The Kingdom of God is not a Game
First Baptist Church, Lawrence
23 September 2012
First, it was my pastor in Waco. Then it was my freshmen at Baylor.
“Listen. You’ve got to read this book.”
“Okay. What is it?”
“The Hunger Games.”
“Okay; what’s it about?”
“Um, well, um, basically, these kids have to kill each other to win…”
Kids killing kids. Sounds awesome. Who would want to read such a story? Better yet, who would rave to anyone who will listen about a story that contains such rampant morbidity? Better still, who would dream up such a story – and market it towards kids? I certainly bore such hesitation towards this book that I never imagined I would become such a fan of the story, though fan seems like not quite the right word for something of its weight.
Many of you have read at least the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy, or seen the movie. For those of you who haven’t, here’s a brief summary. Which includes spoilers. You’ve been warned.
The world of the hunger games is North America, a few centuries in the future. What remains following natural disaster and civil war, is the nation of Panem, which consists of 12 districts and the Capital. Each district is dedicated to a particular industry in service to the Capital. The Capital is the center of fashion, of wealth, and of excess. Meanwhile, the surrounding districts exist in relative degrees of squalor. Some districts subsist fairly well, while others live in what we might recognize as third-world poverty. Every year the Capital stages the Hunger Games. Each district sends two tributes – one male and one female, both teenagers – selected at random. The 24 tributes are left in an arena – designed by a team of Gamemakers – to fight to the death. The winner – the sole survivor – receives a house for herself and family, as well as food for his entire district for the next year.
The Hunger Games are an elaborate and destructive means to keep an entire nation subdued and hopeless, all under the guise of being thankful to the powerful capital. The books focus on, Katniss, a sixteen year old, who volunteers as tribute after her young sister’s name is drawn. She is from District 12, which is located in what we know as Appalachia – and their main industry is (not surprisingly) coal mining. Katniss’s father died in a mining explosion when she was young, and since then she has snuck beyond the District’s borders to hunt in order to take care of her mother, who remains broken following her husband’s death, and her sister. Katniss enters the Hunger Games with resigned hopelessness. She realizes the daunting odds of 24 tributes, but only one winner. She chooses to remain away from the fray, surviving by hiding in trees, and running, in many ways a nonparticipant in the game. Until, the gamemakers force her hand, and she must defend herself. In the end, she beats the Capital at its own game. She and the other tribute from District 12, Peeta, find poisonous berries. Only the two of them remain, and neither is willing to kill the other, so they both move to eat the berries at the same time, which would, in effect, leave the games without a winner. The gamemakers interrupt them at that moment, and declare Katniss and Peeta both winners of the Hunger Games. And that is basically how the first book ends. The remaining two books unfold with Katniss and Peeta participating in a second hunger games, and participating in a fomenting revolution among the districts as they attempt to upend the Capital’s control and suppression of the vast majority of Panem’s citizens.
So. This is a pretty heavy story, to put it mildly. Yet it is wildly popular among kids and adults. Matt and I picked the books we did for this sermon series not because we sought out tough, heavy subject material; rather, we really did start by asking what books have clearly made an impact the culture at large? We had a laugh this week when we realized we’d picked out some pretty depressing sermon material. But perhaps that is why these books are so important – particularly a story like The Hunger Games, which we would like to think is so ghastly that it has to come from some twisted place in someone’s imagination. But the truth is, The Hunger Games is already about us. Violence, Hunger, and Oppression are not conditionals – they are part and parcel of our reality. We need stories to help us recognize the truth – the truth about the world around us and the truth about the world we help create and participate in. We need these kinds of stories to give us pause to reflect on how much of ourselves the story reflects. When we recognize the reality of oppression, violence, and hunger, of inequality, of excess and of entertainment, then change and revolutions – both physical and spiritual – can take place.
