The Common Good
April 2012

Life Under Empire

by Julie Clawson | April 2012

What The Hunger Games and the gospels have in common.

“THE WORLD will be watching,” runs the tagline above a determined Katniss Everdeen, her arrow at the ready, on a teaser poster for The Hunger Games film. The phrase describes well the popularity of The Hunger Games trilogy, young adult novels headed to the big screen. The world has been watching, and reading, voraciously. Suzanne Collins’ dystopian tale of young Katniss Everdeen’s struggle to survive under the totalitarian government in Panem (the United States of some post-apocalyptic future) has captured readers’ attention, as evidenced by the continued dominance of the books—The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010)—on bestseller lists.

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The country of Panem is ruled by a central Capitol known for its luxury and obsession with fashion and entertainment. Surrounding it are 12 fenced-in districts whose people exist in dire poverty—on the brink of starvation—and labor to supply the insatiable demands of the Capitol. To assert control, the Capitol demands that each district must send two children (called tributes) each year to compete in the Hunger Games—a televised survival game where they must kill or be killed in the fight to be the last one standing. Dreaded in the districts, the Games serve as the height of entertainment for the citizens of the Capitol.

When her little sister is randomly selected as tribute for the Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place, launching the tale of her fight to survive not just the Games but the oppressive regime of the Capitol itself. Her exciting story is one of strength, sacrifice, heartbreak, hope, and redemption that offers no easy answers, but also does not leave the reader in despair. Like the promise of the present-yet-still-to-come kingdom of God that Jesus offered those living under the oppressive Roman Empire, the series reveals that seeking a better world involves a difficult journey and a commitment to the way of love above all else. For those aware of how imperialistic oppression and exploitation remain an ever-present reality in our own world, this message is a word of hope for contemporary followers of Jesus as well.

That Panem has parallels to imperial Rome is evidenced throughout the series, most significantly in the country’s name, derived from the term panem et circences, bread and circuses—the “diversions” 1st century C.E. poet Juvenal accused Romans of choosing to the neglect of justice or care for the oppressed. In Panem the Capitol maintains its power by controlling the starving with offers of bread and distracting the wealthy with the ultimate entertainment of the Games. As in ancient Rome, people placated with such things have little reason to resist injustice or question the ways of the empire.

For Katniss, having grown up in the poorest of the districts, the threat of starvation was always close at hand. Thus Katniss is appalled when she first sees the opulence of the Capitol, where people gorge themselves then throw up so they can eat more, spend exorbitant sums of money on beauty treatments and plastic surgery, and complain when problems in the districts limit their ability to acquire the latest electronics. But like the citizens of ancient Rome benefitting from the crippling tribute system imposed on far-off conquered lands such as Palestine, the citizens of the Capitol don’t spare much thought for the people in the districts who slave away to provide them with the lifestyle they’ve come to expect. And like the Romans who clamored to see slaves from conquered lands fight to the death in the Coliseum, the Capitol citizens raise no objection to children being sent to their death to entertain them in the Games.

In a world dominated by Roman rule, Jesus proclaimed an alternative way to live. Instead of living in fear and trusting Rome for their daily bread, Jesus encouraged his followers to live into God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven and trust in God’s provision. He called those living in luxury at the expense of others to give it back to the poor. While discouraging violent resistance, he encouraged his followers to expose Rome’s oppression through creative acts of nonviolent resistance (such as turning the other cheek or going the extra mile). In the face of injustice, his followers are encouraged to release the chains of oppression and love their neighbor as themselves—commands that led them to sacrificially share all things in common so no one hungered.

THE HOPE IN the face of oppression that Jesus offered is still good news for the world today. Defiant hope may be one reason Katniss’ story resonates with so many readers. We in the United States could be the new Roman Empire or the real Capitol. The districts that labor to meet our needs, often under harsh conditions and for little pay, are the countries of the developing world. Our wealth and power allow us to impose unfair trade laws and build unregulated factories in other countries so that we can live in relative opulence while others toil to provide our food, clothing, and electronics. And as in Panem, anyone who questions our supremacy may face dire consequences.

Yet many of us are too distracted by our entertainments or too accustomed to our luxuries to heed the plight of those suffering to provide them. An Apple executive was exactly right (if exceedingly callous) when he recently explained the harsh working conditions in Apple suppliers’ factories by pointing out that “right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.” For those of us deeply troubled that the U.S. has let bread and circuses distract us from loving our neighbor, we find in The Hunger Games series a glimpse of hope.

As Katniss is thrust into the arena to fight in the Games, she initially does whatever it takes to survive. But when a close friend dies in the Games, she covers her friend’s body in flowers to demonstrate the Capitol’s inability to control her entirely. It is an act of both love and subversion that holds the Capitol accountable for the death and determines for Katniss the need to strive for a better world where such deaths are no more. For her this means protecting the vulnerable people the Capitol would rather dispose of, feeding the hungry even though it’s illegal, and becoming a symbol of resistance that brings hope to the districts of Panem. Her choices lead her to experience great suffering and loss, but also to know that she is no longer a pawn in an oppressor’s game.

The Hunger Games series is a manifesto to that sort of freedom, reminding readers that we are not slaves to the bread and circuses of empire. We do not have to make others suffer for the sake of our luxuries. We do not have to ignore the oppressed because our music, TV, sports, and toys demand too much time and attention. We too do not have to be pawns in that game. Throughout the series Katniss struggles with how best to manifest that freedom in response to the Capitol—at times wanting to run away and at others being used by those advocating violent resistance. The pain of those choices forces her to realize that she must declare her freedom not just from the Capitol, but from the oppressive ways of apathy and vengeance as well. In the end she discovers that it is only in embracing the life-affirming way of self-sacrificial love that she (and Panem) can survive.

We who struggle to live as Christ-followers within the imperial realities of our own day can experience such freedom too. It is the path of being in the world but not accepting its ways—of knowing that one is not powerless against systems of injustice. Like Katniss we can transform our world, even though it may cost us dearly. The Romans crucified Jesus for calling people to live in the subversive ways of the Kingdom of God, and yet the church still stands as testimony to his alternative way.

The world is watching The Hunger Games. To those yearning for the freedom to resist oppression as Katniss does, followers of Jesus can offer the transformative ways of the reign of God. We start by embodying that sacrificial love ourselves.

Julie Clawson (julieclawson.com) is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices and the forthcoming The Gospel and The Hunger Games.

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