they don’t care if we both die.” “Three! It’s too late to change my mind. I lift my hand to my mouth, taking one last look at the world. The berries have just past my lips when the trumpet sounds (344-45).
Every religion in the world tries to make sense of suffering, presents itself as a response to suffering. The Gospel takes on the task of explaining why Jesus must suffer, why he must fulfill in his own flesh the prophecy of Isaiah. “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who tore out my beard; my face I did not hide from insults and spitting” (50:6). Or, as St. Mark puts it, why must “the Son of Man suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days” (8:31) The answer? Because only someone in the arena can end its evil.
If Christianity is right, and suffering came from the misuse of our freedom, then only the sacrifice, the offering, of our freedom can end it. Put another way, if human history wove the web of sin, human history must sunder it. In the words of one of our Eucharistic prefaces, “you came to the aid of mortal beings with your divinity and even fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself, that the cause of our downfall might become the means of our salvation, through Christ our Lord.” Christ comes as God, but it is also his obedience as a human being, one in the arena, that saves.
Everyone in The Hunger Games laments what happens in the arena. Most are grateful not to have been consigned to the games, but of course the moral of the novel is that everyone is the victim of their tyranny. The games are simply a way of masking evil, but Katniss willingly risks taking their poison into herself. It’s her decision, one forged in freedom, that will slowly tear away the shackles of sin.
It helps when the Gospel is reset, rewritten in another key. Maybe, for the first time, we get the point.
Isaiah 50: 5-9a James 2: 14-18 Mark 8: 27-35
Rev. Terrance W. Klein