Okay, how is this story about us? When I first read it, the imagination of my younger self, the self that knows some of those hills in Eastern Kentucky, took hold. Of course I fancied myself like Katniss – a tough hunter, a tenacious provider.
But let’s be honest. I wouldn’t last a day in the wilderness with a bow and arrow. I am much too spoiled to imagine attempting to live without running water, or reliable electricity, or even the luxury of retail therapy. Personally, what is most disturbing is that when I am really honest with myself, I do not see myself in the fiercely independent, rebellious Katniss with her handmade weapons and survival skills. Her story is not my story. And it’s probably not most of our stories. Instead, I find myself in the citizens of the Capitol with their desire to change their appearance, and their ability to have whatever kind of food or drink they want, when they want it, and their blind devotion to entertainment and leisure, and their complicity in systemized violence.
The story is certainly troubling for its depictions of violence, and it’s easy to look at the violence of the Games and respond with more horror – how dare the author tell such a grisly story about the most innocent among us! But our young people – and not so young people – know that this world, our world, isn’t all make-believe. They are growing up under the cloud of fear that marks a post-September 11th United States, and few of us know a world where our own country is not at war. Even if those wars are not on our soil, we still know well the reality of violence.
One of the things that is most disturbing about The Hunger Games, aside from the basics of the plot, is that it isn’t a fairy tale – which is especially troubling for all those who want to make an easy Twilight comparison, asking are you Team Peeta or Team Gale? (But that’s neither here nor there). We like to hope that life is as neatly packaged and our own plots will work out with all the beauty and magic of Hollywood. But of course we know that’s not real life. And it’s not real life for Katniss either. There isn’t a happily ever after for her. In the end, she does, in fact, choose one of the boys, if we can use that verb, but in many ways it isn’t a happy choice. This book is not a romance; it is about the consequences of war, of poverty, and of oppression. Katniss will spend the rest of her life dealing with the aftermath of a society that forced her to face the Hunger Games twice. She will spend the rest of her life dealing with a reality that has robbed her of genuine security, and has taken away the only family she has ever known – the family she risked her own life to feed. The Hunger Games is also a story that begs us to grapple with the consequences of cultures of violence and hatred; of systems of war and oppression. This book is uncomfortable not because it is about kids killing other kids (which it is), but because it in so many ways it tells the story of our own structures that keep the oppressed either out of view altogether or turns them into entertainment. It also tells the story about our own infatuation with destruction. Flip through your television channels to see this. We feed off of stories of others’ brokenness. And not just on the spectacle of reality television; on tabloids, on cable news, we cannot escape stories of others destruction. Brokenness is all around us – it is out entertainment.
One of the most challenging questions this book has forced me to face, after acknowledging that the story is more real than is comfortable, is how are we to face the reality of violence and oppression?
We must respond to that question.
Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes, a passage that is likely familiar to most, and beloved to many of us. He offers up in these statements of Blessing, a comprehensive picture of the Kingdom of God, and it is in this vision that we can begin to answer the grim reality of our own world, and the world that Collins’ novels portray. Jesus doles out his Blesseds in all sorts of counter intuitive ways – to the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the mournful. I want to focus on the two of these “Blesseds” in particular. In verse five, Jesus declares, “Blessed are the meek.”
Meekness is not characterized by feebleness, or a lack of a backbone. Rather, meekness is defined by the very example of Jesus – a life of sacrifice, of living for the community, of living out in such a way that the needs of the whole body are placed ahead of the needs of self. The meek will inherit the earth – those who put the needs of the community, of all God’s children ahead of their own, will inherit the world in which to build that community. It is through their meekness that this world is cultivated.
Then Jesus says this: “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you will be filled.” The Hunger Games in many ways is about real hunger, but even deeper than the obvious food scarcity links we could make, this book asks us: What we are hungry for? Some of us are hungry for real bread. Others of us know very intimately the experience of hungering for literal freedom from oppression. Most of us, though, can only imagine that kind of hunger. Instead, perhaps we focus our hunger on the bread and circuses of distraction. Are we really hungry for entertainment, distraction, excitement, power, control, attention, affection? Or is the pursuit of these things a distraction from what we long for but can’t have or even fear to have?
