Wednesday, March 21, 2012

“The Hunger Games” Gets Religion

What can we learn about Jesus through The Hunger Games? According to Julie Goss Clawson in her new book The Hunger Games and the Gospel, a lot. As she puts it, "The Hunger Games is not the Gospel, or even an allegory of the Gospel story, but it reflects the good news, helping to illuminate the path of Kingdom living for readers today." And it achieves that the same way Jesus did: by telling great stories.

If you're a Christian and a fan of The Hunger Games series, I urge you to check out Clawson's book. It's available as a digital download for only $4.99 and, at just under a hundred pages, you can probably read it in the time it takes you to wait in line to see the movie on Friday.

Throughout her book Clawson uses Jesus' Beatitudes as a framework for understanding the situation of oppression that we see in The Hunger Games and how that might parallel situations in the world today -- ones in which Americans may find ourselves, often as not, clueless Capitol citizens whose way of life depends on the coercion of others. That's a hard thing to contemplate, but an important one.

Here's a brief excerpt from chapter 1.

The system of oppression presented in The Hunger Games is modeled on the tactics used in the Roman Empire. Tribute and tessearae were common practices used by the Romans to keep their ever-expanding empire under their thumb. Roman citizens whose jobs had been outsourced to conquered slaves were granted tesserae, or coins that they could exchange for bread. The famous Pax Romana, where "peace" was maintained by quelling uprisings through intimidation and fear, enabled the Romans to extract tribute from the people they had conquered. With vast amounts of the food and wealth they had produced going to pay the Romans, occupied peoples sank deeper and deeper into poverty.

Jesus, of course, was born into this setting of Roman occupation and oppression.  When in the nativity story in Luke we read of the Roman Emperor conducting a census that required all peoples to return to their ancestral lands, what we are really reading about is the tribute system at work.  In Jewish culture land was not bought and sold (although it could be lost to debtors), but belonged to one’s ancestral line.  Joseph apparently had been unable to scratch out a living on his family lands and so had left to try to make it as a carpenter.  That is, until the Roman Empire declared that all people must return to work the land so that the Emperor could be sure to extract as much tribute as possible from the people he conquered.  It can be easy to forget when hearing the Christmas story that Jesus was not born to the elite or the powerful. His family was lower class and oppressed.  Even a very pregnant woman had no choice but to obey the Empire and travel to Bethlehem where her son would be born in the muck of a stable and laid to sleep in a feeding trough.  This is how the poor in spirit are born.

To question the Roman system of oppression resulted in death. For instance, around the time of Jesus’ birth the Romans responded to Jewish acts of rebellion in the Galilee region (like their refusal to pay tribute to the pagan gods of Rome) by slaughtering and enslaving tens of thousands of people.  In 4 BCE, the Romans burned the town of Sepphoris (just a few miles from Jesus’ boyhood home in Nazareth) to the ground, enslaving all its inhabitants.   We see similar acts of oppression in the Hunger Games.  After the Quarter Quell games and Katniss’ subversive act of bringing down the force field, the Capitol retaliates against her District.  No one in the town responds to her televised action with either protest or celebration, “yet within fifteen minutes, the sky was filled with hoverplanes and the bombs were raining down” (Mockingjay 7).  Like the Romans did to Sepphoris, the Capitol burned District 12 to the ground for daring to produce someone who challenged the absolute control of the Capitol. . . .

Oppression crushes hope in whatever way it can – through lack of resources, denial of freedoms, and the threat of violence.  This is Katniss’ world in the Hunger Games, it was Jesus’ world under Rome, and it is the lived experience of people all over the world today.

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