The call of the Gospel – the vision of the Kingdom of God – which I see echoed in Katniss’s story – is that love, compassion and justice are the Christlike responses to oppression and injustice. Responses saturated in compassion and love embody what it means to live into the fullness of hope that a better future is possible. This is where Christ’s words regarding meekness and righteousness together form a fuller picture of the Kingdom of God. The word for righteousness is the same Greek word as the word for “Justice”. Therefore, to be righteous, to pursue righteousness, is the same thing as pursuing justice.
When Jesus declares blessed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is also talking about seeking out the right-ness of God’s Kingdom, God’s shalom that cares for the welfare of the whole community. Blessed are the meek, because they recognize that the Kingdom of God is for all, and the futility of pursuing things for our own individual sake. Likewise, righteousness is not simply an abstract concept of piety, but rather concrete works and words of justice and right-ness. The meat of Jesus’ teaching is not about some elusive future, but rather living according to his words and example is a tangible way to experience daily transformation – of self, of community, of the world.
Charles Cook, professor of Pastoral Theology, writes that the Beatitudes, then, especially when seen in the context of the whole Sermon on the Mount “invite us into a way of being in the world that leads to particular practices. There are three principles for living into the spirit of the Beatitudes: simplicity, hopefulness, and compassion. These three principles allow us to be in the world, while not being totally shaped by it. We offer an alternative to what the world seems to be pursuing.” The principle of simplicity is in hearing Christ’s teaching and in our living. Jesus calls us to simply love, to simply seek justice, and follow his words. It is certainly a challenging task, but it is not a complex one.
Hopefulness might be the most challenging one, at least for me. There is much to lose hope about – there is much that gives us cause to despair, especially if you’ve been paying a lick of attention to the election. Will things get better? Will we be okay? When will this war end? When will the next war begin?
And yet, the Kingdom of God is one of hope, and hope rooted in the transformative example of Christ, not in the powers of this world. This is not to say that we go blindly through the world refusing to be angry about the way things are. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann distinguishes here between anger and cynicism. While anger has its place and time, he calls the move from anger to cynicism the death knell of the church. When we choose to give ourselves over to circumstances with a shrug and acceptance of the status quo, when we believe that things can never change, we are turning our backs on the transformative hope of the Kingdom – a hope that takes hold here, in this world, and now, among us.
Finally, the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of compassion – not sympathy, not pity – but genuine compassion. Henri Nouwen describes compassion this way: it is “the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same laws, destined for the same end.” We are all children of God, created in the image of God, and the unity we find in that – the compassion we develop when we understand that – is greater than anything that might threaten to divide us.
So, then, what can we learn from The Hunger Games? How do we find hope in story of such bleakness, such violence?
We have another grim view of humanity, a tough story to swallow, and yet it is a captivating one. The hope in the story is that the darkness is not all there is. Destruction, oppression, bread and circuses – do not have the last word – they don’t even have the first word. At the end of the first book, Katniss makes a choice that she will either live past the Hunger Games with Peeta or they will both die in the arena. Her prophetic stubbornness stands as an audacious attack on the systems of control in the capital, and yet is masked (for the audiences watching in the Capital) as star-crossed romance. She realizes that surviving alone is no survival at all. She has come to realize the importance of living for something as well, instead of surviving in spite of the Capital’s oppressive systems.
Likewise, we must respond to our own participation in and victimization from systems of injustice and oppression with the transformative example of Jesus. We must choose to begin living into the Kingdom of God – with meekness, righteousness, peacemaking, compassion.
The Hunger Games is hard because it causes us to ask of ourselves: Is there room for kindness and compassion in our world? How are we contributing to that? How do we make it so? May we make it so.